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October 2021’s Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) promises high-speed racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a field of racecars without drivers. (Dallara)

‘Software, start your engines’

The Indy Autonomous Challenge is a high-speed laboratory for advancing automated driving.

The Indianapolis 500 has long billed itself as “the greatest spectacle in racing,” but it’s difficult to imagine that cars racing at 120 mph (193 km/h) or more around the fabled “Brickyard” – sans drivers – isn’t going to be its own kind of spectacle. That’s the intent for the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) race scheduled for October 23, 2021, when a field of driverless racecars competes at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) for a $1 million first prize.

The IAC is more than spiritually related to the famous Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge initiated in the early 2000s that spurred initial interest in automated-driving technology. Just like the DARPA challenges, the new automated-driving development competition also is not intended for professionals. Instead, it’s aimed at global collegiate engineering-student teams to hone development of the sophisticated software required to extract maximum performance from a driverless racecar, one that’s simultaneously maneuvering with other vehicles bent on the same objective.

After four development gateways — including a simulation-based “qualifying” race followed by solo laps on the track itself — teams that pass will compete in a physical race at IMS in Dallara IL-15 open-wheel racecars modified with automated-driving hardware and software. The team that completes the 20-lap race with the best time under the 25-minute time limit will win the $1-million first prize. Completing 20 laps of IMS in 25 minutes amounts to an average of about 120 mph. Indianapolis-based non-profit Energy Systems Network (ESN), the event organizer, said the IAC is the “world’s first head-to-head, high-speed autonomous race.”

Up to the high-speed ‘edge’
The event was conceived to “inspire the next generation of STEM talent,” said the IAC website. It adds that racing, as perhaps the ultimate variant of the “edge case” scenarios on which much automated-driving development focuses, will help improve autonomous-vehicle software’s ability to handle unexpected events at more normal speeds. Simulation software developer Ansys is one of the program’s nine primary sponsors and supplies each team with its VRXPERIENCE Driving Simulator powered by SCANer real-time, interactive driving simulation software.

Sandeep Sovani, the company’s director for ADAS and Autonomy, told SAE International that furnishing each team with VRXPERIENCE is “a big benefit from a product-development perspective,” adding that the teams in the IAC “are going to be spending thousands of hours in simulation.” The VRXPERIENCE software, he explained, is designed to address the spectrum of simulation needs: model-in-the-loop (MIL) and hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) functionality, plus driver-in-the-loop (DIL) validation and testing.

Sovani said such unique and intensive use of company’s simulation software is invaluable to Ansys’ own developers, calling it a prime opportunity “to see firsthand what improvements are needed in our technologies.” He added that Ansys is acting as more than a simulation-software supplier, though. The company also is providing software training for the students, managing the event’s three hackathons and will conduct the crucial February 2021 simulated race in which teams must complete 10 virtual solo laps in 15 minutes or less to earn their way into the final race.

He also pointed out that working with the race’s student teams during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unexpected opportunities. Ansys software was delivered to each team with sponsor Microsoft’s cloud service, for one, and all teams have had to conduct an inordinate degree of remote testing and validation. Personnel from several areas of Ansys’ operations — application engineers, information-technology technicians – are taking part in the company’s collaboration with the student teams, he added.

Hardware enabler
Although the IAC largely is meant to expand the engineering students’ software-development skills, the event also is a proving ground for the electromechanical aspects of automated-driving development. Schaeffler, another event sponsor, is outfitting each of the Dallara-supplied racers with its Space Drive drive-by-wire system, which is being developed by Schaeffler Paravan, a Schaeffler Group joint-venture company. Space Drive was initially envisioned as an aid for physically challenged drivers by replacing traditional mechanical steering and braking with electronically actuated systems.

Noel Marshall, Schaeffler Paravan director of engineering, said the IAC racecars’ sensors will be the “eyes and ears – and we’re the arms and legs.” She said Space Drive will turn the commands from the autonomous racers’ into the precise acceleration, steering and braking required to run the Speedway at high speed, adding that the conventional software used for Space Drive “has to be customized and modified” by the teams. “The differentiator [in performance] will be in their software.”

Marshall noted that Space Drive already has passed a racing-connected trial. In June 2019, an Audi R8 LMS GT3 using Space Drive to eliminate the physical connection between the steering wheel and the steering gear, raced at the 24 Hours Nurburgring in Germany. Subsequently, other racecars have used Space Drive’s by-wire steering with almost unanimously positive feedback from drivers. Eliminating the need for a steering column and its physical connection to the wheels, Marshall said, is a significant factor in transforming the cabin environment of commercial and personal vehicles operating with high-level automation.

On the development path to high-level autonomy, Marshall said, Schaeffler intends to integrate elements of Paravan’s efforts with the company’s Chassis Group to upgrade functionality of more-conventional vehicles and integrate with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) working at the SAE Level 2-3 degree of automation. Elements of Space Drive also are being used in off-road commercial applications such as tractors and other heavy machines in which precise steering integration with other electronic systems is desirable.

Marshall said Schaeffler’s engineers envision plenty of upside from working with the IAC’s student engineers. “We’re going to get a lot from them,” she enthused. “They’re the brightest and the best coming into our [automotive] world.”

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