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Nicholas Honold is about to try out different steering and speed settings on an autonomous vehicle during a practice session. Honold and teammates were one of two TRW Automotive teams participating in the Freescale Cup Challenge on the show floor at SAE 2014 Convergence. 

Autonomous vehicle challenge ramps up competition at Convergence

An SAE 2014 Convergence crowd surrounded a temporary track as an autonomous vehicle navigated 16 curves, 18 straightaways, two chicanes, and one crossover.

Six self-driving vehicles, each assembled and programmed by automotive industry professionals, were the track’s stars. Each car took a turn on the approximately 100-ft (30-m) long course. The challenge was to complete the track’s directional challenges with a time faster than the competitors.

The last vehicle to tackle the course won with a time of 20.129 s.

Thomas Pruett returned to the winner’s circle, a follow-up victory to the Freescale Cup Challenge at the SAE 2012 Convergence. Two years ago, Pruett was part of a three-person team from Chrysler vying for the best lap time. But the 2014 track challenge on the Convergence show floor at Cobo Center in Detroit was a solo effort for the Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s powertrain group software engineer.

Each 1/18 scale model autonomous vehicle was assembled from a kit that includes a chassis, two motors, a servo, a camera, a Freescale microcontroller, and a motor control board. Pruett opted to use MathWorks’ Matlab/Simulink to model the car’s control algorithms graphically and auto-generate the C-code using dSPACE’s TargetLink.

The 2014 challenge’s ABS plastic composite track configuration differed from the 2012 challenge.

“One difficulty was the crossing where there are no lines,” Pruett said, referring to the white track’s black edges. “I implemented a detection algorithm so the car would just steer straight when it got to the crossing,” Pruett said.

Kevin Hille, an electrical vehicle security technical specialist at Ford Motor Co., and his Tata Consultancy Services’ teammates spent many hours perfecting their car’s algorithms. At least three different times before the challenge, the work continued until the midnight hour.

“It almost feels like you’re in college again, pulling an all-nighter,” Hille said.

The Freescale Cup Challenge’s origins are with college students, dating back to Hanyang University professor Sunwoo’s smart car race in 2003. Since that first challenge in South Korea, future professional engineers and other college students have used their hands and minds to develop a highly capable autonomous vehicle from a kit of parts. Certain college challenges have the self-driving vehicles racing over hills, cruising through tunnels, and motoring over bumps.

Twenty-seven countries hosted Freescale Cup Challenges in 2014, according to Andy Mastronardi, Global Director of University Programs at Freescale Semiconductors Inc.

Whether the participants are college students or professional engineers, the race event is challenging. “It’s the speed that adds the complexity to the challenge,” Mastronardi said.

The challenge’s fun-factor is a top-draw for participants and observers.

Said Hille, “It’s multi-dimensional. You’re building relationships with the sponsor, the people you work with daily, and other OEMs and suppliers who are participating. Bottom line: This is a great event.”

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