The Brickyard comes alive with 'Shock and Awe' as the inaugural Indy Autonomous Challenge takes place


  • On October 23, for the first time in the history of the Indianapolis 500, cars will compete in a special 20-lap race without drivers that will be open to the general public and award a $1 million prize to the winner.
  • The autonomous vehicles, which will be controlled by a slew of computer systems, cameras, and lidar sensors, will be entered by student groups from nine different countries.
  • With the help of artificial intelligence, teams will program their cars to complete laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

IMS is the most legendary racetrack in the world, renowned for its sheer speed and unadulterated horsepower. It is located in Indianapolis, Indiana. The 2.5-mile oval will host a special 20-lap race this Saturday, in which nearly a dozen modified Dallara II-15 Indy Lights chassis will race at three-digit speeds around the circuit.

With one exception, of course. Make one major exception in this case.

One of the most important components that any type of motorsport event must have will be absent from the cars for the first time in IMS history, marking a historic first.

Drivers, to be precise.

That's right, there will be no humans in charge of the vehicle's operation. There are no drivers in any of the vehicles, as IMS is hosting the first-ever Indy Autonomous Challenge, which is being sponsored by the Indianapolis-based nonprofit Energy Systems Network (ESN). Following nearly two years of development and testing, ten teams of students representing 21 universities and nine different countries will compete in The Challenge for a $1 million first-place prize.

According to ESN President/CEO Paul Mitchell, "[Saturday] is about showcasing the culmination of two years' worth of work by dozens of universities that have been advancing the state of the art in software to pilot autonomous vehicles, and then validating that over a period of months in the real world with 60-plus days of track practices at [nearby] Lucas Oil Raceway and IMS," he said. "Autonomous race cars traveling at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour will be on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The fact that no one has done it before will be notable in and of itself; however, the fact that there is no one driving the car will add an extra layer of surprise and awe for those who witness it."

While the cars will have the appearance and feel of race cars, the technology that will be used will most likely be seen much sooner on regular cars that we drive on the roads. Having said that, it's not impossible to imagine some of the technology on display Saturday making its way into IndyCars, NASCAR stock cars, and other motorsports vehicles in the not-too- distant future.

"We're interested in it because of the benefits it will bring to the city and state, because it will provide an opportunity to remind people that this is a place where innovation has occurred historically, and because we may learn something from this technology development that will be useful and relevant to IndyCar drivers in the future," said Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment, which owns IMS, the IndyCar Series, and other entities. "We're interested in it because of the benefits it will bring to the

However, as Miles emphatically stated, no matter how far technology advances in the coming years, one thing will remain constant, no matter how advanced the technology becomes.

"This has absolutely nothing to do with getting people out of their cars," Miles explained. "Individuals can easily misinterpret or misapply the concept of an autonomous racing vehicle on the IMS track if they are not familiar with the concept. On the one hand, it demonstrates our unwavering dedication to driving, drivers, and automobiles."

"As a result, we're not talking about removing drivers from their vehicles. And we have no interest in participating in some sort of ongoing autonomous racing. Again, whenever I explain this, I take care to ensure that people understand that it is a method of assisting drivers in some way. It is not intended to take their place."

The cars, like other autonomous vehicles, are controlled by a large number of computer systems, cameras, and lidar sensors (which are similar to radar). With the help of artificial intelligence, teams will program their cars to complete laps around IMS.

Politicians and celebrities from Indiana, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, U.S. Senator Todd Young, and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, as well as representatives from major original equipment manufacturers and more than 400 high-school students from across the state, will be in attendance to witness the proceedings. Parts of The Challenge, most notably the actual race, are also open to the public, as is the entire event. Ticket prices are $10, but they must be purchased online by Friday at the latest. Spectators will be able to follow the COVID-19 protocols as well.

Also serving on the Challenge's advisory board are former race car driver Lyn St. James, MythBusters host Jamie Hyneman, SEMA vice president of technology John Waraniak, founder of the Google self-driving team Sebastian Thrun, and several other notable individuals.

Also heavily involved is Juncos Hollinger Racing, which competes in the Indianapolis 500, Indy Lights series, and Indy Pro 2000 series; they provide the vehicles' construction, assembly, service, and maintenance.

The Challenge is only the second time that such a large-scale event of this nature has been held in the United States. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, which was held in the California desert in 2004, was a forerunner to today's autonomous vehicles and was held there in 2004.

In a sense, this weekend's Challenge is intended to push artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles to new heights, with race cars serving as the platform on which they will be tested. What makes things even more difficult for teams participating is the fact that they only have one car to use; unlike IndyCar or NASCAR, teams are unable to switch to a backup car in the event of a mishap. If we had done it without a venue like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we might have gotten some universities to participate, but we wouldn't have gotten 41 universities from 11 different countries to answer the call, Mitchell said. "There's something compelling about the idea of developing technology and showcasing it at the most prestigious venue in the motorsports industry at the most prestigious venue in the motorsports industry. It's critical to understand this.

"These vehicles are equipped with technology that is far superior to what is available in today's traditional motorsports app competitions, including powerful supercomputers, 360-degree perception systems, data collected from the vehicles, and robust artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that make decisions on the vehicles. So there's a lot of interest because, frankly, some of this technology isn't just about building a driverless car or racing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; it's also about making commercial vehicles that we drive, as well as vehicles that compete in motorsports competitions, such as Indy cars, safer when traveling at higher rates of speed.

"A 360-degree perception system may be required if IndyCar drivers are to be able to travel at speeds of 250 or 300 miles per hour in the future. Isn't it true that humans can only perceive things that they can see or feel? In the back of your head, you don't have any eyes. How many times have race car drivers said, 'Boy, I wish I had eyes in the back of my head,' over the course of their careers? That is something our automobiles do. They have the ability to see and perceive everything in their environment."

The Challenge is being held for a variety of reasons, one of which is particularly noteworthy in today's world, given the emphasis on reducing global carbon emissions and combating climate change. As stated by the Challenge's organizers, "the efficiency gains of automation have the potential to reduce overall vehicular energy consumption by 60%."

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