The Indy Autonomous Challenge

Paul Mitchell Discusses Pushing the Boundaries of What’s Possible in Driverless Automotive Technology.

The computer-controlled Dallara AV-21 race car used in the Indy Autonomous Challenge (1). (Bruce Bennett)

The Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) is a technical competition involving 9 teams from 21 universities competing in a series of challenges, some for up to a $1-million grand prize, to develop software and systems capable of controlling fully autonomous racecars at speed. SAE Media Group editor Bruce A. Bennett sat down with Paul Mitchell, CEO of Indy Autonomous Challenge the organizer and driving force behind the IAC, to learn more about the project.

Bennett: OK, it is April 27, 2022. I'm at the XPONENTIAL show in Orlando with Paul Mitchell, CEO of Energy Systems Network regarding the Indy Autonomous Challenge. Explain for us the whole Indy Autonomous Challenge concept and how it went from concept to reality.

Mitchell: So, Indy Autonomous Challenge started out three years ago as a prize competition. It was hoping to bring back the excitement of, and the achievements that occurred, when the DARPA Grand Challenge ran in the 2004-2005 timeframe. It really jumpstarted the autonomous vehicle industry, and we thought, you know, what could we do that would get the level of commitment and interest from top universities, not only across the US but actually make it global and get International Universities involved.

So we set it up as a as a prize competition with a million dollar prize and we brought university experts together and helped design the rule set with their input, which was important. And where we wound up was that the teams would compete by writing software that would control a fully autonomous race car running at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so a real world class race track…it is the most iconic track in the world I think. And so that each of the teams would be given the same car.

That was different from DARPA. DARPA involved the teams having to design the car and the software. We debated that, but came to the conclusion when you're talking about race cars, it's hard to design a race car. There's only so many people that can even build these things, so… And so we, the competition, was around the software to control the vehicles.

But the Indy Autonomous Challenge also had a separate challenge, which was designing and building these race cars so that the teams could actually engage in this competition. And the first year of the challenge was all simulation based while we were designing and building the car, so teams competed through simulation rounds and simulation races. And then on October 23rd, 2021, we ran the first event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and, you know, gave out that million dollar prize to the German team from Technical University of Munich. And at that point that was, you know, potentially the bookend, right, of the Indy Autonomous Challenge.

That's what we set out to do. We wanted to get the best and brightest minds from around the world to advance the state of the art of autonomous technology and maybe win some hearts and minds along the way by getting people exposed to this technology. And we decided to go beyond that.

Bennett: How did you get Indianapolis Speedway on board?

Mitchell: So, we're an Indiana-based organization, and the state of Indiana has been really the seed investor in this whole thing. We were looking at what could we do in the state to differentiate ourselves in this world of automation. Lots of states were thinking about building test tracks. We felt like we already had the best test track in the world – Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Bennett: That’s what it was built for.

Mitchell: Yeah, exactly. And so, they liked that idea. They liked, you know, the “Back to the Future” type of mentality of, can we use the track to test the future of automobiles? They were just a terrific partner. Their commitment early on was a big part of getting these top universities to sign up. Because, you know, it's one thing to say, “Do you want to race autonomous vehicles?” It's another thing to say, “Do you want to do it at the Indy 500 track?”

Bennett: How many teams are currently involved in the challenge?

Mitchell: So we have, currently, nine teams. They represent something around 20, 18 to 20 universities. So some of the teams run just one team, one university; other teams are multiple universities that partner together. We have a total of 10 cars. So, one of the cars is the show car here at AUVSI. Teams don't use this one. But it's real. It actually can do the same thing all the other cars can do. And then we have nine competition vehicles.

In place of a driver, the cockpit houses the sophisticated computer, LiDAR, radar, optical, and GPS systems used to control the race car. (Bruce Bennett)

Bennett: Tell us about some of the technology being used to make these sophisticated race cars work.

Mitchell: Yeah, so the technology is going to be common to what you see on autonomous vehicles that are being tested around the world today. We've got a number of different sensors, so, LiDAR, radar, optical. We've got an advanced computer onboard, essentially a supercomputer. We've got drive-by-wire systems, GPS systems for localization. Then we've got wireless communication technology for the vehicles to communicate to race control and to each other through our partnership with Cisco. So, you know, all of those technologies are on vehicles, or are used in testing and development of autonomous vehicles today. The real difference is, we're pushing them to the absolute limit of their performance by running them at, you know, a hundred-and-fifty, a hundred-and-seventy miles an hour where, you know, you test out everything.

Bennett: So we were talking about the technology and along those lines, the autonomous car uses a Honda 2-liter, 4-cylinder, inline turbocharged engine. Right? It puts out 388 horsepower. Now, current Indy cars use a 2.4 liter twin turbocharged V6 that puts out 700 horsepower. Why the difference?

Mitchell: So, keep in mind that our vehicle platform is based on the Indy Lights race car. So, the Indy Lights race car is using an engine that's not too terribly different than ours. It's, you know, top speeds of Indy Lights, cars are in the 180s, 190s, you know. They've maybe hit 200 at some point, but I don't think so, really. Our vehicles, you know, have been running top speed around 175. Although, you will see tomorrow morning, a press release will come out…it's embargoed until tomorrow. We just ask you to not announce anything ahead of time.

After Vegas, we decided to increase the power, and get more horsepower, because we basically hit the limit. The last pass of the Vegas event was at about 173 (mph). And so, we just this morning at the Kennedy Space Center, took that car with the upgraded engine package and set the world record for autonomous land speed at over 300 kilometers per hour. So we were about 192 miles per hour. And so that'll be the new competition vehicle package from an engine performance standpoint. So we hope to see our cars going quite a bit faster the next time they run.

Bennett: Any plans to go electric at some point in the future?

Mitchell: You know, right now, I mean, right now we have our hands full just trying to get the autonomous systems to operate and to work, and our goal is extreme high speed. And so, it's really important that we keep going faster, because our objective is to prove out the hardware and the software at these extreme speeds so that when human cars encounter each other on the highway at 100 miles an hour, they can use ADAS systems or autonomous systems and do so safely.

I actually believe that at some point in time, we will have autonomous vehicles that can safely travel on highways at 150 mph or more. Think about the time that we’d save. Think about if they can do that and do so safer, then, you know, we have a much better supply chain. We have a much better, you know, quality of life, and so on and so forth.

So, you know, the trade-off you have with electric and internal combustion engines is that of getting those higher speeds. So, you know, if we change the form factor of the vehicle sometime in the future, you know, I think we probably would, look at, you know, a more advanced engine system.

But that wasn't really an objective of this competition. You know, you've got other competitions, Formula E and things that are really focused on proving out, you know, power electric powertrains. We wanted a bulletproof engine, right? We wanted something that was going to work and be easy for the teams to support and for us to maintain so that we could focus on the autonomous systems.

The computer-controlled Dallara AV-21 race car used in the Indy Autonomous Challenge (2). (Bruce Bennett)

Bennett: Is this just a technical and engineering exercise, or are there plans to turn this into a real racing series someday?

Mitchell: So, it's more than a technical exercise. That's its main objective, but it also seeks to be a way to attract talent into the industry. Engineering talent to focus on… Well, not just engineering talent. Vehicle dynamics, business development talent. You know, marketing talent. But then, also to win hearts and minds. So what I mean by that, you know, autonomous technology right now doesn't get the best coverage. And the coverage that it does get isn’t all that exciting, and a lot of people look at it and go, so a car, you know, went 20, 30 miles an hour and, you know, that's cool. But, you know, that's not any different than something I could do. So when they see autonomous race car passing another autonomous race guard at 170 miles an hour, that wakes them up to a future that they can actually get excited about and think differently about.

So in that sense, we want to make sure we keep putting on events that are more than just technology validation activities, more than just test runs? That they are exhibitions of what's possible in autonomous technology, that are done in a way that's very fun and entertaining.

But you asked the question about a series. No, I don't see us running a proper series where you're running, you know, 10, 12 events, even eight events a year, and they're back-to-back, and you're going from city to city. I would say it this way: We will continue to run events, but our events will be based on the timeline of technology advancements that we want to showcase. So, you know, we may have two events a year. But at those events we’re going to be showing something new, something different in terms of capabilities, either dramatically increased speeds, or, you know, new technology that's being pushed to the limit, whereas motorsports series maybe make a technology upgrade and then run it for two years or more. A whole bunch of series of events that are really just the same events in different venues... that's not something we're interested in doing.

Bennett: Okay. That almost makes the next question a moot point, because I was going to ask if you think racing fans will actually pay to watch driverless computer-controlled cars compete.

Mitchell: I don't. I don't know if… The answer is, I don't know. They might, right? I have no idea. But that's not something that we're going to test. We don't view this as something that is a spectator sport where we're selling tickets. Our events will have fans. I think we'll eventually have lots of fans. But those fans may be, you know, people that are attending conferences like this at AUVSI or at CES, where we ran in Las Vegas, that are people that understand the technology or are interested in it.

What I do see is we have a lot of young kids that love what we're doing. They aspire to be team members, you know. They play video games now all the time and they…

Bennett: Yup. iRacing.

Mitchell: This is a really sophisticated version of that, right? I mean much more sophisticated, you know. So I think, you know, we'll interact with fans, and we'll build fans, but they'll be technology enthusiasts, probably not necessarily traditional motorsports enthusiasts.

Bennett: So the first challenge event was held at IMS last year. And then you held the second event at CES. How did those go? Did they go according to your expectations, or were there any surprises?

Mitchell: So, October was not as grandiose as we had hoped, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And then Las Vegas was more than I ever expected. So, the difference was that that we really wanted to have cars on the track at the same time passing each other at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And we just frankly ran out of time. Weather didn't help us either. It was cold. The cars were spinning out because of tire temperatures.

Bennett: It’s Indianapolis. That’s why they put the farms out there.

Mitchell: Yeah, Indianapolis in October, yeah. So it was, you know, it was, uh, it was very exciting, and we did something that the world had never seen, which is high speed, fully autonomous cars running time trials essentially. But the ability to have the cars racing head-to-head was always what we were seeking, and that's what we did in Las Vegas. And the format of that competition being two cars at a time passing each other at increasingly higher speeds until one either gives up, or there's a wreck is really exciting.

Bennett: It’s an interesting concept.

Mitchell: Yeah, it turns out. It's something that you can do with autonomous vehicles that you probably wouldn't do, or shouldn't do, with human drivers where, even though it would be really cool to watch Lewis Hamilton and Helio Castroneves race at it to the death, like, that's probably not the right thing to do from a morality standpoint. They would probably do it, but…

Bennett: Worked in ancient Rome; not so much today.

Mitchell: Yeah. Yes, exactly. so… That's a good point. I’ll have to use that. So I think that, I think that that format was something that woke up people to say, “Wow, that that was kind of cool.” And so that that does make me realize that… and I think maybe a lot of our sponsors and partners realize that there probably is an entertainment factor here that will continue to grab people's attention. Just not something that we're looking to turn into a, you know, let's sell a bunch of tickets sporting series.

Bennett: Now, you just completed two days of testing at the Kennedy Space Center and as you just mentioned, you set a new speed record. So basically, overall, what were you doing and what did you learn?

Mitchell: Yeah, well it was a test run to figure out how the new engine package was going to work. You know, we wanted to boost the speeds of the cars because we kind of hit the limit in Las Vegas, and we want to make sure the next time these cars run they can go faster and, you know, just happened to be that the new package, you know, went over 300 kilometers per hour, so that resulted in a new land speed record for autonomous vehicles. We’re, you know, honored and excited to have that record. I'm confident we'll probably continue to break it over the years.

Bennett: It was a straight line run. right?

Mitchell: It was a straight line run, yep. We already have the oval record. Right now the oval record’s 173, but I suspect that this car with this new package will break that record. You know pretty quickly here. But, you know, we wanted to do the straight line run just to sort of test the systems and see how they would do. But we knew… when we knew it was going to be a world record, we we did it the proper world record has to be both ways, down and back, and it has to be an average speed over 1 kilometer. You know, all that good stuff.

But by the way, it's a very exciting record to have, and we're happy to have it. The top speed laps on an oval and on other courses is what you want to achieve, because, you know, reality is, we can continue to go faster in a straight line, but we really want to go faster, you know, around an oval or around a road course, that kind of thing.

Bennett: Now, I assume there's telemetry in these cars that constantly communicates with somebody in the pits. I'm making that assumption.

Mitchell: Yes. They're just not allowed… So they're getting constant data feeds, real time, leveraging the partnership, the sponsorship we have from Cisco and their curb system, but the teams aren't allowed to do anything with that data. So they see it. They can watch what's happening…

Bennett: Yeah, that's what I was going to ask. Can they take control if they see a problem?

Mitchell: So, so no. Race control, that is monitoring all the cars, has the kind of red button, so to say, the kill switch, and that kill switch is electronic and it's sent to the car. So we can tell the car to turn off. We can also tell the car to come back to the pits. So we can give it a black flag. And actually all the flags are electronic. So, you know, there's a green flag, there's a yellow flag, there's a white flag, there's a black flag. Then we have our own flags, like a purple flag, which is our version of kill all the cars on the track at the same time.

Bennett: Are there any plans to, you know, hold an actual race with a full field of cars, whatever that may be, anytime soon? You know, just to see how they… well, how intelligently they interact with each other?

Mitchell: Yeah. Not anytime soon. We did originally... So to be to be clear, our original hypothesis was that the Indy Autonomous Challenge would be a full field of vehicles running against each other. And I think we realized that while we could do it, that the reality is that, umm, it wouldn't be a very productive use of the assets in the sense that, inevitably, some of the cars are going to mis-perform, just like you have in a race, right? And you know, that's going to cause wrecks, cause accidents. And with our vehicles, one of the challenges is, if it wrecks or causes an accident, there's not a driver in there that can kind of, you know, steer it off into the…

Bennett: Safe area?

Mitchell: Safe area, or whatever, right? And to spend the time programming the algorithms to do, like, you know, vehicle recoveries and safety spins and all that kind of stuff, it's not really the best use of the coder’s time. So what we're trying to do is validate vehicle interactions and dynamics at high speeds, which is replicable to the commercial industry. So unless you think that we need to have highway interactions with, you know, ten cars in the same lanes at the same time, it's not as relevant to the technology advancement. So it would be relevant to motor sport, but our goal is not to advance motor sports to autonomous racing. Our goal is to advance autonomous technology for on-highway speed.

Bennett: Well my thinking, my thinking was advancing the level of artificial intelligence that the vehicles...

Mitchell: Yeah, you know it may, it may naturally occur over time. But the cost of testing that hypothesis is, right now, just not worth just it. It's not the priority of the universities, of the industry. I think the only ones who really would drive toward that right now would be, you know, the entertainment factor of it. And I don't think that's what is driving us.

Bennett: What's next? Where does the project go from here?

Mitchell: Yeah, so you know we boosted the speed on the cars. We’re testing that. And, you know, we're looking forward to running more events, and we've got some plans in the works. So, nothing we can announce yet in terms of location and dates. But we will be announcing, you know, sometime in the in the summer.

The next round of events, and you can expect we'll be back on the track, in the fall.

Bennett: Okay. Final question…so you can get out of here at a decent hour. For a little background, you're the CEO of Energy Systems Network. How does that fit into this whole…

Mitchell: So, Energy Systems Network is a 13-year old nonprofit organization that organizes and manages different public-private partnerships in the energy and transportation sectors, and that's, you know, how this got started. However, in the last month we've actually spun out the Autonomous Challenge, so now it's its own nonprofit organization. That's something we'll be announcing publicly in the not too distant future, so ESN has a history of running events, running pilot projects to a point of completion, and then if they're going to continue on, then we spin them out. And then they have to be their own business.

Bennett: Did you have any background in racing before you tackled this?

Mitchell: No. No. But, I mean, I'm from Indianapolis, so everybody in Indy thinks they have a background in racing, at least by going to the Indy 500 every year. No, but we've got… I have a… the President and CEO of Penske Entertainment, I think, is his title - Mark Miles - and I are close friends, and he's been a mentor of mine. And he was one of the founding board members of ESN. So we've known each other for years. I know Doug Boles out there really well, and we've done stuff with them in the past with electric vehicle, you know, day out at the track doing different EV demonstrations and things. So we've had a long history of collaborating and just, you know, I can't say enough about their support, especially early on, and getting this whole thing going.

Bennett: Hey, the best thing that could have happened at the Speedway was selling it to Roger Penske, really, Of all of the possible scenarios that could have come out of that, that was the best.

Mitchell: Yeah. Yeah.

Bennett: Well, I thank you.

Mitchell: Thank you. Take care Bruce.