Autonomous race cars go head-to-head, break records in Las Vegas

The self-driving cars showed their stuff at CES.

While BMW was unveiling a car that changes colors at CES, designers participating in the Indy Autonomous Challenge were changing gears — setting a new world record for an autonomous race car on a racetrack.

Team PoliMOVE, from Italy’s Politecnico di Milano and Alabama’s University of Alabama, went wheel to wheel against an international array of nine teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, emerging victorious while clocking a record-breaking track speed of 180 mph.

It’s not their first brush with speed: the same team also owns the overall autonomous land speed record, hitting 192.2 mph at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2022.

“Today was a major step forward in speed, in complexity of the race, and in overcoming challenging head-to-head situations,” PoliMOVE team leader Sergio Savaresi, a professor of automatic control at Politecnico di Milano, said in a statement.

At CES, autonomous race cars went wheel-to-wheel for the first time, hitting a record speed of 180 mph in the process.

The goal: Organized by the Energy Systems Network, an Indianapolis nonprofit, the goal of the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) is to push the limits of advanced-driver-assistance and fully autonomous vehicle systems, with the aim of increasing not only speed but safety. 

The teams’ efforts are aimed at surmounting three major challenges to the commercialization of autonomous vehicles: handling edge case scenarios, sparking new AV technologies and inspiring innovators, and garnering public support.

By its nature, an autonomous race car would be tackling problem number one. Moving at high speeds, with other vehicles on track, is as pushing-the-edge as it gets. IAC looks to play a similar role as auto racing in general when it comes to autonomous vehicle tech and public approval. Companies have long used racing competition to inspire new ideas that eventually reach your driveway; showcasing AVs in an exciting environment may win over some hearts and minds.

Hence a showcase event at CES.

“We’re harnessing the power of head-to-head competition to push and test the limits of autonomous driving to further the state-of-the art technology in safety and performance of automated vehicles,” IAC president Paul Mitchell said in a statement.

The challenge: The event was the first time one autonomous race car has gone wheel-to-wheel with another, as IAC tasked teams with passing each other in pairs on the oval track.

Teams took turns playing the roles of Leader and Passer/Follower, with each attempting to pass the other at higher and higher speed until both were incapable of holding on.

PoliMove hit the record mark during time trials on the motor speedway. After qualifying rounds, PoliMOVE and TUM Autonomous Motorsport, from Munich’s Technische Universität München, advanced to the finals. 

Indy Autonomous Challenge

As relayed by The Robot Report, the autonomous race cars traded passes easily up to 130 mph, before the limits of the car’s grip on the track began being pushed. After breaking the 145 and 150 mph barriers, team PoliMOVE completed the overtake, sending it around the outside of the turn at nearly 169 mph. The TUM team was unable to fight back, losing grip and spiraling into the grass — and second place.

In June 2023, IAC will take to a famous Formula 1 venue, running on a road track for the first time at the world’s third oldest purpose-built racetrack. 

With sweeping turns and long straights broken up by viperine S-curves, Italy’s bucolic, blazingly fast, and notoriously dangerous Autodromo Nazionale Monza — the “Temple of Speed” — will put any autonomous race car to the test.

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