Maui College at the University of Hawaii is making history by helping to develop driverless vehicle technology that is being tested in some of the first self-driving car racing competitions across the country.
Starting small with scale vehicles, then expanding to kart-sized models and full-size Indy Lights race cars that hit the track in October and January, the AI Racing Tech team at the The University of Hawaii blossomed from UH-Maui College’s Autonomous Vehicle Technology course in Spring 2020, spun off from the Maui Robotic Vehicle Association.
“We never imagined that this program would grow as quickly or as substantially as it has, so it was a pleasant but exciting surprise to be listed as one of the schools allowed to participate in this competition and to finish in the top 10 through numerous elimination streaks,” said UH-MC course instructor Gary Passon, who is also executive director of Maui Robotics. “It was truly an honor for us.”
Citing the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM, Passon said Wednesday evening that he has expanded autonomous vehicle technology by connecting to the College of engineering from UH-Manoa, in hopes of giving students the “the opportunity to work on the job and prepare them for their future professional career.”
The AI Racing Tech team now includes students and faculty from UH-Manoa, UH-Maui College and the University of California, San Diego, who have been able to work together remotely.
In self-driving car racing, the driver is replaced by a variety of sensors that act as the eyes and ears of the vehicle.
These are supported by a computer that helps make the many trajectory planning, tactical and strategic decisions needed to maneuver the vehicle, which takes “thousands and thousands of hours” of work and collaboration, said Passon.
Like artificial intelligence, the software requires engineers to create algorithms to program the car to generate human behaviors and interpret complex sensor data, according to the class’s website.
In October, the racing team competed in the Indy Autonomous Challenge – the first-ever international self-driving racing car event – where it placed sixth among the top-rated universities and achieved its fastest speed at 185 km/h on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
According to the event’s website, university teams from around the world compete in a series of challenges that test STEM students’ ability to advance fully autonomous vehicle technology and driver assistance systems. “to increase security and performance.”
“The IAC was kind of a hyper-leap for us, going from local kart-level programs to international competition,” Passon said Wednesday. “What’s been really exciting is taking a small college program and basically being invited to join 41 other schools to compete for the top 10 spots in this competition.”
UH AI Racing Tech Team Member and former UH-Manoa Research Scientist Chris Battista said in a press release that “On race day, we pushed our car, our code and ourselves to the limits.
“We were very happy and very fortunate to compete favorably and finish well and represent Hawaii and Maui and we look forward to continuing this program,” said Passon.
The team just returned from the standalone challenge at the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas last week. They were among nine teams from eight countries representing 19 universities participating in the knockout contest, with the winner taking home more than $200,000, UH spokesman Marc Arakaki said Tuesday.
UH AI Racing Tech had the opportunity to do a few laps as part of an exhibition race to show off to friends, family and sponsors, hitting 100 miles per hour, but unfortunately had a hardware issue which resulted in caused their GPS to go offline, Arakaki said.
“They hit the inside wall of the pit checking them for the rest of the day,” he said. “They are still extremely proud of what they have been able to accomplish and are super excited for the next race.”
They had hoped to improve on their sixth-place finish at the Indy Autonomous Challenge, but Arakaki told The Maui News the race was still on. “took them to the next level and they’ve dramatically improved their perception software and vehicle controller.”
Passon said the team will travel to Indiana in May to compete in the EV Grand Prix, an international electric kart racing event for college and high school teams, where Hawaii’s AI Racing Tech team will field its fully autonomous kart.
The third round of the Indy Autonomous Challenge is also scheduled for August.
The growth of autonomous races and the UH-MC program is a sign that the State of Hawaii may have the opportunity to be a more “significant player in the technology industry.”
“It’s ready to happen” said Passon.
The team is supported by several local organizations and industry corporations, including the Maui Robotic Vehicle Association, St. Anthony’s School STEM Program, VectorAero LLC, New Eagle LLC, PointOneNav, Emlid, RockWestComposites and many more.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]