FLINT-- Automakers are moving full speed ahead developing vehicles that will drive themselves. Autonomy is the future and students at Flint's Kettering University are among those leading the research and development of the technology. Right now, they are midway through a three year challenge, working to create a fully autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EV and they have a tremendous resource right on campus.
"Hands off the steering wheel, car should drive itself," is how Eric Smith describes the future. "We're still early in the design process so we haven't managed to do a full functioned test yet," but that is what he and his teammates are working toward.
We first met Eric in January of 2018 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He was a freshman then and a relatively new member of the school's Auto Drive Challenge team. He's now a junior, still on the team and getting ready for the competition's next phase. Smith says the whole team has learned a lot in the last 18 months.
"We learned a lot about how to use the cameras to detect objects and a lot about how to use some of our advanced sensors, such as the lidar, to better detect objects," said Smith, a computer science major. "Overall, we are able to gather a lot more information about our surroundings."
The students working on the Auto Drive Challenge car, known as Bulldog Bolt, have their own test track to help with their progress.
"It's designed to be very flexible, to be configurable and allow for a wide variety of testing environments," said Dr. Robert McMahan, Kettering University's president, about his school's new gem-- the Kettering University-GM Mobility Research Center. The facility is a vehicle and mobility systems proving ground right on the Flint campus.
"This is a completely different world that we're entering in terms of transportation," said McMahan. "Many of the systems that underlie all those opportunities are being developed right here at Kettering."
Last year, the MRC-- as Dr. McMahan calls the facility-- was just an animated dream. It is now a physical reality built on 21 acres along the Flint River that once housed General Motors' Chevy In The Hole facility. Construction of the new research and development center repurposes a long-abandoned brownfield site, turning it into a viable and productive facility again.
“Sometimes, when things are in our backyard, we don’t recognize them for the national importance that they have and this is one of those facilities,” said McMahan.
RELATED LINK: Meet Kettering University President Dr. Robert McMahan
Eric Smith and his teammates-- including Olivia Wanless and Charlie Gates-- feel lucky to have the MRC at their disposal.
“It gives us this nice controllable environment that we can set up however we want. We can put up obstacles, speed limit signs," said Smith with Wanless adding, “It’s experience in developing something that’s new and trying to coordinate that whole project and writing about the project."
“What’s nice is that us as students get a chance to actually learn about this a hands-on environment," said Gates.
The team has three cars that they work. One is the competition car which we saw at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show. It is not street legal. Another is used strictly for marketing purposes. And, the third car is one they equip with cameras, radars and lidars all connected to computers which they can drive on Michigan roads.
"By doing this, we can build a three-dimensional map of what the car sees around it, process that and see how to adaptively react to our environment,” said Eric Smith.
They can evaluate things by driving the car on the test track which includes a large oval, a road course with straightaways, s-curves, elevation and surface changes.
"A lot of the autonomous vehicles need real life data," said Charlie Gates. "If they're done in the perfect scenarios, we don't actually get good data."
Kettering is among eight teams in the Auto Drive Challenge which also includes Michigan State and Michigan Tech. The Bulldog Bolt finished fourth in last year's competition. This year's second phase is a bout a month away and takes place at the University of Michigan's M-City facility in Ann Arbor. The competition will focus on urban driving scenarios which is exactly what M-City is set up for.
RELATED LINK: Learn more about the Auto Drive Challenge
We will keep you updated on how the competition goes!