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Researchers Are Using Model Cars to Perfect Autonomous Vehicles

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【Summary】While major companies are utilizing full-size cars for their autonomous tests, an assistant professor at Oregon State University believes that 1/10-th size model cars are the best way to develop autonomous technology.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Oct 19, 2019 6:00 AM PT
Researchers Are Using Model Cars to Perfect Autonomous Vehicles

Waymo, Uber, Lyft, Chevrolet, Ford, and more have autonomous cars on public roads in the U.S. Working on autonomous technology isn't a cheap venture, but it's something these brands don't have to worry about, as they have hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at developing the tech. For everyone else, there might be a better alternative – model cars.

Model Cars Instead of Full-Size Vehicles
 
In a lengthy report, Wired gives an in-depth look at how Houssam Abbas', an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Oregon State University, is using Traxxas RC model rally cars to work on coming out with autonomous technology. Abbas and his colleagues at the university provide the platform to 33 other scientists that use the models for a similar goal. With the help of a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team is well on its way to pursuing its goal of helping create the next generation of driverless vehicles.
 
While companies, like Tesla, Waymo , Lyft, and Chevrolet are driven by economics , Abbas and his teams aren't. "As researchers, we have the freedom to ask the harder questions," he said. "We had this realization that we need everybody to pitch in for us to build reliable, efficient autonomous vehicles."
 
The grant will help Abbas and his team to send model cars to scientists that specialize in safety systems, cybersecurity, energy efficiency, and robotics departments around the country, which should result in better autonomous cars down the road. The researchers' model car project is part of something bigger called "F1tenth" and will be an open source platform for researchers from around the world to use. Currently, other groups that use one of the team's model cars have to ask questions on a public forum.

Model Cars Are Safer, More Affordable
 
Small model cars like the ones Abbas' teams use and offer to scientists are great because they're much cheaper than real cars and safer, too. The models are packed with a 9-volt battery, six USB ports, a Nvidia Jetson GPU, and an Orbitty carrier board, so researchers can get a basic idea of what kind of systems would go into a real working example.
 
The NSF model car project isn't unique to Abbas. As Wired points out, several researchers use a similar program for their research. California's UC Berkeley sees undergrad students get 40 to 50 model cars to work on autonomous software and hardware.
 
Georgia Tech is unique, as it has a 3-foot vehicle that graduate students use to experiment with. "The cars allow us to explore the limits of the technology in a ‘safe space,' so to speak," said Brian Goldfain, a student that used the large Autorally car platform to finish his Ph.D. dissertation.
 
Instead of going straight into full-size cars, which are expensive, dangerous, and much more complicated, model cars are proving to be a better bet for smaller companies and researchers looking into autonomous tech.

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