UM-Dearborn students building own self-driving shuttle

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Students here at the University of Michigan-Dearborn are building a self-driving vehicle system from scratch.

It’s the only way to learn, their professors say.

The university’s Institute for Advanced Vehicle on Friday announced it has secured $100,000 to fund a project aimed at developing an autonomous shuttle for the campus. Students last semester got the Polaris GEM electric vehicle wired to drive through a joystick. The GEM is essentially the street-legal shell of a vehicle that small companies have used in the past to test their autonomous systems. It’s a low-cost entry point for startups.

Getting the vehicle “on wire” was the first step, according to students Christian Adam, Priyal Sheth and Noah Fenton. In the fall, other students will join or replace those like Fenton – who will have graduated – on the 10-person team. Instructor Michael Putty and professor Sridhar Lakshmanan will guide the students through the process of developing a fully autonomous suite of hardware and software systems.

But none of the students talking about the project on Friday will be around at UM-Dearborn to see the vehicle actually drive other students around campus when the multi-year project is complete. The vehicle should be able to drive a straight line operating in full-auto mode with a safety driver in a test scenario by the fall. By next year, the team hopes to have it driving in a loop. Within two or three, they hope it can autonomously carry passengers on campus.

“This is something you don’t often get to do,” Fenton said.

Their work to wire the vehicle has already helped net jobs. Fenton, who graduates at the end of April, already landed a job at ZF Group.

“Classrooms can be very abstract,” said Putty, who works with the students on the vehicle and teaches a class on micro controllers, with which the students outfitted the vehicle to drive via a remote control. “Here, they’re actually putting it on a vehicle. You just can’t do that in a course.”

Working on a street-legal vehicle gives the students exposure to something with real consequences and real feedback. Lakshmanan’s students have been building small autonomous robots for years. The GEM vehicle is a new beast, and a big perk.

“We have a very, very active intelligent systems program,” he said.

The university is partnering with several companies to acquire hardware like lidar, radar, sensors and cameras that are expensive, hard to make, and vital to an autonomous vehicle. Those pieces allow the autonomous vehicle to “see” a roadway. California based LED and lighting company Osram Opto Semiconductors is one partner. Other partners include ZF Group, Jungo Connectivity and Phantom Intelligence.

Those companies help teach some potential engineers, and get some data, in return. Officials there have all worked with major automakers on parts of autonomous vehicles, but the relationship is often limited to one transaction: an automaker buys whatever hardware it can’t afford to make itself, and that automaker retains all the data it collects.

The team at UM-Dearborn will share its data with the companies that helped fund the project.

“You don’t get feedback with an OEM,” said Rajeev Thakur, regional marketing manager with Osram. “It’s their own secret sauce. That’s a hindrance. And in the case of crashes, you really don’t know what went wrong. If that information can be shared, everyone can gain from it.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau