University research program using miniature cars enables AV progress


A new project supported by a US$1.5m grant from the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) will use a nationwide fleet of miniature cars to help advance autonomous vehicle (AV) development and create a safe infrastructure and ecosystem for their widespread deployment. 

The project is being led by the Oregon State University (OSU), in a collaborative effort with the University of Pennsylvania and Clemson University in South Carolina, will put one-tenth-scale autonomous cars into the hands of researchers across the USA. The program team will be working with the small-scale test cars because they are less expensive to purchase and use. Testing autonomous systems on full-scale vehicles can be prohibitively expensive, with a base model costing more than US$300,000. One of the project’s lead researchers said he priced one out at US$700,000 that was loaded with everything that would be needed for the research program. In contrast, the one-tenth-sized cars will be free of charge to the more than 30 labs collaborating on the grant program, with the smaller cars also safer to use when testing out new automated systems. 

One of the project’s principal investigators, Houssam Abbas, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the OSU’s College of Engineering, has been using the miniature vehicles for his own research areas such as cyber-physical security, and has a bigger vision for the impact the cars could have for other researchers. The College runs one of the country’s largest and most productive engineering programs, and since 2010 has more than doubled its research awards to US$56.8m by emphasizing highly collaborative research that solves global problems in signature areas including resilient infrastructure, advanced manufacturing and robotics. 

Over the next three years, Abbas will work with lead principal investigator Rahul Mangharam of the University of Pennsylvania and Venkat Krovi of Clemson University to: 

  • Develop a fleet of about 80 miniature test cars; 
  • A simulator for autonomous driving supporting multiple cars, 
  • Environments and configurations to test the cars; 
  • A comprehensive manual; 
  • A community Q&A site; 
  • Lecture notes and videos for a course based on the scaled-down cars; 
  • A demonstration kit for community-building events such as talks, tutorials and short courses. 

Researchers receiving cars will contribute code and add to the design and documentation. The main product of the grant project is not the cars themselves, which will ultimately be donated to high schools and other groups, but the infrastructure that allows researchers to buy parts, download code and documentation, and build their own research or teaching platforms. 

“The objective is to enable and catalyze research on autonomous systems for research groups that normally would not have the means, the resources or the skills to build an autonomous car,” said Abbas. “If you want to see these autonomous systems developed with high performance and a high guarantee of safety and security, then you need everybody to pitch in, so we are going to help that process. It’s really about being part of a larger community.”


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Adam joined the company in 1994, and has been News Editor of TTT since 2009. In his other role as Circulation Manager, he helped create the original Traffic Technology International distribution list 23 years ago, and has been working on it ever since. Outside of work, he is a keen fisherman, runs a drumming band, and plays an ancient version of cricket.