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Students from the Wisconsin Autonomous team work in an automotive lab.
April 5, 2022

In autonomous competition, students drive the solutions

Written By: Renee Meiller


For an autonomous vehicle, navigating a dense, busy urban environment presents almost limitless scenarios that require split-second reactions and accurate decisions.

Designing such a vehicle that can operate safely is a formidable challenge, even for automakers.

But for Wisconsin Autonomous, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison students, it’s an opportunity to apply their engineering education to a complex and rapidly evolving technology.

The students are among 10 teams participating in the AutoDrive Challenge II, a four-year SAE International/General Motors competition in which the teams will develop and demonstrate an autonomous vehicle that can navigate urban driving courses as described by the SAE Standard (J3016) Level 4 automation.

Each year of the competition has a different focus. The 2021-22 academic year lays the foundation for future success; currently, teams are preparing, designing and implementing software so that their vehicles can perceive and navigate the various objects in their environment.

Teams also required to participate in several additional challenges—among them, a concept design report and presentation, the software requirement specification, project management deliverables, and innovation challenges focused on multidisciplinary development, among others. In February 2022, for example, Wisconsin Autonomous wrapped up its report on a multidisciplinary innovation challenge. For that endeavor, team members chose to focus on keeping irritants such as allergens or wildfire smoke out of the vehicle.

In early June, the team will travel to the University of Michigan for the first round of the competition. “My goal for my graduation is that we want to be a competitive team against the other powerhouse schools,” says mechanical engineering senior Aaron Young, the team’s president.

He joined Wisconsin Autonomous when it began in 2018. Back then, the group participated in a formula competition and the Indy Autonomous Challenge, but struggled because of the financial barriers associated with purchasing a competition vehicle.

This time around, with a Chevy Bolt EUV provided by competition sponsor GM, the team hopes to leverage UW-Madison’s strengths in areas that include control, sensing, and software and hardware development—as well as its long history of competitive student vehicle teams and a burgeoning focus on autonomous vehicles.

The growing team of approximately 30 members includes the contributions of both undergraduate and graduate students.

Victor Freire is a master’s student working with Xiangru Xu, a mechanical engineering assistant professor and one of the team’s co-advisors. In his research, Freire had been focusing primarily on control theory, particularly for quadcopters used for everything from package delivery to search and rescue efforts.

Now, funded in part through the competition, he is applying that theory. “Last year, I was looking at motion controllers; from that, I ported something to cars and am using that as our motion planner for the vehicle,” he says. “The competition has given Professor Xu and I an opportunity to show that the control theory we work on works in the real world.”

Han Wang, a master’s student in Mechanical Engineering Professor Dan Negrut‘s group, studies sensors—research that’s also relevant to the competition. Yet as one of the more senior student members of Wisconsin Autonomous, he serves as both project manager and mentor. “I really like teaching,” he says. “Part of what I like about being part of this team is to inspire other people.”

Wang sees participation in the group as a way for younger students to develop technical and soft skills. “This competition is a unique opportunity for students to tackle really interesting problems that will shape the future,” he says.

It’s also a chance for team members to showcase their skills to other competition sponsors—companies that include Intel, Siemens and Cepton—who are looking to use it to help meet and recruit the best and brightest engineers.

Young, who also works with Negrut as an undergraduate researcher, is still weighing options for after he graduates—but he’s already applied his Wisconsin Autonomous experience in internships with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and with Tesla. “I am fortunate enough to have all of the knowledge I have specifically because of Wisconsin Autonomous,” he says.