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Credit: Stanford University

Great Scott! Back to the Future needed this self-driving DeLorean

Contributed by
Dec 25, 2019

It might not be a plutonium-powered time machine, but the automotive wonder that can drive itself around a ridiculously complex course is even cooler.

A 1981 DeLorean appropriately named MARTY (Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control) has gotten another life as an electric autonomous drift car. With the ability to drift—move forward even though it’s facing sideways—through a twisting, turning path with inhuman precision is the type of thing that would have blown even Doc Brown away. It isn’t just a Back to the Future stunt. Marty McFly’s namesake ride could be the breakthrough we’re looking for when it comes to the safety factor of self-driving cars.

“We’re trying to develop automated vehicles that can handle emergency maneuvers or slippery surfaces like ice or snow,” Stanford University mechanical engineer Chris Gerdes explained. “We’d like to develop automated vehicles that can use all of the friction between the tire and the road to get the car out of harm’s way. We want the car to be able to avoid any accident that’s avoidable within the laws of physics.”

It was Gerdes’ grad students Jon Goh and Tushar Doel who converted the DeLorean into a self-driving machine by dissecting it and upgrading most of its innards. There is no way a suspension from the ‘80s is going to survive drifting, so they replaced that with a custom one they created as well as installing batteries and electric motors. Electronic controls replaced anything mechanical. Maybe the most futuristic things about this vehicle are the GPS antennae and computers behind the seats that act as MARTY’s brain, calculating how it can tackle the drift route as smoothly as possible in seconds.

“Experiments on MARTY… demonstrate excellent tracking of a path with varying curvature, speed, and sideslip,” Goh, Doel and Gerdes said in a study recently published in the Journal of Dynamic Systems, Measurement and Control.

Goh and Doel also came up with the MARTYkhana run, which plays off of gymkhana, the most difficult autocross racing format that exists. They recently sent their creation looping and swerving through this ultimate gauntlet to see just how well the car could think for itself when it came to split-second moves that could mean life or death for human passengers (Goh and Doel volunteered themselves this time). MARTY aced the course.

Self-driving cars need to undergo more rigorous tests before they speed into the future. Think of how the Tesla autopilot system screwed up (again) and sent the car into a fatal crash, or the Uber that struck and killed a pedestrian when it was in autonomous mode. Never mind how many times Elon Musk promised us autonomous cars that could handle road trips. They aren’t too great at navigating and merging without human intervention, and inclement weather could wreak havoc on their sensors. The safety concerns raised by such incidents are exactly what the Stanford engineers are trying to address with MARTY.

“The results so far are rather outstanding,” Gerdes said. “The stability control systems of modern cars limit the driver’s control to a very narrow range of the car’s potential. With MARTY we have been able to more broadly define the range of conditions in which we can safely operate, and we have the ability to stabilize the car in these unstable conditions.”

As much as you might wish your car could do all the driving, let MARTY take a beating before any more humans do.

(via Stanford University)

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