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Modified DeLorean Paves Way for Safer Autonomous Cars

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The self-driving DeLorean can test advance maneuvers.

Stanford’s DeLorean, MARTY.

In a tribute to the movie “Back to the Future Part II” (in which two guys time travel from 1989 to October 21, 2015), Stanford University engineers and Renovo motors transformed a 1981 vintage DeLorean into MARTY, an electric, self-driving car. The goal was to help them design autonomous cars that can avoid accidents using techniques inspiring by racing, said Chris Perkins, writing for Mashable.

He added that the choice of a DeLorean may have been inspired by the movie, but MARTY’s driving style was inspired by rally racers who slide their cars around on narrow, windy, roads. MARTY is an acronym for Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control (yaw is a technical term for drifting).

Avoiding Self-Driving Accidents

Chris Gerdes, a mechanical engineering professor and director of Stanford’s Revs Center, said it is important for automated vehicles to be able to perform any maneuver possible in order to avoid an accident, Alex Davies wrote in Wired. That explains why the engineers are putting MARTY through movements known as drifting, in which they sacrifice stability in order to gain speed and control. He explained:

Even though the car slides through a turn, [rally race] drivers can make it do exactly what they want. Most people have no idea how to do that, but there’s no reason a computer can’t be programmed to do that if it is the best way out of a dangerous spot. The way the guys at Revs Center see it, autonomous cars should be able to drift, even if they don’t leave flaming skid marks.

Precise Control

Mechanical engineering PhD student John Goh, who headed the project, said MARTY can now do nearly perfect drifts in circles, showing that the DeLorean has precise control, even when the environment is less than stable.

Bjorn Carey, writing in the Stanford News, quoted Goh, who did most of the driving of MARTY, as saying:

The sublime awesomeness of riding in a DeLorean that does perfect, smoke-filled doughnuts by itself is a mind-bending experience that helps you appreciate that we really are living in the future.

Project Goals

Gerdes said he would like to pit MARTY in a competition against human drivers. Goh’s ultimate goal for this project is to create an autonomous car that can do whatever it needs to in order to avoid car accidents, even if that means drifting to recover from a skid or to avoid an obstacle.

Drifting around corners was demonstrated last year by a self-driving BMW 235i prototype. And also last year, tests were done at Germany’s Hockenheim Formula One circuit to see how an Audi autonomous RS7 would perform “at the limits of traction.”

Photo courtesy Sanford’s


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