180 mph, Zero Driver


Clemson students engineer first-ever high-speed autonomous Indy race car


Engineering a driverless vehicle is hard enough. Designing it to exceed 180 mph and race alongside nine identical cars safely is nearly impossible. That’s exactly what 40 Clemson students, 38 partners and an army of visionary innovators did to put on the world’s first high-speed autonomous vehicle race. Clemson’s project represents one of the most advanced self-driving challenges ever attempted and one of the first university-designed vehicles to go into commercial production.

Self-driving technology is transforming the mobility industry. Companies pour millions into R&D efforts, hire specialized engineers and log millions of road miles in the race for advanced capabilities and untapped business opportunities. Driverless motorsports push the limits, achieving unprecedented speed, synchronicity, reliability and redundancy. These “edge cases” can save lives through safer and smarter cars.

This daunting challenge demanded world-class automotive expertise, facilities and resources to pull it off in just 18 months. Now in its 14th year, Clemson’s Deep Orange program pairs automotive engineering graduate students with equipment manufacturers to develop targeted prototypes. The process starts with a carefully crafted grand challenge, followed by curating an appropriately skilled student team, defining project scope and design parameters, assembling an ecosystem of industry partners, and hitting milestones for engineering, fabrication and validation.

Students not only developed complicated autonomous systems but also engineered novel hardware and advanced propulsion packages, integrated first-ever race control procedures, and fit everything into a tightly constrained aerodynamic package.

At 180 mph, Clemson’s race car covers the length of a football field in 1.2 seconds. The sensor suite — including six cameras, four radars, three long-distance LiDARs and two high-precision GPSes — can fill a 1TB hard drive in 20 minutes. For scale, the Hubble Space Telescope generates 10TB of data per year.

In March 2021, students tested their designs during a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In May, they unveiled their finished self-driving race car at the Indy 500. And in October, the team celebrated as 10 identical copies of their design sped around the 2.5-mile oval track.

“We say it all the time, but the ideal outcome of Deep Orange is highly capable students,” said Chris Paredis, BMW Endowed Chair in Automotive Systems Integration and Deep Orange program director. “This was an incredibly challenging project, but if our experience tells us anything, it’s that these learning experiences have a tremendous impact on their success after they leave Clemson.”


A New Generation of Army Vehicles

Automotive autonomy technology is changing economies and global industries — and is also a driving force behind military modernization. Bringing these self-driving vehicles to life on- and off-road requires new concepts to be tested quickly, efficiently and cost effectively — all of which happen through virtual prototyping. This key enabler for autonomy is the focus behind a new $18 million center housed at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research and a research partnership with the U.S. Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center.
As founding director of the Virtual Prototyping of Ground Systems Center, Zoran Filipi will lead more than 65 Clemson faculty across seven engineering departments on the multiyear research partnership to develop virtual prototyping tools supporting the rapid transformation of U.S. Army fleets. The research will be focused on autonomy-enabled ground vehicles, including digital engineering, next-generation propulsion and energy systems, and manned and unmanned teaming in unknown off-road environments. Research activities will also take place on Clemson’s main campus and will include learning opportunities for students at all levels.
As the research develops, the team will build a physical mock-up of an optionally manned, noncombat, off-road ground vehicle. In the project’s final phase, discoveries and breakthrough innovations from the center will be fabricated and tested via Deep Orange, the University’s long-running educational prototyping program. The Deep Orange program takes automotive engineering students through a two-year product development process that culminates in a fully functional concept. The program encourages learning by doing, transdisciplinary teamwork, leadership and project management skills to best prepare students for the workforce. Deep Orange has been sponsored by industry leaders such as AVX, BMW, ExxonMobil, EY, Ford, GM, Honda R&D Americas, Mazda, MINI and Toyota.
The Virtual Prototyping of Ground Systems Center is designed to accelerate the development and validation of high impact technologies, acting as a catalyst for economic growth. Driven by fundamental research, the center supports South Carolina’s economic development efforts, industry innovation priorities and the development of a highly skilled workforce.
“This type of work is the driving force behind why South Carolina invested in our idea for the CU-ICAR campus,” said Clemson President Jim Clements, “and we are grateful for the legislature’s continued support and the hard work of Rep. Clyburn and Sen. Graham to bring this project to life. It will pave the way for opportunities for our faculty, our students and our state.”