Montana State University

MSU engineering students put autonomous car technology to test

December 6, 2013 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Freshman electrical and computer engineering student Rachel Gunnink starts her autonomous race car during the Freescale Cup Race Thursday, December 5, 2013 in the Strand Union Building. In this competition, students must program the cars to follow a track by running programs on microprocessors. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.A student in the Montana State University Introduction to Electrical Fundamentals class follows an autonomous race car during the Freescale Cup Race Thursday, December 5, 2013 at MSU's Engineering Design Fair in the Strand Union Building. The car includes a tiny camera that looks at the track ahead and allows the student's program running on the microprocessor to issue speed and steering commands to follow a black line painted on the track. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Freshman electrical and computer engineering student Rachel Gunnink starts her autonomous race car during the Freescale Cup Race Thursday, December 5, 2013 in the Strand Union Building. In this competition, students must program the cars to follow a track by running programs on microprocessors. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – The student competition unfolding in Ballroom D at the Strand Union Building on Thursday and Friday was part NASCAR in miniature, part window into a ubiquitous computer technology. Small battery-powered cars equipped with tiny computers guided themselves around a curvy track, racing for time and pride (and grades).

It was Montana State University’s inaugural Freescale Cup race, so named because the car kits and computer chips are made and marketed by Freescale Semiconductor, Inc. For the 106 MSU freshmen and sophomores enrolled in Electrical and Computer Engineering 101, the two-day event was the culmination of a semester’s worth of learning about the fundamentals of how hardware and software work to power small electronic devices that run most of the world’s gadgetry and equipment.

Each student started with a car kit and a Freescale micro-controller computer chip that they then learned to program with the common C programming language. A camera mounted on the car would enable the chip to autonomously interpret the racecourse and instruct the car’s steering and motor controls.

Ross Snider, associate professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department who designed the class and put the Freescale car at its center, said the race and the class had turned out well. Snider said while the material is fun, it is also highly relevant – billions of microprocessors have sold worldwide and C language is probably responsible for the functionality of 60 to 80 percent of the world’s code running in those microprocessor.

“I’ve been pretty happy with the results and I think it’s something we’ll want to keep doing for a while,” Snider said. “As a teaching tool, building these cars and designing code that runs them along a racetrack really did what we intended it to do – it got them excited about engineering and gave them a sense of how engineering fits into the bigger picture.”

For Missoula sophomore Colton Crist, the big picture came down to figuring out how he could shave seconds off his time in hopes that he would be able to keep his name on the leaderboard. To maximize the event’s learning potential, students are allowed to make changes to the computer code piloting their cars. As of late Friday morning Crist’s time of 1 minute, 33.09 seconds had him in eighth place with roughly half the competitors yet to race.

“If can get it down under 1:30, I’d be happy,” Crist said, linking his car into his laptop with a USB cable. “It’s just a whole bunch of tinkering to see if I can have it go faster but not go off the track on the curves.”

The tinkering came down changing the the code to tell the car’s miniature computer what kind of speed Crist wanted going into the curves. He typed a code command to reduce the running speed by 49.5 percent when the camera detected a curve, then unplugged the car and set it on the track. It navigated the first curve, but missed the second.

With a groan, Crist plugged the car back into his laptop.

“I may need another decimal point,” he said.

Because the event is such a unique teaching tool and has the added cachet of being a competition, Snider said the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department planned to hold a Freescale Cup race at the end of each semester, with hopes that MSU would eventually send representatives to the national Freestyle Cup races that are held for college students.

The top time of 1:16.63 belonged to Casey Coffman of Great Falls, while the slowest time on the track clocked in at 3:54.69.

Snider said the race gave students the opportunity to choose where to tweak the computer code in order to produce recognizable results. Sometimes those changes would show up as faster times and sometimes they would send cars motoring off the track at one curve or another.

“They’re trying different things and figuring out what went wrong and what went right,” Snider said. “That’s part of the engineering process. The physical design on how their cars are put together and the code they’ve written are up to them and whether or not they work is up to them.”

Andrew Kromarek, a freshman from Great Falls, said his fatal choice was to use a borrowed laptop to make some changes to the custom code he’d written to govern his car’s speed. When the friend with the laptop left, Kromarek said he found himself unable to correct a glitch that was preventing his car from staying on the track.

As he watched his car limp along using a far less zippy default code, Kromarek said he’d had high hopes for his creation, nodding to the leaderboard showcasing the 20 fastest times.

“I definitely envisioned being on that list, but now I’m just going to be satisfied with completing the course,” he said. “If only I had my own laptop.”

Contact: Ross Snider, (406) 994-1645, rksnider@ece.montana.edu.