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UW student part of team competing in world's first self-driving racecar event

It's a $1 million prize competition at the Indy Speedway
Supplied photo.

It began with a student design team at the University of Waterloo called WATORACE or Waterloo Autonomous Racing.

Brian Mao, a master's student studying applied mathematics and the vehicle modelling team lead, says competing in the Indy Autonomous Challenge was the reason the team was created.

They wanted to program a racecar to drive autonomously around Indianapolis Motor Speedway to win the grand prize of $1 million.

Mao said the UW team had done so well in the simulation races, finishing fourth, that they'd impressed the team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pittsburgh.

"They then asked if we wanted to form a merger with them and we decided to in order to pool resources together and that's because the physical vehicle itself cost about $1 million USD," explained Mao.

He added that amount would have been really difficult to fund solely from UW, so they decided to pool resources together, along with students from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

A combined team was formed between the four universities called MIT-PITT-RW.

The resulting vehicle is a modified Dallara IL-15 racecar.

Mao said, "Essentially it's a professional racecar, but instead where the driver would typically sit in the cockpit, the seat has been removed and been replaced entirely with a computer and various sensors in order to perform autonomous driving."

The team says it's aiming to race at a speed of 100 mph, which would be the fastest any autonomous vehicle has travelled.

They've spent countless hours writing software, doing simulations, and test tracks.

But Mao noted anything can happen on race day -- including things that no one could have ever expected.

"Saturday afternoon it's going to be the main race itself. There are currently set to be nine different racecars set on track in order to drive autonomously and the grand prize of $1 million USD is going to be awarded to the team that advances autonomous vehicle technology the furthest," said Mao.

He said for him, the past couple weeks have been thrilling with working on so much advanced technology and trying to pave the way to the future.

Mao added that this weekend is the culmination of all that work and an opportunity to finally show it off to the rest of the world.

His team will be the only one with Canadians and he's hoping he can represent Canada well on the international stage.

Mao said, "It's definitely been an amazing opportunity to meet all sorts of different people. I've met people from all the other teams that come from various different continents, learnt a lot from them, met different graduate students, different sponsors, different professors, and it's honestly been an amazing networking opportunity at the same time."

The grand prize will be going back to the universities and the students will not pocket it, but that hasn't stopped this team from competing.

"Everyone on the team is here because they're passionate about autonomous vehicles and advancing technology for the future. We're not in it for the money itself. The money will just be put toward further research and further opportunities for other students," said Mao.

Mao added he'd also like to shoutout Ben Zhang, who is the second UW student competing in the team and controls lead.

Zhang couldn't be at the Indy Speedway for the race.

"He has spent hours and hours tuning the software to get this car running. I'd also like to give a big shoutout to Ryan Larkin and Kyle Anderson as well, who are not currently at Indianapolis as well, but they've also been very helpful in our software infrastructure," noted Mao.

Ten teams from 21 different universities will be putting modified Dallara AV-21 racecars in the competition.

But, back home, Mao says he drives a Toyota Corolla.

"If I pushed it, the way we pushed this racecar, it would not have another driving day," he added.

Mao says he's feeling alright for now, but there will be nerves and excitement before the race.

The Indy Autonomous Challenge is set for October 23 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 1 p.m.

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