Autonomous car put to the test at Road America

Nate Spike behind the wheel of Michigan Technological University autonomous car, March 15, 2018 (WLUK/Eric Peterson)

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (WLUK) -- Students at Michigan Technological University took to the grounds of Road America near Elkhart Lake Thursday to put the finishing touches on a car that literally drives itself.

The autonomous vehicle is part of a contest designed to move the technology forward.

"So, start it up," said Derek Chopp a Michigan Tech graduate student.

Inside a Chevy Bolt EV, Chopp goes over a short checklist.

"You can hear the brake, shifting into gear, then taking off on its own," he said.

Nate Spike put the compact electric car through its paces Thursday afternoon.

"Well, I'm not driving. It's an interesting feeling. I've been driving for 15 years. Now I get behind the wheel, and the wheel turns, and pedals move, and I don't have to do anything," said Spike, a graduate student at Michigan Tech.

The 50-member team from Michigan Technological University entered the vehicle in a three-year contest to determine the best driverless car.

"The safety driver is there to take over in the event of an emergency, but for the most part, the vehicle is fully autonomous," said Jeremy Bos, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Bos says the car uses a camera, GPS, electronic maps and a depth perception sensor called LiDar to navigate.

"It is a rolling computer. And that's actually most of the work goes, it's in the software side," he said.

Road America serves as the testing site. The University of Wisconsin-Madison named the facility an autonomous proving ground last year.

"We have a lot of access roads, we have a lot of paved, large paved space, where people can test. So people are able to get a lot of data and be able to use that data, toward developing software for autonomous vehicles," said John Ewert, communications director at Road America.

And as a 25 mph test comes to an end, Spike says driverless cars will soon be the way to go.

"I think it gives a lot of freedom to people to go where they want, and relax while they're doing it," he said.

The contest is called the Auto Drive Challenge, and is sponsored by General Motors and SAE International. Eight universities from around the country and Canada will take part in the competition next month in Yuma, Arizona.

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