Student team challenged to create and test fully autonomous car

A cohort of students on the Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team were selected for the 2021 AutoDrive Challenge II, sponsored by SAE International and General Motors


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the near future, a General Motors car will be driven autonomously on a test track, navigating potential obstacles like cones, road signs and pedestrian simulations, with its self-driving abilities completely designed by Penn State students.

It will be the culmination of years-long work completed by members of the Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team (AVT) at Penn State, who were selected to participate in the AutoDrive Challenge II.

“The plan is to develop some new technology that may not be out there already,” said Zach Kerr, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering and current Penn State AutoDrive team lead. “That gives us the ability to learn a lot.”

Building upon the original AutoDrive Challenge sponsored by SAE International — formerly known as the Society of Automobile Engineers — and General Motors, the AutoDrive Challenge II is a four-year competition that challenges students to develop and test a fully autonomous passenger vehicle on a controlled urban driving course.

“We don’t know what scenarios they are going to throw at us,” Kerr said. “We are learning about hardware, cameras and radar, and taking all that in to control a vehicle.”

Announced on April 12, Penn State is one of 10 universities selected to participate and the University’s first entry into the competition.

Kerr explained that, in addition to increased fuel efficiency, widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles may decrease the number of fatalities attributed to road accidents. The Association for Safe International Road Travel estimates 1.35 million lives are lost every year.

“If we could have an impact, even saving 100 of those people, why wouldn’t you do it?” Kerr said. “With this technology, you can potentially save lives, which is the most important thing any engineer can do.”

The Penn State team, comprised mostly of undergraduates, will complete a phased design and development of its autonomous vehicle systems during the three-year competition. The phases begin with a paper submission in year one that focuses on safety, simulations and social challenges. In the final year, two students will help pilot an autonomous General Motors car, equipped with hardware and software the team designed.

“The real purpose of the team is to give students the opportunity to work in a real-world experiential environment,” said Gary Neal, director of the mechanical engineering capstone design projects. “This is as close as our students can get to a cutting-edge industry experience during their undergraduate educations.”

Kerr, who will intern with BMW during summer 2021, said he expects the experience to be hugely beneficial to his future career.

Neal agreed, highlighting the success of past AVT members.

“For many years, the students who had experience on the Advanced Vehicle Team had 100% success in getting jobs, if they weren’t headed to graduate school,” he said.

Additional team members include undergraduate students Sophia Zitkus, Varun Jani, Sam Woertz, Farrukh Ergashev, Travis Barrow, Aneesh Srinivasan, Kevin Morano, Crosby Deliman, Albert Lin, Alastair Detweiler, Alex Lowry, Vineeth Sharma, Siddharth Chawla, Murtatha Alkhalaf, Braden Heilman and Ignacio Baena.

Neal said the Penn State AVT will continue to recruit new members and develop an evolving roster throughout the competition. Students can earn academic credit for their participation.

The project will receive financial support from the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute (including use of their test track), the College of Engineering, the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Students interested in becoming involved with AVT and the AutoDrive Challenge project can learn more by visiting


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