Student team places second in autonomous vehicle challenge


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of students in the Penn State College of Engineering recently earned second place in the Shell Ecomarathon Autonomous Programming Challenge.

The students, Zikun Zheng, Alex Huang, Hoang Pham, Courtland Corrente, Kyle Delhagen and Daniel McVaney, were “challenged to develop path planning, perception and control algorithms for an autonomous vehicle and then put it to the test in a simulated environment,” according to Shell.

Held in spring 2021, the five-week challenge represents a new venue for students to learn about autonomous technology and apply their own skills to gain hands-on experience with the emerging technology.

“Due to the pandemic, the competition was moved to a completely virtual environment,” said Gary Neal, the team’s adviser and director of mechanical engineering capstone design projects. “Instead of physically working on a vehicle, like they have in previous years, they designed a vehicle in a virtual simulation environment like a video game.”

The students needed to develop path planning and perception, and control algorithms for software to virtually drive a vehicle through a simulated residential course. The team needed to navigate to 12 milestones on the path without collisions and in the most fuel-efficient way possible.

The team was graded on several categories, including course completion, time, fuel efficiency and the amount of computing power used.

“The team earned second place because they were very well-rounded in all of these areas,” Neal said.

The Penn State Ecomarathon Team competes in the competition each year, which historically focused on hyper fuel-efficient vehicles but is now incorporating autonomous vehicle technologies.

“The Penn State team definitely has some advantages in the ability to program autonomous vehicles to be driven efficiently,” Neal said. “The history and knowledge base we have allows us to be really competitive.”

Neal said he was proud of the students and is excited to see how next year’s team can build upon the work.

“They took the challenge to heart and enjoyed that competitive aspect of the competition,” he said. “They were dedicated to getting a solution that worked and finding that solution with the time they had available.”

The team received support from the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory in this competition. For undergraduate and graduate students interested in the Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team, visit their website.


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