Penn State students build on success in international AutoDrive competition

November 9, 2023

By Lauren Colvin

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team (AVT) competed in the second year of competition for AutoDrive Challenge II from June 4-10 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  After a successful showing in year one of competition, Penn State AVT returned to take home the following eight top-three recognitions in year two:  

  • Overall static challenges, first place 
  • Overall year two winners, third place 
  • Concept design event, third place 
  • Concept design report and software requirements specifications, third place 
  • Mobility innovation and 0-0-0 challenge, first place 
  • Project leadership, second place 
  • System safety and technical reports, first place 
  • Vehicle integration challenge, first place 

AutoDrive Challenge II is a four-year international competition that challenges 10 student teams to develop and test a fully autonomous passenger vehicle on a controlled urban driving course at the University of Michigan’s MCity. The competition is sponsored by General Motors and SAE International. 

With year two of the competition in the rearview, the team is busy preparing for year three of competition to take place in June 2024. 

“Looking forward, our biggest driving force this year is upping our game in the dynamic challenges,” said Madeline Brown, a fourth-year mechanical engineering undergraduate student who serves as Penn State AVT’s team lead. “Actually making the car move and move well is what we’re focusing on this year, so we can catch up and take home that first place overall.” 

Penn State AVT historically placed well in static events. Static events test the team’s competency in reporting and presenting. The challenge for the team, according to Justin Kerr, a third-year undergraduate mechanical engineering student who serves as AVT’s department head for guidance, navigation and control, has been dynamic events, which test the car’s ability to navigate an urban driving course.  

According to Kerr, the issue with dynamic events is the team’s lack of experience with autonomous systems. To build a fully autonomous vehicle, the students must learn and apply graduate-level knowledge. As a team of almost entirely undergraduates in a competition that allows for teams with graduate and undergraduate students, this adds time and difficulty to the development process.  

“In year three, we plan to overcome these challenges by focusing on a minimum viable product, or MVP,” Kerr said. “The concept of MVP emphasizes that it is better to integrate a simple system quickly and improve it over time rather than to design a complex system and hope that integration goes smoothly. As we noticed over the previous two years of competition, integration rarely goes smoothly.” 

According to Brown, Penn State’s AVT members gain hands-on experience with topics not typically covered in the classroom, especially at an undergraduate level. AutoDrive II also provides opportunities to learn and network with top industry professionals. Students on the team earn academic credit for their participation. Some seniors even use their participation to fulfill their capstone requirement. 

“It is amazing to see the Advanced Vehicle Team be successful so quickly, especially as a newcomer team to this competition,” said Gary Neal, professor of mechanical engineering and Penn State’s AVT faculty adviser. “This success is a testament to the support from our sponsors and the student team members’ unwavering enthusiasm, dedication and grit.” 

Penn State’s team receives financial support for the competition from the College of Engineering, including from the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Department of Electrical Engineering, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and other sponsors. Individuals or organizations interested in supporting the Penn State AVT may do so through this website. 

Students interested in joining Penn State AVT are encouraged to visit the team’s website or contact Madeline Brown at and/or Gary Neal at 


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