The glitz, glamour and the bright lights that define the world-famous "Entertainment Capital of the World" are now back.
Despite the impact of COVID-19 and the sudden surge of the Omicron variant, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas did not disappoint always sure to showcase to the world the latest and greatest in innovative new products and technologies as it has for the last 55 years.
"Ladies and gentlemen, start your software."
And with those history-making words, the world's first ever head to head race for autonomous race cars gets booted up at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"The Indy Autonomous Challenge is // a competition among top research universities from around the world including // from Korea, Germany, Italy, the United States// who are developing software that can control fully autonomous race cars// and can compete in head to head races// in motor speedways like these ones."
"The way they work on their cars is that they connect them to their computers and they check data, they make updates to the software on the car, they make adjustments, they come out and begin practicing.
We practice all day, cars will go out and do single car runs and now we'll actually have two cars passing each other on the track at the same time."
at speeds that will
blow your mind away.
Just three days remaining until the Indy Autonomous Challenge at CES Finals, we hit the tracks of Las Vegas Motor Speedway to meet the teams in their last stretch of preparations
"Hi Professor Shim."
"You came at just the right time."
"This is Calvin - he's the guy who did the KBS interview."
"This is Andrea."
Meet Team KAIST from David Hyunchul Shim's Unmanned Systems Research Group; the smallest team in terms manpower with one Ph.D. student, Calvin Chanyoung Jung, as team lead, one Master's student, Andrea Finazzi from Milan working with their advisor, Professor David Shim.
But, don't let the size of their team fool you.
"So, the KAIST team is really strong. While they don't have as many team members as some of our other teams. They are extremely committed.
They have been here in Las Vegas since the end of November and haven't left."
"Yesterday was a big day for our team. We achieved 140 miles per hour."
We're going right now. So, you came at the perfect time.
In general, the teams involved have opted to focus on collaboration over competition pairing up with teams that are close to the same level together creating strategies along the way to be equally successful as they move into passing competition.
For team KAIST, it's been MITT-PITT, a group of engineers from MIT, University of Pittsburg, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo in Canada.
But, high-speed autonomous racing isn't just about software driver; it's also about a very significant systems integration challenge.
"We tried to collect multi-vehicle racing data. We were pretty good. Also, they were pretty good. But there is a space drive that controls the streering command and vehicle pressure. The computer is just gone. So, they locked the tires immediately. It means the computer has shut down."
Keeping everything under control can be a mighty challenging task at speeds of 130, 140 miles per hour. The central computer could crash, or a chip could stop functioning.
The Indy Autonomous Challenge traces its origins back to over two years ago
"In 2019, David, my advisor and I were invited by the Indy Autonomous Challenge organizers to the workshop so that we can make the rules and give them feedback about the competition and then we went to Indianapolis.
" When we had our prize development workshop Calvin came with David. I have all the respect for Calvin. He has ultra high standards, he's a perfectionist, he's a fierce competitor."
That's Matt Peak. From July 2018 to October last year, he was directly involved in the Indy Autonomous Challenge from figuring out how to construct an autonomous car competition with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"One of the tasks that I undertook was identifying our prospective competitors David and KAIST very quickly rose to the top of the list. I recall he was working with one of the OEMs, I believe it was Hyundai, he had ultra high speed experience he had done somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 miles per hour around a race track in South Korea."
Their conversation stretched from late summer of 2018 and into winter and spring of 2019.
"Getting those that are credible and active in the space involved is essential and to have David and KAIST show up just gave a lot of credibility and no doubt helped us recruit other teams to join the competition."
Little did they know of the massive challenges ahead OR the remarkable achievements to be made along the way.
"The car was not fully race-ready when we got the car. We had only two months until the race. When we think about the limited time frame until the race, all of the teams decided to make a collaborative group up to the basic software stack like sensor driver, firing the engines, or just move the car when we give the control command to make this challenge happen.
All the different teams had different roles in the collaborative effort. In our case, we were in charge of designing the camera driver, streaming the image from the camera and the other teams were responsible for making sure the GPS was working fine, and another team working on LiDAR and things like that."
They don't share the brains for the robotic drivers; the rest of the vehicle is the body.
TUM Autonomous Motorsport from the Technical University of Munich in Germany is the defending champion from the time trial race in Indianapolis last October.
"We are a team of 15 Ph.D. students, supported by many, many undergraduate students, in total we are part of a group of 60 students at some point. Most of us have been working on the project for two years now but previous to this, there was a project called Roborace for four years and this is their second project."
We pull up to the track near sunset on the evening before the final race.
The air around team KAIST had been extra tense all day.
"So today is the last day of qualifications at CES meaning that this is the last chance that the teams can show that they can do head-to-head autonomous passing. We just had the team from KAIST successfully pass at 80 miles per hour. So, they can be in the competition tomorrow. They're very excited."
Out of the nine competing teams, only five teams qualified for the final day.
"We've been working very closely with MITT-PITT. But, they had a crash this morning. All teams had to pair with a partner to demonstrate their overtaking performance. Our partner was MITT-PITT. MITT-PITT had a crash, so, we lost our partner. So, we waited all day.
There was another incident. All schedules were delayed. And we kept trying to look for a partner and then that was our original plan. But, that got totally destroyed.
We eventually paired with the Hawaii team with just 30 minutes left before the end of the day for the track. We tried to qualify and we did."
"Now I'm the happiest man on this planet."
Halfway across on the frontstretch of the track, there is another "happiest man on this planet" this evening.
"We can compete for tomorrow. We don't want to go down like that. We showed that it was possible. We proved that we can do this in Asia, in Korea where we don't even have a decent race track. Whatever we want to do, we can do here. We have better teams, great European teams that have shown 250, 260 kilometers per hour in practice runs so, we may not be able to do that.
But, by walking down this path when we get better, when we win, that will be the day that makes all this worthwhile."
Back at the racing track on the final day of the Indy Autonomous Challenge at CES.
"We were doing fine. We passed Auburn. They had a car problem. So, they stopped every car including ours. But, we didn't have any problems. So, our car is back on track running as we speak. The other contender will be coming in. They are very fierce contenders.
So, we'll see."
And, it was indeed team KAIST coming out with flying colors for their finals.
"KAIST which advanced by virtue of beating Auburn facing off against the top seed in PoliMOVE. This is a huge challenge here for this KAIST team that was just scrapping and clawing to have a piece of software effectively ready to go to be able to compete today."
"Here comes KAIST picking up speed taking a peek to the outside and will complete the pass before turns one and two? So, we are set to move on."
"When I heard Andrea in the radio saying that this is going to be okay for KAIST. We are happy with our result. We are going to stop here."
I ask Calvin why he decided to retire at that point. Why not push further?
In my point of view, we are engineers. Every system should be under our control. We are not gamblers.
I know that our system can go faster - up to 150. Somehow, we saw some false positives. Definitely not safe signals. So, I can stop the car. I'm sitting right here. I can always stop the car.
And his teammate, Andrea.
To operate the car, we need to be on the same page at all times. Communication between us is crucial. What I see is different from what Calvin sees on his screen. So we have to trust each other on what each of us sees on the screen. I have a certain set of information which I care and I'm responsible for. If he says one stack of software is not working properly, we need to trust each other.
We are still very happy. We achieved 141 mph on our solo run which was a huge jump forward and today we completed our overtakes at 130. That for us is a huge step forward considering the nature of our team."
In the end, it was a phenomenal race by Polimove that crowned them the winner setting a new land speed for the fastest autonomous racecar with a solo vehicle speed record of over 173 miles per hour.
At victory zones, there are no winners or losers: just a BRILLIANT, extra joyous bunch celebrating state-of-the-art innovation.
"We are all engineering students. We want to see cutting-edge technology. We are big fans of cutting-edge technology. They did it. They ran up to 172 mph. It was super fast. It was more than human. It was better than human. In that sense, we cannot envy them. They deserve it. That's the reason why we all give them an applause."
"Are we going to catch up and go even further?"
"Sure, why not. This is also a competition. So, someday in the near future, not that far.
"The team from KAIST was unbelievable. They made it into the top four. They were out there in the passing competition. They were one of the top four teams in the world in this type of competition and I think if they continue the journey they're on, they will be right up there in the winner's podium in the next couple of events."