- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

FRANKLIN, N.J. (AP) - “It’s turning! It’s turning,” said Jonathan Colella, his eyes fixed at the wheels on the “Cockroach.”

To the naked eye, the Cockroach looks like a “MacGyver” experiment: a piece of wood, some heavy-duty wheels, a car battery and a tiny gasoline motor. The only reason it was actually going forward was because of a push from a homemade go-cart behind it.

But, for a few seconds last weekend, its small tires were slowly turning through a makeshift course at Franklin High School in the township’s Somerset section.

And the wheels were turning by themselves.

“In a best-case scenario, this could potentially change the world,” Colella said told the Asbury Park Press (https://on.app.com/1PFnpyY ) in an interview before the test run.

The Cockroach is DriveAI’s first prototype of its self-driving car, a project nearly two years in the making - including a summer of 12-hour days programming software and designing the mechanics to make it work.

The team will demonstrate the car on Thursday at an event called “In the Driver’s Seat” at BellWorks in Holmdel.

DriveAI is a nonprofit of 10 young enthusiasts - they’re all between 18 and 27 years old - who set out last year to build a self-driving car. Most have a connection to Rutgers University, where they study or recently graduated. They come from various computer science and engineering backgrounds.

“We wanted to see how fast we could do this with the resources we have,” team member Akin Shoyoye said.

They are still in the early phases: Even in the prototype, the Cockroach has the capability to accelerate, brake and perform basic steering, but it can’t adjust its speed to changing conditions.

In May, the company received funding from Munich Reinsurance, which set a three-month deadline for a working prototype.

“This is finally a reality. This is a real company,” team member Parth Mehrotra said.

DriveAI’s model is on a smaller scale: It isn’t designed to go above 25 mph, and the team intends to move toward solely electric vehicles.

To date, they’ve spent about $3,000 on it - including many trials and even more errors, many of them in a Somerset garage scattered with twist ties, computer parts and scraps.

“The type of car doesn’t matter - the software system is the same,” said team member Travis Vanderstad. “The car has to see what’s going on around it - Is there a turn? Is there an intersection? - and make decisions.”

Such technology is being researched and demonstrated at most major auto manufacturer and technology companies across the globe. In 2012, Google disclosed that it has about $150,000 worth of equipment in its driverless Toyota, Audi and Lexus vehicles.

Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike while speaking to a reporter, Princeton University professor Alain Kornhauser said he believes he shouldn’t need to actually drive his car.

“I should be able to fully concentrate on talking to you, text, do whatever I want,” Kornhauser said. “I’m not touching the gas or brakes. I have it on cruise control, following the car in front of me. It can do this better than I can.”

Kornhauser, the faculty chair of Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering, called the autonomous-vehicle shift an “evolution” that has already begun.

Many luxury cars already offer automatic lane guidance and collision avoidance, which detect and automatically react to potential crashes.

It’s only a small jump to the kinds of autonomous vehicle where drivers “don’t have to pay attention,” Kornhauser said. Once the insurance and logistics industries get involved, such technologies will become standard.

“We’ll all go out and buy one of those things because we don’t actually want to drive when we drive,” Kornhauser said.

Google debuted its driverless model earlier this year after six years at the forefront of self-driving research.

Of the 1 million miles Google’s cars have logged since 2012, the DriveAI team focuses on one important statistic: It has been involved in 14 crashes, each of which were the result of another driver’s mistake.

As test vehicles begin hitting the roadways - DriveAI’s tests are in driveways and high school parking lots - lawmakers are feverishly proposing and passing laws before such vehicles even get on the road.

Six states have enacted laws regulating self-driving cars and another 16 state legislatures have introduced legislation concerning them, including New Jersey.

Last year, the state Senate unanimously approved a bill that would essentially legalize self-driving cars, requiring the state Motor Vehicle Commission to adopt regulations governing their use.

Included in the regulations are registration and proof of insurance for any vehicles to be road-tested.

“It’s technology you can see coming and that you can understand,” said Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, who sponsored the bill. “At some point, these vehicles will be on New Jersey roadways and will be part of the conversation. Once you get that breakthrough moment, these vehicles will be the next generation of technology.”

While DriveAI’s work is coming on a much smaller scale than the tech giants of the world, its members take pride in one key aspect: The entire project is open-source.

The team regularly posts updates on its progress and snags. Anyone can view the DriveAI source code and provide input or suggest changes.

While other self-driving car divisions and companies are protecting their work behind lock and key, DriveAI’s project will be free for anyone to apply and use for their own work.

“Google’s going to write a bunch of proprietary code. All these car manufacturers are going to write their own proprietary code,” team member Parth Mehrotra said. “It’s a lot of wasted effort if everybody does the same thing again and again.

“If ours isn’t up to par or where the industry wants the technology to be, they can contribute the manpower to it,” he said.

An open-source project allows researchers across the globe to weigh in and suggest changes to the software. The company has already addressed issues raised by a University of Michigan researcher with a Master’s in “computer vision,” the 3D technology that acts as the vehicle’s eyes.

“What good is all of this technology if people can’t access it or have control over it?” Shoyoye said. “What good is collecting data if you can’t analyze it? People around the world can analyze this in real time and understand how autonomous vehicles are working in real time. That can only propel it forward.”

There’s another benefit to open-source projects as well: It helps ensure the project’s success, team members said.

Not only does it allow anyone from leading experts to potential consumers to weigh in on the project, it allows entrepreneurs to use the code and shape it to their own vision.

Many of the most widely-used technological tools - such as Linux and Wikipedia - began as open-source projects, team member Praful Mathur said.

“These things work when you invite participation globally so anyone can start plugging in what they know and how it operates,” Mathur said. “If you don’t give people the opportunity to succeed on top of the platform, it won’t succeed.”

In a year, DriveAI hopes to be able to prepare a “kit” - with software and suggested materials - for anyone with the knowledge, skills and time to create their own self-driving car.

It would allow computer science classes to learn about the technology and entrepreneurs to help push a project forward.

“This is the greatest invention since the Internet,” Mathur said. “You’re not just moving communication, you’re moving people and goods. That’s never happened in an automated way.

“When you do that at scale,” he said, “it’s the greatest opportunity we’ve ever encountered.”


Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, https://www.app.com

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