125 Stanford Stories

NO. 16

Self-driving DeLorean

Stanford engineers test the limits of autonomous driving

When Professor Chris Gerdes set out to build his lab’s latest autonomous research vehicle, he knew exactly what he wanted: a vintage DeLorean, circa 1981. Gerdes’ team then converted the car into a high-performance test bed for researching the physical limits of autonomous driving.

Research using the DeLorean – nicknamed MARTY in a nod to the film Back to the Future – may one day guide the development of safety protocols for self-driving cars.

The team’s overarching goal is to design automated vehicles that can take any action possible to avoid an accident, said Gerdes. The laws of physics will always prevail, but driving control systems in most modern cars limit maneuverability in order to enhance stability. Race car driving provides the exception.

Without the limits imposed by an electronic stability control system, professional drivers use a technique called drifting to make tight turns and avoid obstacles. They are able to sacrifice stability in exchange for improved performance and handling. Learning how to program an autonomous car to react with the sophistication of a race car driver is a key part of research using MARTY.

“MARTY is another step in this direction, thanks to the passion and hard work of our students,” Gerdes said. “Stanford builds great research by building great researchers.”

Graduate student Jonathan Goh has already taken the project to the next level. In a superb piece of controls engineering, Goh programmed the car to spin doughnut after textbook doughnut, a feat that may one day allow self-driving cars to handle even the most extreme situations.

“The sublime awesomeness of riding in a DeLorean that does perfect, smoke-filled doughnuts by itself is a mind-bending experience that helps you appreciate that we really are living in the future,” Goh said.

Learn more about MARTY and autonomous vehicle research at Stanford. Watch the video and enjoy the ride.