Great Scott! Stanford’s Self-Driving Delorean

October 21, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

We may not have hoverboards and pizza-expanding ovens, but we do we have a self-driving Delorean. Maybe the future isn't so bad after all.

If you're going to live in the future, you may as well have a sweet ride.

Today marks the day that Marty McFly will arrive from 1985 to save his future children. Ok, sure, we don't have true hoverboards or wear plastic strainers on our heads, but Stanford has stepped in to make our present a whole lot cooler: it's unveiled a self-driving DeLorean. Named after the Back to the Future protagonist, the MARTY (Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control) doesn't just politely maneuver its way through stop-and-go traffic-- it can pull impressive drifts and hair-raising doughnuts better than an RC racer. Watch the video below to see the DeLorean in action.

Upgraded Components

Any EE worth his or her salt knows about the sensors that go into Google's car--the rogue DeLorean doesn't have radar or LIDaR sensors. It's basically a punk hack of Renovo's drivetrain coupled with a really good GPS system and two separate motors on the rear wheels that control the amount of torque delivered to each one. The motors can operate at 200 kilowatts of power-- not quite 1.21 gigawatts, but it'll do. The car uses mechanical engineering and autonomous driving software to navigate the hurdles of street driving.

Working with a 40-year-old car posed some basic issues to the Stanford team. They had to add power steering and a custom steer-by-wire, build a roll cage, then get Bridgestone to donate tires that could withstand drifting (and the ravages inflicted by a pack of tech geniuses).

The team inspects the DeLorean. Courtesy Stanford.

Why Drifting?

Thus far, autonomous cars have been relatively vanilla: we haven't seen them pull any maneuvers that normal drivers couldn't do. But what's the point of having self-driving cars if they don't drive better than humans can? Chris Gerdes, the professor of mechanical engineering behind the project, wanted to test the physical limits of autonomous driving because, he says, "We want to design automated vehicles that can take any action necessary to avoid an accident."

What would have happened if, back in July when Google's self-driving car got into its first accident with injuries, the car would have predicted the accident and pulled some sweet maneuvers to avoid it? A truly progressive autonomous car would be able to gauge the risk of becoming less stable but more agile versus increased stability with increased rigidity. In other words, the Stanford DeLorean can pull some racecar-driving moves to protect its occupants. 

A Less Boring Future

Just about every model we've seen of autonomous cars has resembled a passive jelly bean that looks like it's meant to shuttle passengers to get overpriced quinoa salad. The designs have been more Elysium than Mad Max, and that points to a future that's playing it safe. The Stanford DeLorean hearkens back to a time when designs took risks. Does anyone need gull-wing doors? Debatable. Are they show-stoppers? Absolutey. 

Beyond having just harnessed racing car tactics into self-driving practicality, the hacked DeLorean offers a reminder that the future shouldn't play it safe: we've come too far to let our cars look and act as boring as early morning traffic.