PALO ALTO (CBS SF) — Even Marty McFly would be impressed with the work of a group of Stanford engineers who have programmed a driverless DeLorean to “drift” on a race track with the skill of the best drivers in the world.
McFly is the fictional character who navigated through time to the future in a DeLorean equipped as a time machine in the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy. The Stanford engineers, meanwhile, have adapted the DeLorean to take a glimpse to the future when driverless cars will be a common mode of transportation.
The engineers from Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab even named their experimental vehicle — the Marty.
“Marty is the world’s first and only autonomous, electric, drifting DeLorean,” said Jonathan Goh, the co-lead engineer on the Marty project and a Stanford PhD student. “The way we see it, if you are going to build an autonomous drift car why not do it with some style.”
The car uses a custom software program to “drift” — a maneuver used by professional and street drivers where they oversteer, with loss of traction in only the rear wheels, to maintain control and drive through a corner.
Drifting is the driving style commonly used to spin donuts in illegal sideshows.
By studying the habits of professional drivers and testing those same control maneuvers, Goh and his colleagues have improved the DeLorean’s stability through a broader range of conditions.
“We are trying to develop automated vehicles that can handle a broad range of conditions,”said professor of Mechanical Engineering Chris Gerdes, co-lead on the project. “To be able to handle emergency maneuvers, to be able to handle low friction surfaces like ice and snow or wet and slippery roads.”
Commercial vehicles are outfitted with Electronic Stability Control systems that try to prevent cars from entering unstable states where the car begins to skid sideways, but this is where the best human drift drivers thrive.
“The best human drivers have learned to handle these unstable conditions extremely well,” Gerdes said. “They can actually put the vehicle sideways while still managing to maneuver it exactly the way they want.”
“So we wanted to look at that and figure out what are the human drivers doing and how can we turn that into our maneuvers in the car to allow an automated vehicle to use those same sorts of maneuvers in an emergency situation.”
The team has been putting the autonomous DeLorean through it paces on a 1-kilometer obstacle course.