The Indy Autonomous Challenge unveils competition vehicles during the Indianapolis 500 event

INDY Autonomous Challenge race car platform on the Indianapolis Speedway
The Indy Autonomous Challenge unveiled the actual autonomous race car during the recent Indianapolis 500 race weekend. | Image credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge

The Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) competition is entering its final phase of competition. During the fanfare of the recent 2021 Indianapolis 500 race weekend, the Indy Autonomous Challenge promoters unveiled one of the actual race cars that will be run in the upcoming IAC race later this fall. The IAC event is unprecedented in terms of the speeds at which the race cars will be moving, and the winning teams will split up a $1.3M purse. Additionally, the IAC race car platform is beyond the technology and scope for most college engineering programs at a cost of $1M each. This is an event that will push the boundaries of autonomous driving.

What is the Indy Autonomous Challenge?

The Indy Autonomous Challenge is an organized competition for autonomous vehicles. The IAC race event will highlight 10 autonomous vehicles in a head-to-head competition over 20 laps, at the Indianapolis Speedway. The race cars are full-size Indy Light class vehicles. This class of race cars are the same vehicles used by the human drivers competing at the level just below IndyCar (the cars featured in the Indianapolis 500). These vehicles are capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph. The only thing missing from the race cars are human drivers. The goal of the IAC is to advance driver-assistance systems, and to inspire the next generation of automotive and robotics engineers.

The IAC race car

The Dallara AV-21 is the autonomous race platform that will be used by all of the teams. Ten vehicles have been manufactured for the race. At the heart of the Dallara autonomous vehicle is a gasoline powered 4-cylinder engine based on the Honda K20 engine block.

Why gasoline rather than electric you ask? The answer is that the gasoline engines of the IndyCars are what gets your heart pumping as they scream by at 200+ mph. Every aspect of IAC is an intentional decision to bring attention to autonomous vehicles. The race committee chose the Honda K20 engine (a common platform) rather than the engines from the Indy Lights because they didn’t want to deploy an exotic engine in the race car that couldn’t be wrenched on by a college mechanic. In addition, all of the Dallara AV-21 race cars will be setup similarly, so that there is no advantage in the race based on the race vehicle. This isn’t a race car design competition – it’s an autonomous racing competition.

Dallara has been the sole supplier of the Indy Lights series since 2002. Indy Lights are the “minor leagues” for Indycar, and Indy Light drivers races at the same tracks and on the same weekends as Indycar. The Italian race car company designed and built the new class of autonomous vehicles around the Indy Light chassis. It is 4,860 mm long and has a 2,970 mm wheelbase. Dallara also builds the Formula 2 and Formula 3 racecars for the International Automobile Federation (FIA).

“The Dallar-built IAC racecar is the most advanced, fastest autonomous vehicle ever developed, ” Says Paul Mitchell, president and CEO of ESN, and co-organizer of the IAC. “Our sponsors are providing radar, LiDAR, optical cameras and advanced computers, bringing the value of each vehicle to $1M.”

The IAC Competition in 2021

While the race has been delayed a bit due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the teams have still been busy preparing for the competition. In fact there have already been several preliminary competitions, all held in a virtual, online racing environment. On the virtual racetrack, the teams have been perfecting their sensor processing algorithms and they have also been working on training the race car driver machine-learning models that will later be used on the actual, physical race cars.

The IAC competition will push the limits of autonomous driving decision making. Racing is about pushing the machine to the limits of speed, traction in a fit against gravity and control of centripetal forces. Waymo and Cruise autonomous vehicles that are already on deployed on public roads have the number one goal to avoid obstacles, but those machines operate well within safe boundaries of speed and acceleration. The IAC teams will push their cars to very limit.

The IAC physical race is scheduled for October 23, 2021. The race will be 20 laps, head-to-head (all race cars on the track at the same time) and teams must average 120 mph to qualify as a finisher. All of the signal processing and vehicle control has to be done onboard the race vehicle, in real time. The biggest challenge for competitors is designing their race strategies and programming the autonomous platform to combine all of the sensor data and output the controls during each control loop cycle. This gets more complicated and more difficult, the faster that the vehicles go.

Simulation races prepare the teams for actual racing

Simulation has been the primary venue for designing and testing all of the software for the vehicles. The simulation environments have been designed to use the same operating systems and runtime as the actual vehicles. If all goes well, it will be a simple port of code from simulation to the actual vehicles.
The upcoming milestone is the June 24, 2021 simulation race event, where 10 teams will emerge as the final competitors in October. Each of these teams will move to Indianapolis this summer to finalize their coding and troubleshooting efforts with the actual, physical race cars.The goal is to push the limits of the machines, in some cases to the breaking point, or should I say, the crashing point. The challenge for the teams will be the flirt with this breaking point without going over it, as there are no replacement vehicles.
Going slow is easy. There are now hundreds of robotic companies and autonomous vehicles companies who are pursuing slow speed, autonomous navigation and obstacle avoidance. The difficulty in programming and controlling a race cars going 200 mph is that each time you update your location with new data from the sensors, you have to quickly identify and calculate the location of everything in the world around you. This includes other vehicles on the race course and immovable objects such as racetrack barriers and walls.

Race day in October

The actual race takes place on October 23, 2021 in Indianapolis, on the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is the exact same track were Hélio Castroneves won the  2021 Indianapolis 500 race this past Memorial Day weekend.
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Written by

Mike Oitzman

Mike Oitzman is Senior Editor of WTWH's Robotics Group, cohost of The Robot Report Podcast, and founder of the Mobile Robot Guide. Oitzman is a robotics industry veteran with 25-plus years of experience at various high-tech companies in the roles of marketing, sales and product management. He can be reached at