World’s largest auto engineering competition goes driverless

The University robotics departments of Oxford, MIT, Stanford, among others, are some of the best known innovators in the autonomous vehicle sector, having made their mark on influential projects such as the DARPA grand challenge.  It comes as no surprise that other universities, and student-orientated competitions, are keen to make their mark as well.

Step forward, Formula Student.  An engineering challenge in Europe which hosts, in its most recent iteration, more than 130 universities from around the world, competing in a variety of different static and dynamic tests.  This competition has generated thousands of new and highly experienced engineers going from university into competitive motorsport and other automotive disciplines.

Organised by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, working in partnership as the European arm of the established Formula SAE in North America, the UK-based competition finale is held at Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix and jewel in the crown of the globally influential British motorsport industry.  The week-long event, with an atmosphere and scale approaching a small festival, is attended by teams and sponsors from around the world and has been running and growing year-on-year since 1998.

When the Sense Media team visited the event earlier this year, we were collectively stunned into bewilderment by the range and sheer audacity of the cars, engineering challenges and problems being faced and overcome by this group (actually hoard would be a better word – with more than 6000 attendees) of remarkable and passionate engineers.

Universities from across the globe (not just restricted to Europe) are challenged to design and build a single-seat racing car in order to demonstrate their understanding and test the performance of the vehicle.

One team we spoke to had chosen to mount an electric motor at each wheel.  They realised their motors ran too quickly to be within the rules, so invented a gearbox to step the speed down, inside the hub of the wheel. At this point they found that their unique solution meant no production racing tyre would fit their wheel, so they went away and invented a new tyre.  That sounds crazy enough, but these wheels have no spokes. You can literally put your hand right through the middle while the motor is running. They re-invented the wheel, from concept to race-track in 9 months and even managed a podium finish.

Naturally we steered them towards the question of driverless technology, to which they responded “We gather so much data and feedback from the wheels, we could steer the vehicle using individual wheels alone” – we then asked “So you think you can have a driverless vehicle, on track, without any other sensors?” and they hesitated, looked about and then nodded. “Sure, why not?” came the response.

Reading about engineering like this makes you realise that the programme is remarkably successful, and now so large that many countries have their own organising committees, arranging complementary competitions.  “Where is all this going?” I hear you ask.

Well, apart from the incredible speed at which teams are able to develop and create solutions to problems which leave many production cars behind in their tyre-tracks (some cars have to be de-tuned in order to fit within the power constraints of the competition and many go from concept to potential winner in less than 12 months), one of these national chapters, Germany, last year ran a design competition for Driverless vehicle concepts – the Formula Student Driverless Concept Award.

More than thirty universities from 12 countries entered abstract ideas, with 16 of these invited to submit full designs.

This month (last weekend, in fact) Formula Student Germany confirmed this year’s design contest, won by Zwickau University in Germany, would be succeeded by a built competition culminating in a finale and judged contest in 2017.  It’s worth pointing out that the first seven of the finalists ranked in the top ten – were from Germany.

This throws down the gauntlet to the industry – it means that innovation will speed up, that new solutions to old problems will have dozens, if not hundreds of fresh, eager and exciting new minds staring at them.  It also means that the numbers seen at the Thunderhill Raceway, at the world’s first open testing event for autonomous vehicles, are inevitably going to increase.


That’s another reason why we have launched Self Driving Track Days – regular events taking place in around Europe with training workshops and a social, collaborative spirit that will bring like-minded people together and provide a cost-effective testing opportunity for innovators, irrespective of their location or budget.

For those who would like to get involved, but perhaps don’t have a ready-assembled team, we are inviting you to join our Self Driving Track Day meet-up events. Specifically, for networking, perhaps you are unsure how or who to partner with to get your technology tested on a vehicle, away from the public, maybe you want to discretely trial or partner with a team with a complimentary skillset. Either way, this is the place to do it.


The networking events and track days are open to everyone, but I started this by writing about Formula Student for a reason – it’s exciting. Throw problems at these keen minds, and they’ll solve them for you, work with you, evolve your products – give them your time, your technology, your support, your respect, and they will repay that in dividends, giving our industry a robust, experienced, passionate and exciting new pool of talent.  Formula Student and Self Driving Track Days are key ways for industry to connect with this next generation of engineers – get involved now and make sure your company is a part of the journey this talent is embarking upon.

We are holding a meet-up (free to register and attend) on Tuesday September 20th – between 12 noon and 2pm – that’s sandwiched between the IEEE Working Group meeting and the Image Sensor Workshop at AutoSens, before the main part of the conference begins on Wednesday 21st. You don’t need to spend the whole two hours there, but we can guarantee it will be an interesting place to spend your lunch break.

We’re also holding a meet-up at Google Campus in London on Friday 16th, which is filling up fast with interested parties, innovators, even OEMs, all keen to meet like-minded people.

So, choose a date, register and go along – it’s free!