Top universities compete wheel to wheel in autonomous Indy Lights racecars for $1.5million prize
Are we ready to trust AI with our lives?
To most people, the answer is not yet. Well, this is exactly what autonomous cars will ask us to do when full autonomy is achieved. This journey is well on course despite the significant challenges it has faced in the past.
How can we safely achieve or advance this goal? This is a question that most players in the industry have been pondering.
In this episode, Ed Bernardon interviews Matt Peak, Managing Director at Energy Systems Network (ESN), an organization focused on the development of advanced technology for both the energy and the transportation sectors. Today, he’ll talk to us about the Indy Autonomous Challenge, an autonomous car race comprised of 9 university teams that will race wheel to wheel for $1.5 million in prize money at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’ll help us understand how this race came about and the goals they are seeking to achieve from this unique competition.
Some Questions I Ask:
- What is Indy Autonomous Challenge and how did it all come about? (02:54)
- What will the winner of the final race get? (07:03)
- What makes the AV21 the most autonomous car ever built? (22:52)
- What is ESN and what does it do? (41:21)
- How does this race compare to Roborace? (52:50)
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- The key distinction between Indy Autonomous Challenge and DAPRA. (08:14)
- How the race overcame the car cost hurdle. (18:37)
- The array of sensors that are fitted into the AV21 race car (25:06)
- How the race will be structured (33:57)
- The role that Indy Autonomous Challenge has in advancing mobility (47:46)
Connect with Matt Peak:
Connect with Ed Bernardon:
Ed Bernardon: Although I now live in Boston, I grew up in Indianapolis and as a result I am a life long racing fan. Every year I make the May pilgrimage back to The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, also known as the racing capital of the world or the “Brickyard”, which has hosted the Indy 500 for over 100 years. Since 1909, the track has seen its original rock and tar paved over with brick and then eventually asphalt to make way for the ever-evolving styles and technologies of newer, faster, lighter racing machines. Though the look and feel of racing at the Brickyard has changed over the years, one thing that’s always remained the same are the skilled men and women behind the wheel. Until now, that is. Though 20 years ago, autonomous vehicles still felt like something straight out of Blade Runner, we’re officially in a time where unmanned race cars are competing at one of the most famous racetracks on the planet—with not only speeds to match but with winner’s prize money of 1 and a half million dollars. The Indy Autonomous Challenge is a collegiate autonomous open wheel race car competition designed to fuel innovation and improve upon self-driving technology for application in commercial markets.
Welcome to The Future Car podcast. I am your host, Ed Bernardon. Today we have with us, Matt Peak. He’s the Managing Director at Energy Systems Network (ESN), where they focus on development of advanced technology for both the energy and the transportation sectors. But his work at ESN has led him to something that is revolutionary and exciting in the world of autonomous cars, the Autonomous Indy Challenge. Teams from universities from around the world will race and compete autonomous Indy cars at no less than the racing capital of the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Matt believes that this competition allows real world problems to be approached and solved, ultimately creating a safer driving environment for the rest of us.
It’s definitely a first for autonomous cars to be racing wheel-to-wheel at these high speeds. So, I am looking forward to my discussion with Matt, on how the Indy Autonomous Challenge came about, and to learn what it takes to race autonomously at what may be record high speeds for autonomous cars and wheel-to-wheel traffic. Matt, welcome to The Future Car podcast.
Matt Peak: Thank you, Ed. It’s great to be here.
Ed Bernardon: Why don’t we start off and maybe you could tell us a little bit, what is the Indy Autonomous Challenge? How did it all come about?
Matt Peak: So, the Indy Autonomous Challenge is a prize competition amongst collegiate universities from around the world to program automated-enabled race cars to compete against each other at the world’s most famous racetrack, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The whole notion of this competition came about because of our familiarity with a very influential prize competition that happened almost 20 years ago, it was called the DARPA Grand Challenge. At that time, this was back in 2004, DARPA put up a million-dollar prize and challenged anybody from anywhere to come and drive cars for 140 miles through the desert, which was revolutionary. Because, at that time, the only robotics were Mars rovers and some limited demonstrations. So, going 140 miles autonomously was just revolutionary. And it just galvanized and inspired an array of innovators. And we saw the fact that a ton of innovation came from that, a ton of new companies came from that, what some estimate to be a trillion-dollar industry has emerged from that. And all of the leaders have some roots in some way with the DARPA Grand Challenge. So, you may be asking yourself why a successor? Why did we think of doing the Indy Autonomous Challenge? Well, it was actually, specifically, a seed planted in our mind by the team leader who won the DARPA Grand Challenge. His name is Sebastian Thrun. He led Stanford’s team to win the prize. It was completed in 2005. And we hosted him at the 2018 Indy 500. And he turned to us and said, “Look, the DARPA Grand Challenge was revolutionary, it inspired my department, my students, my industry, and everything like that. We need a successor to the DARPA Grand Challenge, and you guys should do it here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.” And when somebody like Sebastian says that, not only did he win the DARPA Grand Challenge, but you got to remember Sebastian went on to co-found Google X with Larry Page. He went on to found Kitty Hawk. He went on to found Udacity. I mean, this guy knows his stuff. And if he’s saying this to us, it’s like, “Well, we gotta run with it.” So, that really started our journey.
Ed Bernardon: Now, if you’re doing something with racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, like we’re saying, is the racing capital of the world. How’d Speedway and Indianapolis get involved in all this?
Matt Peak: Well, it was actually a relationship. We at ESN have worked with and known IMS for a very long time, and have a very nice and healthy relationship with them. The way that we were actually connected to Sebastian was the President and CEO of IMS at the time in early 2018, Mark Miles, was speaking at Stanford University. And in the Q&A portion, they’re the ones that planted the seed in their mind. And what they planted in their mind, if I recall correctly, was to simply doing a demonstration of high-speed autonomous vehicles. So, nothing like we’re doing but there was somebody – people in the audience from what I understand – that said that. And as a next step, they connected Mark to Sebastian. The reason why this resonated with Mark and the reason why we’re working with IMS on this is because it’s very true to the whole history of IMS. If you go onto our website, indyautonomouschallenge.com, you can look at a timeline of innovation that took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and things that resulted from it that led to marketable improvements to the way that we get around on the road today. And this goes back over 100 years. So, to be pursuing the next generation of safety-enhancing technologies oriented around autonomy is just so true to IMS’s history and heritage. And we feel very fortunate to be a part of it now.
Ed Bernardon: I think one of the first things that they did at the speedway, I think the first winner in 1911 was the first to use a rearview mirror. So, we’re going from rearview mirrors, now all the way to some of the most advanced autonomous cars. And I think there’s a long string, both at the speedway and other places. So, that sounds exciting, what makes things even more exciting is the prize money. The Speedway is known for their big purses at the end of the race. And I think that’s something you have here. What’s the winner get? What’s the winner of the final race get?
Matt Peak: So, throughout the competition, we are awarding close to $1.5 million in prize money and $1.3 of that goes for the final race. And as the rules are currently drafted, first place gets a million dollar prize, second place gets $250,000, and third place gets $50,000. And so this is a big sexy prize purse.
Ed Bernardon: Oh, my goodness, for universities? Absolutely.
Matt Peak: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And so you say a million dollars, that has some buzz to it. But it’s also true to the heritage of prize competitions in general, but specifically DARPA. DARPA was a million dollar prize when it was first announced in 2004. And so we wanted to follow that heritage.
Ed Bernardon: At least as much as what they were given away in 2004. Now, for those that may not be familiar, DARPA was a government agency that was trying to really push the technology well over almost 15 years ago now, over 15 years ago, 2004. If you look at the DARPA challenge cars, they were SUVs full of computers. And now things have come a long way. What used to take an SUV to hold all the computers to do perception and control on an autonomous car, now fits into a sleek indy-style car, I guess.
Matt Peak: You’re exactly right, Ed. And you know what? You highlight something that should be brought about. I’ve been busy emphasizing the similarities and parallels between us and DARPA, but there’s also some real clear distinctions. So, like you said, in DARPA, anybody that was entering, had to bring their own vehicle. So, you saw an array of everything from Hummers to ATVs to motorcycles. And all of the hardware was built and innovated by the individuals and the teams that signed up for this. So, just radical innovation that took place. Now, juxtapose that to our competition, where every single team is using the exact same vehicle, same chassis, same sensor, same tires, even saying tuning. And so why did we take this approach? Well, if you look at the state of hardware these days, it’s really mature. Asking teams to not only bite off the apple of programming cars to go 150 miles per hour head-to-head at IMS but then also create all of the sensors that go along with it, it just seemed like not the most appropriate direction to focus our innovation. But software is urgently needed, software that can not only control these cars but we think will have applicability to passenger vehicles in speeding up the deployment of safety-enhancing technologies in vehicles.
Matt Peak: Another key distinction just to highlight between us and DARPA was our competition is exclusive to collegiate institutions. We took this approach for two reasons. One is basically in doing our due diligence on the prize competition, we saw that while DARPA didn’t say “Only universities,” it was really the universities that showed up with pre-established teams, pre-established laboratories, and intellectual base to do this. And so when we thought of “Well, what was the most effective path to innovation?” It just seemed like this was an existing ecosystem that we could tap into. The other thing is that this prize money comes from the Lilly Endowment, who we’re very grateful to have their support. They’re our primary sponsor. They are a nonprofit foundation. And so supporting academic innovation is very much aligned with their core mission. So, it’s for those two reasons that we kind of veered off the path of DARPA and said, “This is just for colleges around the world.”
Ed Bernardon: So, tell us a little bit about the teams. They’re from all over the world, some of the top universities. How many teams are there? Where are they from?
Matt Peak: We set a very ambitious goal at the beginning of our recruitment phase, which is close to two years ago. We said, “We’re going to go for 40 universities, and we’re going to go for teams from around the world.” And to be honest, when we set goals, I go for them. But this was such a stretch goal, like, international attraction of teams in a four month recruitment window and getting 40 of them. Well, we got 43. I don’t want to mislead you with the statistics, but I mean, it’s like from most of the continents and more than a dozen countries. Now, where we’re at today is we’re in the final stages of this, and the design of the rules was meant to whittle down teams by having a series of rounds that progressively challenged them in various ways. And this would be kind of a weeding mechanism so that by the time we actually got to the track, it was really only those teams that are most committed, most talented, most serious, most able to run these cars at the speeds that we’re asking them to.
Ed Bernardon: So you start with 41, how many have made it through to the end, to this final phase?
Matt Peak: I think it was 43 at the beginning. And where we’re at right now is we have nine that are going to be out on the track on October 23rd. The teams are from Purdue University, in conjunction and partnership with West Point – the military academy; Auburn University; The Technical University of Munich (TUM); KAIST – the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; PoliMOVE, which is a group of collaboration of universities in Italy. It’s a team called Euro Racing, which is a collaboration of universities. I’ll have to get back to you on the specifics of the details, but I believe that it’s like Italy, Switzerland, Poland, and one other country. We also have the University of Virginia, who’s in this. We have a collaboration between MIT and University of Pittsburgh. We have University of Hawaii. I think that that rounds out our base of competition. All really serious, incredible, committed contenders.
Ed Bernardon: Definitely. You got Asia, you got Europe, you got a lot of universities from the USA. I actually went to Purdue, so good luck to the Boilermakers. I hope that they come out. The West Point is helping them. Now, the Italian teams are from the same country where the car is manufactured; are they getting any help from the car manufacturer?
Matt Peak: They don’t get help. We do a lot to keep this playing field level. That said, they had a relationship with Delora in Italy even before our competition started. So, maybe they came into this a little bit more familiar with our chassis than others. I would also say that the Italians are feeling a lot of pride in their teams. And I think that that’s kind of represented in Delora, and they’re agnostic as to who wins. But it’s exciting to see such an Italian presence. And from what we understand, there’s going to be a huge Italian media turnout come October 23rd. So, yeah, there’s a bit of an edge that they have there, but our playing field is level.
Ed Bernardon: I’m sure they’d love to see an Italian car with Italian software come across first that checker flag. When did the students actually start working on it? Because they’ve probably been working on it for a while, I would imagine they’ve gone through this year of COVID, where it was hard to get together, probably hard to get together around a race car. How are they able over the past year or so to actually pull all this together with everything that’s been happening?
Matt Peak: It was incredible. These students, academics, professors, teams have gone so far above and beyond what we’ve challenged them to do. COVID was a curveball. Now, remember, our recruitment window started. We announced at the SEMA show in November of 2019. It was a four month recruitment window. So, that put us on February 28th, by which all teams that were a part of the competition had to commit. Now what was going on on February 28th, 2020? It was like the day before all heck broke loose around the world. So, here are these teams, they’ve already oriented their minds, their budgets, their 18-month commitment windows around this competition. And we’re dealing with COVID, pre-vaccine, everything like that. Well, fortunately, our competition was structured in a way where the rounds didn’t require as much getting together as they do now. So, the early stages of the competition, we’re just doing a technical paper here, a video there. But then we had a really big phase that lasted for a year focused on simulation. So, our exclusive simulation sponsor was ANSYS. And they developed a proprietary model of IMS’s track and our exact car for teams to develop their software and then compete virtually in this environment. And so that did so much for preparing the students. And it was actually just coincidental but serendipitous that it took place during COVID. Because they were working from around the world, they were submitting code from around the world.
Matt Peak: The teams started showing up around May of this year, which is when we started having vehicles come off the production line because of all of the technical issues and supply challenges that the world is facing. The production of our vehicles was actually delayed by quite a bit. The engineering of the vehicle, the production of the vehicle – it was a real challenge behind the scenes to pull all of this together given the state of the world. So, the team started off collaborating around vehicles, what limited number of vehicles that we had before they had their own. They were working with each other. They were identifying what common tasks, what common objectives were applicable to all. And they were working together. So, here’s another thing that we didn’t ask them to do in the original ruleset, but the reality is played out in this way, and they adapted to it, and they thrived in it. And now here we are, just three weeks away from the final competition, every team has their car, every team is out there pretty much every day at our sister racetrack, Lucas Oil Raceway, which is just up the road from IMS. And we got more IMS practice days coming up. But everybody’s looking great right now.
Ed Bernardon: The other thing too, like you said, is the car itself is the same for everyone. So, it was really in some ways a software competition, software that was going to be controlling the car. And if simulation can be used, then you can develop software. I mean, a lot of software companies are developing software remotely. So, in some ways, you were lucky in that sense. Because they knew that once they got their software in the car, it was probably going to work if the simulation showed that it could. Well, let’s talk about the car itself. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we think of Indy cars. And of course, Indy cars can approach 240 miles per hour, but this isn’t actually the full-fledged Indy car. It’s based on the Indy Lights car, which is one class below. Tell us a little bit about the difference between an Indy car and Indy Lights car, and how fast they can go? What’s the nature of the actual foundation for the racer?
Matt Peak: So, we knew a competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to really orient everybody including spectators and race fanatics, people that aren’t in the world of autonomy, we had to be true to the tradition of IMS. What do people think of when they think of IMS? They think of big, fast open-wheel race cars at the Indy 500. Well, those particular cars are exorbitantly expensive.
Ed Bernardon: What does an Indy car cost? A full-fledged IndyCar, roughly? So people can get an idea.
Matt Peak: I don’t even know if I’m allowed to disclose that but it’s in the magnitude of I want to say something like 50 times the cost of our car.
Ed Bernardon: Soon we’re going to learn what the cost of yours is but we’ll keep that 50 in mind here for a few seconds
Matt Peak: Yeah. And I might be exaggerating a little bit. I mean, the IndyCar chassis is probably about 50 times but our car has so much engineering that goes into it. So, when we discovered the price hurdle and just recognizing who our target competitor list is – universities – we thought we can’t do this around the IndyCar because this is just going to bankrupt everybody. So, fortunately, in addition to having a good relationship with IMS, we also have a fantastic relationship with Delora. And so we work with them and identify the Indy Lights car, which is, you mentioned, its moniker was the IL-15, which stood for Indy Lights 2015. We’ve since updated our moniker to be the AV-21 because so much engineering went into the car. As you can guess, AV-21 stands for Autonomous Vehicle and 2021 was our production year. But it was a very natural fit. This fits within our price point. It hits speeds that are fast and sexy. The cockpit was just big enough for our team to cram all of the engineering into it. It was a feat of engineering but they did it, and now we have a functional racing autonomous car.
Ed Bernardon: What’s the top speed of an Indy Lights car?
Matt Peak: So, Indy Lights – we have a different power train than Indy lights. So, we have a lot of modifications. I mean, the chassis are 95% the same, 90% the same. But a lot of other things, and the components are all pretty much identical to an IL-15 and Indy Lights car. But we actually had our engines purpose-built by a local Indianapolis company called 4 Piston Racing, who has a reputation for just doing astounding engineering. They take base engines built by one of the major OEMs, and just basically tear out all of the internals and put in really hefty, beefy internals that are capable of withstanding very high levels of pressure from the turbochargers. And so our car is a four-cylinder. But if I recall correctly, we’re putting out somewhere in the neighborhood, 390 horsepower in this small little four-cylinder engine. And our cars are projected to top out at about 185 miles per hour.
Ed Bernardon: And an Indy Lights is is much higher than the 390?
Matt Peak: I don’t know if it’s much higher. It’s built by a different manufacturer. And again, there are two factors that caused us to deviate from the traditional one. One was the price – again, magnitudes different price. The second one was just the recognition that our teams are from around the world, and we want them to have a vehicle that can be serviced from anywhere around the world. The Indy Lights power train can only be serviced by the manufacturer. It has to be sent back to England for servicing. And our engine can be taken to pretty much any oil-change shop and just have its oil changed and tuning. And anybody can use it from around the world.
Ed Bernardon: There’s no tinkering, though, with the engine. No one’s going to be doing a little bit of extra, you know, bump up the horsepower five or 10. You’re going to be checking for that?
Matt Peak: Well, we know for sure that that’s not taken place during our competition, because all of the team’s vehicles are stored, serviced, transported in the care and possession of our race team partner, which is Hunkos Racing. And so nobody’s modifying those cars. But after the competition, who knows? We might see cars with beefed up power trains and all these other funky add-ons, hydraulic suspension, and La Cucaracha horns, and whatever.
Ed Bernardon: Extra points if you got a Cucaracha horn on your car. So, you’ve converted the IL-15 to Indy Lights 15 into an AV-21 (Autonomous Vehicle 21), you state the most advanced autonomous car ever built. What is it about the AV-21 that makes it the most advanced autonomous car ever built?
Matt Peak: And we state that with conviction, because it’s not just what went into the car, but it was a process. So, as I mentioned, this car was built for humans. This car was built for small, lightweight humans. And our engineering partner was Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research. They have their signature Deep Orange program. And they were in their 12th year. So, Deep Orange 12, their task was to engineer all of the systems that went into our car. So, why is our car the most advanced? Well, first off, we got everything into that cockpit. And we did so in a way that maintained the integrity of the car, the chassis, the handling, and the dynamics of it. Adding all of that weight to adding all of that componentry, to have it not affect the aerodynamics, to have it not affect the handling of the car. That’s a compliment to Clemson and the team that they had putting this together.
Matt Peak: We also know that our components, what’s on that car, are the very best. We made no sacrifices for any of our components. We have our high speed race computers built by ADLINK. We have our drive by wire systems built by Shea Fleur. We have Luminar providing the LIDAR systems. We have Aptiv providing the radar systems. And then of course, Cisco is our presenting sponsor and our exclusive vehicle communication sponsor providing that essential component of allowing us to talk with our cars and have them receive commands from us. There’s no components out there in the industry that are better than these. And if you think about it, we had to go for the best and we couldn’t make compromises because there’s no top speed limit. So, they could, theoretically, max out at 185. We can’t have a component give out at that speed. We had to have confidence in our components.
Ed Bernardon: Tell us a little bit about the sensor suite. So, you mentioned LIDAR, you mentioned radar, you mentioned cameras. How many cameras, how many radars, LIDARs, where are they located? What’s the nature of the sensors that you need to go at that speed?
Matt Peak: Our goal was to create an array of sensors that were representative to industry. Everything that we do, we wanted this to be representative to what is experienced in the passenger vehicle world. And we did this because we want our innovation to make its way to the passenger vehicle world. These students that are a part of our competition are the future leaders of the auto industry. And so we wanted to make sure that they are getting good bang for their buck and working with components that are what they’re going to experience when they go to work for autonomous vehicle makers and lead those companies into the future. So, what we have is an array of six cameras. We have three LIDAR, we have radar, and I’ve lost count but I believe that we have three or five radar units around the vehicle. Cisco’s vehicle to infrastructure system, there’s one – it’s the rabbit ears that sits on top of the cars if you’ve seen photos of them. And so yeah, there’s a good number of these things. But all of them are what the industry is using to develop autonomous passenger cars.
Ed Bernardon: What’s the cost of an AV-21?
Matt Peak: I can give you an answer, but I can also say that there’s a huge margin of error. So, we know that our all in cost. This vehicle as a project has a value of $1.2 million dollars. Now, that number does not take into account any time that Clemson unallocated to engineer that car. And in a normal commercial setting, you want to amortize the hours that a team of 40 students and multiple faculty members spent over the course of 18 months. We would amortize that across our vehicles that we’ve built. We didn’t assign them because the nature of our relationship with Clemson, we didn’t have to amortize those dollars. But calculate the hourly rate of these top automotive engineers, 40 of them close to two years, a year and a half, engineering this car. It’s an expensive car. There’s a lot that goes in there. But I would also say, while the cost of the car, just hardware, not including the engineering, we project around 1.2 million. We’ve also subsidized our race team’s purchase of the vehicle. Again, we’re very grateful for the sponsors that have shown up. Lilly Endowment provided a generous gift to us but as did many of our sponsors, and that allowed us to provide inclined support to our race teams to get the price point down for them to a level that fit within their budgets.
Ed Bernardon: So, it’s a labor of love for the students. I’m sure they’re excited about it. Never thought one minute about all the hours they’re putting in because it had to be a lot. But they did have to raise some money. How much do they actually have to raise? And I think it was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that had to be raised to actually get a car. How do they go about doing that? I mean, I bet that was a surprise, like, “Oh my god, where are we going to get the money to do that?”
Matt Peak: We commend them but it wasn’t so much a surprise. Another reason why universities could be beneficial as we sought to just recruit them was their alumni, their existing corporate connections, departmental budgets., There’s a variety of things that they could tap into. But university brands themselves are incredibly powerful for marketing purposes; going out there to alumni or state support or others. That said, I mean, look, like I mentioned, this took place during COVID. And these teams entering when they registered, being bullish and having big marketing plans and corporate outreach, there are several examples that we have of teams having sponsorship money contributed that was yanked away as the uncertainty of COVID started unfolding. So, they deserve just a tremendous amount of credit for their persistence, their resourcefulness in finding ways to raise several six figures that they needed, not just for the vehicles, but to support their operations in Indianapolis for five months.
Ed Bernardon: And roughly how much did they have to raise?
Matt Peak: Well, we don’t prescribe for them what they have to raise —
Ed Bernardon: So, it’s up to them.
Matt Peak: Yeah, it’s just, work within your budgets. We do know that some teams are spending more than others. I mean, some teams are full time, larger team members, a greater number of team members on a given team. So, the budgets vary.
Ed Bernardon: Well, if they have to raise money, or if at least some of them have to raise money in the six figures, they’re learning more than just how to program an autonomous car. They are probably getting a little bit of useful business experience that will come in handy in the future when they look for funding for projects.
Matt Peak: That was a thought that went through our minds. And it was represented in the team’s construction. So, there were several teams that actually involved like their MBA students to do that business side of things: the fundraising, the budget allocation. But definitely, I mean, this challenge is oriented around high speed automation, but so much went into it that also construes the challenge.
Ed Bernardon: You mentioned earlier, the use of simulation. And again, you went from over 40 teams now down to these nine. And there was a competition earlier this year where they actually had a simulated race. I would imagine that simulation was part of the whittling down. If you can’t get your car to function in a simulation, there’s no use trying to do it with real hardware because that’s when you’re going to be — It’s much more costly to make a mistake in real hardware. What were some of the things that you saw in the teams that didn’t make it? Or maybe put it in a positive way: What were the teams that did make it able to do that the ones that couldn’t do?
Matt Peak: Just to start off Ed, I think that you nailed it in terms of what our objective for the simulation was. I mean, it was a very cost-effective way for us to help the teams advance their development of software without saying on day one, “You gotta go out there with a $1.2 million vehicle and have a drive around.” So, they had a lot of freedom to experiment. And the teams that really thrived, it’s hard to state what the differentiator was for those teams that really thrived in simulation versus those teams that didn’t. But what we saw is a freedom to experiment in the world of simulation.
Matt Peak: So, trying out different strategies, different maneuvers, different things like that. And we also just saw time invested. We know that those teams that really competed well just put in the hours, just put in the commitment to do this. And I’m not just talking about like coding their software. We had a whole year of programmatics where ANSYS worked with us. We had weekly meetings, sometimes multiple meetings per week, where teams would come to the table with questions, with this, with that, talking through issues with ANSYS, getting things straightened out. And those teams that routinely showed up for that, routinely invested the hours, those are really the teams that thrived. And I think that, again, going back to the point that you made about there’s elements of this competition that are more broadly applicable, it’s like, you can see that in these sorts of things as well. I can state with confidence that we’re dealing with the future auto industry leaders because of that work ethic that we saw. It’s not just their talent, but it’s like they will invest the hours, they will invest the time, they want to win. And that will transcend to the professional world.
Ed Bernardon: I would imagine though, in order to, say, qualify or graduate to the level where you’re going to be putting your software into a $1.2 million platform that’s going to be racing at potentially 150 or more miles per hour, there must have been some criteria, I would imagine, that you’d have to say, “Well, you have to at least accomplish this in simulation.” What was that criteria?
Matt Peak: You’re exactly right. Our rules – so, the simulation round was Round Three and teams had to cross over a minimum threshold of performance and simulation. And it wasn’t anywhere near what it took to win, but it was something that we worked very hard to identify what is that minimum threshold that says, “Okay, if you’re able to do this in the simulated environment, we can trust you out there on the track with a $1.2 million vehicle.” And so there was a weeding-out process. There were some teams that just didn’t submit functional code.
Ed Bernardon: Code didn’t work at all, just didn’t function?
Matt Peak: Yeah, there were some teams that just weren’t able to complete that minimum threshold as prescribed: the laps, and the speeds, and the maneuvers,. So, once teams crossed that, we considered them graduated to the round when they’d be on the track.
Ed Bernardon: So, was it something like your car by itself on the track has to be able to go around the track at X speed. And then we’ll put a couple of cars out there with you, you got to be able to maneuver and not crash. Was it things like that?
Matt Peak: I’d love to be more specific but I don’t have the rules in front of me. And this was five months ago. And given how much is going on right now, I can’t remember what happened last week. But you’re exactly right, it was something around some minimum performance in terms of speed, safety, not crashing, not causing others to crash – things like that.
Ed Bernardon: Now, when the nine teams come to the track, is there going to be some further qualification like, step one, go lap the track on your own; put you out there with two cars. Or are you gonna just put all nine out there at the same time and wave the green flag? How’s that going to work?
Matt Peak: So, teams have been on the track practicing both at Lucas Oil Raceway and at IMS for the past several months. And so they’ve had time to familiarize their solo car operations, but they’re also getting into the stage now where they’re out there with each other, running cars against each other to familiarize themselves. So, we’re confident that when we get to that final race, it’s not going to be the first time that they’ve ever been on the track with each other. That said, we do have a qualifying round. So, we’re technically in Round Four, which is qualifying the two days immediately before our final race on October 23rd. Teams have all day at IMS to run as many qualifying attempts as they wish, which are simply solo vehicle laps oriented around time with the best times determining the starting position for the final race. So, that’s the final qualifying. If you aren’t crossing that threshold, then you haven’t made it to the final round that takes place on the 23rd.
Ed Bernardon: Similar to the Indianapolis 500 or any IndyCar race; you get out there by yourself, you lap the track, and whoever’s fastest gets to be in the front. So, the first time then that the cars will be all together, truly racing, wheel-to-wheel, will be when they are out there for the race.
Matt Peak: They can voluntarily go out there on their own if they want to. But what we’re seeing right now is that they’re practicing maneuvers, just two of them out there at a time.
Ed Bernardon: Open wheel cars can be a little dicey sometimes; as soon as those wheels touch, cars tend to do funny things like launch into the air and all that. So, it’s not like NASCAR where you’re just going to bump and you’ve dent the car and you keep going. So, they must be putting some extra coding in there to make sure you at least keep a quarter of an inch between the tires, I would imagine.
Matt Peak: Well, that’s going to be the fun of watching the final race. It’s like, what are their risk tolerances? What are their risk thresholds? How aggressive is their racing line? How aggressive are their passing maneuvers? These are all within race rules. I mean, like you said, we’re following the tradition of racing. It’s really going to be up to the teams themselves to program their car, not just to behave in a way when encountering other cars, but also to respond when being encountered by other cars. If a team is coming up to them aggressively and if they don’t have the same risk profile as that team, then making sure that their car is coded to allow that buffer that the other team is going to put in there. And that’s that dynamic that is introduced by doing something with multiple vehicles.
Ed Bernardon: And I think you’ve touched on something that really distinguishes what these students are trying to do versus, say, a car on a city street. You say the most advanced autonomous car in the world. Well, first of all, of course, there’s the high speed. And as soon as you add high speed, that means you got to do things faster and all that. But when it comes to racing, there’s also a lot of strategy that occurs, that builds up over laps. Like you might follow a racer that you want to pass and you watch how they take a turn or what they do, and you say, “Ah! He’s taking that a little light. On the next turn, I’m going to jut in on the inside.” That goes over and beyond, say, “Oh, there’s a bouncing ball in the road, I better be careful, a child might come out.” That’s much simpler than what goes through the mind of a racecar driver. People don’t appreciate that, they see the cars going around in a circle. But it’s a chess game and there’s a lot of thinking going on. I imagine that is one of the challenges is over and above what people have tried to do with autonomous cars before.
Matt Peak: Exactly, and it’s deliberate. And the reason why is because in a prize competition, you really want to push the envelope. You don’t want it to be easy to win a million dollars. You want something new to be bought, per se, for your million dollar prize. And what we’re buying is that confidence that software created to maneuver amongst vehicles at 180 miles per hour is going to be well-suited for a passenger vehicle that encounters that hypothetical ball bouncing onto the street that you had just mentioned. It’s about safety, it’s about obstacle avoidance in a very dynamic setting. And we’re just setting it in a very extreme way. But what that means is that we have greater confidence and hopefully faster to market for these technologies and passenger vehicles.
Ed Bernardon: So, have you always been interested in cars? Do you consider yourself a car guy from when you were a little boy?
Matt Peak: I was. I have numerous baby photos of me toddling around with keys. And by the time I was two or three years old sitting on my grandpa’s lap as he drove the car and me controlling the steering wheel. I’ve always loved and been obsessed with cars. And so it’s such a thrill coming from that sort of background where I was oriented around wheels, I had subscriptions to Road and Track, and Car and Driver, and you name it – all of the hotrod magazines and everything like that. And now to be working with Bridgestone Tires, Delora, The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Valvoline, you name it. It’s just like all of these great traditional automotive innovators coming together with this new wave of automation. If you come from that background of just loving cars, it’s just so cool to be a part of something that’s new like this.
Ed Bernardon: Now, your education was more in the area of economics and environmental policy. You didn’t run into Detroit and started designing cars. You started to focus on that side of things. So, how did that all come about?
Matt Peak: Yeah, I’m kind of a jack of all trades. If you look at my career, there’s been several core focal areas: strategy, finance, startups, entrepreneurship, and then always around like transportation and clean energy technologies. My nature is just to put my mind to what is the most effective way to achieve an audacious goal, whether that’s starting a new company, raising an amount of funding, recruiting 40 universities from around the world for a prize competition, that taps into just multiple aspects of a skill set. And I think that that’s what I love and have been grateful for about my work, not just in my role at ESN now wearing a bunch of different hats, but I’ve done everything in my career, like you said, from working with legislators to pass policy, to serving as the de facto CFO for a startup company, to working with technologists on new technologies, building out a manufacturing facility. Kind of jack of all trades here.
Ed Bernardon: Well, you’re an ESN (Energy Systems Network) Managing Director. And they’re actually one of the lead organizations in the Indy Autonomous Challenge. What is ESN? What’s ESN do?
Matt Peak: We’re an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that works very closely with industry to discover and commercialize new transportation and energy technologies. And we’ve been around for about 12 years. Historically, we’ve worked very closely with our board members, which are really impressive groups of companies from primarily the Midwest but but also elsewhere. It’s like on our board is Cummins Engine, and Purdue University, Duke Energy, Itochu Corporation. And all of these companies come to our table because we provide this agnostic playground for identifying and then pushing forward with innovation pathways for technologies that could be relevant to the commercial world. And it’s really fun, because you’re working with them on things that are future visionary, experimental. But they’re coming to the table with an eye towards the future. And so with everything that we tee up with our industry partners, we’re always looking for, not just what’s on the bleeding edge, but what’s a pathway to getting to the market. And I lead our transportation initiatives and I’ve been fortunate to work with a bunch of these parties. And then my colleague, Tim, at ESN, who’s a genius leads all of our energy projects.
Ed Bernardon: What are some specific examples of projects you’re doing in the transportation area?
Matt Peak: Well, one that I’m particularly proud of is an initiative that we have underway with the Toyota Mobility Foundation. And this is actually going concurrent to the Indy Autonomous Challenge. So, Toyota Mobility Foundation is the philanthropic foundation associated with Toyota Motor Corporation funded by Toyota Motor Corporation but with the explicit mandate to pursue mobility enhancing strategies and technologies wherever they might be found. So, not just looking at automobiles, but looking across the whole spectrum as to what are the ways in which we can better get people from A to B. And ESN has a partnership with Toyota Mobility Foundation, focused on that specific objective in the context of Indiana. So, we’ve been working with them for about two years now. And it’s a process of technology, innovation using our networks and knowledge about what’s emerging in the mobility and transportation space. But then our also intimate familiarity with local stakeholders and engaging them in a way that solicits their thoughts on what they need, what challenges they’re facing, what solutions could be expected with a new technology, or a new solution, or a new something like that. And so it’s a lot of fun because it’s rewarding. You’re working with the local community to identify bleeding edge technologies or even established technologies that can simply enhance the way that people get around.
Matt Peak: Our first project with Toyota is an autonomous vehicle shuttle service, that’s a year-long demonstration in two different contexts; one of which is Downtown Indianapolis that seeks to connect transit with an academic campus; and then the other one to compliment that is in suburban fishers just outside of Indianapolis in a decidedly suburban but very tech-friendly great community. It’s great to see the application of autonomous technologies to the service of actually moving people, connecting them to transit, connecting them to shopping centers. We’re also in the process of launching a contactless delivery pilot. So, we’re working with the Indianapolis Public Library and a couple of others on this technology developed by a company called [ inaudible], that is integrated into Toyota Sienna minivans, that facilitates the delivery of products, goods, services,, contactless, which is super relevant to this COVID era in which we’re living. And we love the fact that we’re bringing to the table a diversity of delivery applications right- I mean, library books. And we’re seeking to do this in a way that also accomplishes some bigger objectives like serving those that are underserved, that perhaps can’t get to the library as easily, disabled, what not. And so that’s a lot of fun. And then we also have a couple of other initiatives that are early-stages, that are in the works, that we hope to tee up over the next couple of quarters. But it’s a multi-year relationship with Toyota.
Ed Bernardon: You mentioned multimodal transportation, public transportation shuttles. I think you’ve done some work with small electric vehicles, things like that. What do you see as the different types of modes of transportation are going to have to work together? It’s more than just cars. What do you see as this landscape of multimodal transportation unfolds?
Matt Peak: It’s a really exciting time, Ed. We wrote a publication two years ago that put forth the notion that we have either arrived or on the precipice of arriving in a transportation landscape where people can plausibly get from A to B as easily as they do with their personal vehicles if not easier, and as cheaply if not cheaper than their personal vehicles. And this is done by the emergence of an array of transportation modes. Whether it’s private cars or car sharing, ride hailing services,. But a variety of public transit options as well, not just full sized buses, micro transit, transit on-demand, all the way down, like you said, to micro mobility options. I mean, look at the array of innovation that’s taking place there for micro mobility. And all these are also being enhanced, their interconnectedness is being enhanced by the emergence of new digital innovation. So, software services, applications, whatnot, that link these modes. And that’s where the real potential lies.
Ed Bernardon: How do you see what you’re doing at the Indy Autonomous Challenge contributing to some of the things you were just talking about that are in our cities? How’s it going to help that? I mean, we talked at the beginning about the rearview mirror, and now autonomy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What do you think might be some of the first things that come out of what you’re doing with the Indy Autonomous Challenge that are going to help make the next steps in our transportation future possible? Or maybe arrive a little sooner?
Matt Peak: I guess two thoughts come to my mind. First of which is the direct association of autonomous vehicle technologies with what could take place in private transportation, public transportation,. Our service for autonomous vehicle shuttles that I’ve just mentioned doing with Toyota is operated by an awesome company called May Mobility, a great innovator who has a large number of projects around the nation. But there are still safety drivers behind the wheel of these vehicles as there are everywhere. And to be fair, often, this is mandated by state level regulations. But there’s a real role for the Indy Autonomous Challenge to advance the development of software such that regulators, passengers, everybody can trust the vehicle, ferrying passengers from transit stops to campuses without any backup drivers. And that will dramatically lower the cost of transportation, perhaps, then enable those people funding transportation to put more vehicles on the road.
Matt Peak: So, that’s one thought that comes to my mind. But another one is that bear in mind that the Indy Autonomous Challenge – the goal was to put forth this landscape where the top talent that’s emerging around transportation can come and just advance their intellect, advance their knowledge. And the great thing about prize competitions is that some things you can either project or predict that might emerge from it. But there’s also a lot of things that get created that are going to have a life of their own. I mean, do I envision that our students that are a part of the competition are going to be automotive industry leaders in the future? Absolutely. But I also would not be surprised if a good number of them went off and invented a whole new technology that enabled people to get around better, perhaps have little overlap with the Indy Autonomous Challenge. But it was the skills that they developed while pursuing the Indy Autonomous Challenge that then transferred to their pursuit of innovation or development of a new mode or something like that. And so I think that I’m going to be looking for that; tracking all of our cohort of teams and students, and just seeing what cool things they think of, because I have no doubt that they’re going to be thinking of cool things.
Ed Bernardon: And that’s a great point, too. You say there are 40 plus teams, but each team, it’s not a one man team, there’s tens of people, if not more on, each of those teams. So, you’re bringing hundreds of people to now focus on — Would they have focused on automotive technology or transportation technology if it weren’t for this? Maybe, maybe not. But just bringing that kind of talent in the hundreds to help focus on this problem is probably reason enough to do it in the first place. But I think why Lilly Endowment, you were saying earlier, is interested in having university teams rather than commercial people work on this. So, you create that desire to solve this type of problem. I do want to ask you. You mentioned earlier, Cisco and connected vehicle technology. what role car-to-car, car-to-pole, there’s all sorts of different types of vehicle-to-infrastructure technology. Maybe you could explain what type of technology we’re really talking about here. And what’s it actually going to do to help these cars when they’re racing?
Matt Peak: Again, we wanted this to be as representative of what they’re going to experience in the past, in real world. So, we didn’t want to implement technologies, although viable, but not common yet. We wanted to implement technologies that we’re going to be seeing in the real world and in other automotive markets and whatnot. And so what the Cisco technology allows us to do is collect process control telematics: the diagnostics of the vehicle, the issuance of flag conditions to the vehicles,. So, there’s no remote control that’s permitted in the rules. Nobody’s going to be on-the-fly coding their vehicles. It’s press play and let those things run come October 23rd.
Ed Bernardon: No download of the “super fast” option in the middle of the race or anything like that, like you can do with the Tesla I suppose.
Matt Peak: Right. But what the Cisco system is invaluable in doing is affording us that interconnectedness. We would not be able to do multicar operations without them just because of the data, and the coordination, and the need for information coming from the vehicles and tracking that information coming from the vehicles. For that it’s pretty cool to watch it happen.
Ed Bernardon: Roborace has been looking at trying to raise the autonomous cars now for a while. How is this different than Roborace? And what do you think about the success that Roboraces had? How does it compare? How are they different?
Matt Peak: We love Roborace. Some of our teams are Roborace participants. We are standing on the shoulders of the work that Roborace, DARPA, everybody else has done, Formula SAE. There’s been a number of predecessors to us that have oriented bright students around advanced robotics, high speed robotics,. I can’t speak for Roborace but my understanding is that their ambition is to be a race car series. Ours is a one-off prize competition. So, we’re not competing with them. We’re not seeking to displace them. We’re complementary and our event is taking place October 23rd for a prize purse, pitting these teams against each other. We were fortunate enough to get a lot of Roborace participants – not a lot but a couple of Roborace participants – to become our team members. I would love for our team members to – after this competition is over – go and participate in Roborace. I think that it’s absolutely complementary.
Ed Bernardon: You’re like the farm club. You’re building the talent they need to program their cars even better. The goal of the Indy Autonomous Challenge is a technology demonstrator to get university students interested. Separate from Indy Autonomous Challenge, but do you think that autonomous car racing is something that people are going to want to watch? I mean, you get almost 300,000 people for the Indianapolis 500. Do you think that will ever be at a point where you might get 30 or 50 or 100,000 people watching a bunch of autonomous cars go around?
Matt Peak: I don’t know. What I do know or what I believe is that one of the things that attracts people to racing is the fact that there are humans behind the scenes. I mean, look at the affiliation. Really passionate Motorsports fans love the teams, love the drivers, follow the drivers, wear the drivers’ gear, things like that. There’s a human orientation, I think, that we as humans kind of need that, because then we can more deeply associate with it, or understand it, or appreciate it right. So, what I do know is that as we’ve sought to pursue the Indy Autonomous Challenge, we’ve always put our teams front and center. And we’ve stressed the fact that although they aren’t sitting in the vehicle like you’re commonly exposed to seeing in motor sports, it’s a 100% people-oriented affair.
Matt Peak: These were groups of hundreds of innovators working night and day to do this. And when the winning card crosses that finish line, that’s just a vehicle. It’s the teams themselves. It’s those individuals that are behind the scenes that have made that possible. And so it’s going to be interesting because we’re not out there on the 23rd, saying to the big public, “Hey, come and watch us. We’re not charging big ticket prices,”. The public can come – there’s tickets that are available on our website indyautonomouschallenge.com, but that’s not our objective. Still, I think that it’s going to be really interesting to see the resonance of this beyond just the robotics community.
Ed Bernardon: Yes, a step at a time. That’s not the main goal. But like you said, you’re looking there to create a technology demonstrator place for students to learn. And who knows where this is going to go someday, but it’s definitely a good first step. So, the race is right around the corner. It won’t be long —
Matt Peak: Don’t remind me.
Ed Bernardon: Probably got a long to-do list between now and when the race is going to come on. You mentioned that they’re practicing at Lucas Raceway. Have there been any crashes, or anything like that, or any repairs need to be done to any of the cars?
Matt Peak: Well, I mean, we repair the cars on — Like I mentioned, Hunkos Racing is our highly experienced IndyCar, Indy Lights team, and they’ve taken on the role of being our race support team. I mean, there’s maintenance that goes on a daily basis. These are precision machines. But just to give you a taste of what these guys are doing and where these guys are at. At IMS, there’s 100 mile per hour laps going around and around. And at Lucas Oil, which is a much tighter circumference oval. I mean, much tighter, it’s banked higher, it’s smaller. They were out there the other day and running 75 miles per hour laps over and over again. I would estimate it’s probably the equivalent of going like 150 or so at IMS.
Matt Peak: So, these guys are already at the level of being able to control these machines in vast environments. I’m not speaking for them, I’m speaking for me as an observer, but I think that they’re getting to the stages now where they’re really honing in on their refinements to it. right The comfort is there with the high speeds, and the speeds will be increasing and increasing. And then it’s just going to be feeling out that risk threshold that each of them wants to embrace for race day.
Ed Bernardon: In IndyCar racing, like you’re doing here, you’re racing on an oval. And on the outside of that oval is a wall. And so there’s no margin for error. If you want to go as fast as you can, you want to get as close to the wall as you can, but not too close. Have you had any crashes into the wall? Has anyone actually had a real crash? And human drivers crash all the time, I would imagine, there must be some crashes every now and then even with autonomous cars.
Matt Peak: The threat of the crash is what draws us to watch.
Ed Bernardon: Yes, exactly. I hate to say it, but it does add a little of drama, doesn’t it?
Matt Peak: Oh, don’t get me wrong. We are holding our breath and biting our nails as these cars are running around at 75, at 100 miles per hour and things could go wrong. And fortunately, we haven’t had anything major take place so far. There might be like a ding there or something there —
Ed Bernardon: But no big crashes?
Matt Peak: No big crashes and nothing to the fall of — I mean there were a couple of hardware issues that we were just kind of fine tuning at the time that a couple of very small things happened. But we expected that, that was in the nature of the development of this whole thing. I think that our teams are really good at assessing their own risk tolerance. I don’t think that they’re ignoring their feelings of risks, I think that they’re gauging it appropriately based on their familiarity with the vehicles. So, for that reason, I’m not all that surprised that we haven’t had a car into the wall yet. I think that these teams are sort of top notch, they’re not going to exceed that risk threshold.
Ed Bernardon: So, they’ve been working now for well over a year, they’re practicing at Lucas Speedway, and now they’re going to be lining up on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track. Because that’s gonna be new, that’s gonna be the first time, it’s a little bit something different – what do you think the biggest challenge is going to be for those teams that they’re going to have to overcome to make it through the race? When they all line up there and away we go, wheel-to-wheel racing, what’s the biggest challenge?
Matt Peak: I think the biggest challenge actually emerged well before race day. And what that is, I mean, through no fault of their own, they’ve experienced delays, setbacks,. As I mentioned, our supply chain issues, our engineering issues led to these vehicles’ completion date later than we had projected, later than we had thought would be the case. Then that means that these teams have had less time with the vehicle than we were originally envisioning when we designed the competition. And that’s just one example. I mean, another one is these international teams – the visa situation right now, even into and out of Europe, which many of our teams are oriented, just has been a real challenge.
Matt Peak: I mean, we had to think so creatively and work with our senator. I mean, we established a whole new program with Purdue University to get our international students in by standing up a whole new J1 visa program with them. So, I mean, they just have not had enough time, which makes me all that more impressed with things that they are going to be doing. And two, anticipate where they’re going to be at come race day. It’s just hard to tell. We’re in such a dynamic environment right now. I mean, every single day, they’re out there doing something they know that three weeks from now, they’re going to be on that starting line. And I can perceive what issues are they challenged with right now, what issues do they have under control. But because it’s so dynamic, three weeks is an eternity. So, it’s hard to speculate what they’ll be thinking.
[ Ed Bernardon: That makes it all the more exciting. You don’t know what’s going to happen. But like you said, they’ve been careful, they know what they’re doing, and it should make for an exciting race. PoliMOVE, the team from Italy, won the simulation race. Do you think they’re the favorite?
Matt Peak: We are agnostic.
Ed Bernardon: No predictions?
Matt Peak: Look. I think all of our teams are just insanely capable. I mean, PoliMOVE won the simulation race. And TUM, a German team came in second place. So, I guess the spotlights on them because of that, maybe the pressures on them because of that. But in reality, none of these guys would have made it to this round that we’re at – nine remaining teams from an original base of 43 – unless they were insanely talented. So, I honestly think that any one of them has a chance at winning. And I think that that’s also compelling for the race. If I knew right now who the winner would be, I think I’d be bored with my work.
Ed Bernardon: After the race, what’s next for Indy Autonomous Challenge? Where do you go from here?
Matt Peak: That’s a good question. Our ambition is not to be like a racing series. But we also know that these teams have invested time and money in this asset – the vehicles – and in developing software for this asset, and that they love opportunities like this. So, we have our eye on, I mean, there’s one immediate opportunity that we think will come together in a couple of months that follows the competition, which we’re not in a position to publicly announce yet. But that might be our last direct affiliation with standing up additional races. That said, the way that ESN works is we have so many partner organizations, we work with so many others that we are working to establish a life of its own for these vehicles, and for venues, and for whether it’s IMS or other racetracks around the world, there will be something that will be compelling that we work with our race teams to create beyond the competition.
Ed Bernardon: One of the most exciting things, or at least an interesting thing, that you see at the Indianapolis 500 or any Indy race is the flagger. Does the green flag, and then that crazy motion when that checkered flag is waved. Are you bringing in anybody special for that? ‘Cause a lot of times they have celebrities, and who knows who’s going to wave that checkered flag. Any big plans there?
Matt Peak: Oh, we got a celebrity, all right. I’m not permitted to publicly disclose who will be waving that starting flag and that figurative starting gun. But you need to tune in to see what we have on store for that.
Ed Bernardon: You’re sure you don’t want to announce anything special on The Future Car podcast here?
Matt Peak: No, I do want to. But my comms team would kill me if I did.
Ed Bernardon: Matt, thank you so much. I think you’ve certainly done a great job here of not only explaining the technology that’s behind this, but explaining why it should be done. And in the end, how it’s going to benefit all of us by getting the brightest minds in the world starting to work on helping get our transportation future in place. I wish you all the luck. You, all the university teams, and we look forward to seeing how the race turns out here real soon.
Matt Peak: Thank you, Ed. It was a pleasure being here and we’re very grateful for the opportunity to chat with you.
Ed Bernardon: To wrap up, we always end up with our rapid fire section. I’m going to ask you a series of questions where you give me a real quick answer. What was the first car you ever bought or owned?
Matt Peak: My dad passed on his 1979 Mercedes-Benz 240D Diesel to me when I turned 16 years old. It had a whopping 62 horsepower and a zero-to-60 time of 23 seconds. So, I was hot rodding that thing around.
Ed Bernardon: Well, good thing that’s not in the race; they wouldn’t get very far. Did you pass your driver’s test on the first try?
Matt Peak: A hundred percent, my friend, on my 16th birthday.
Ed Bernardon: You must love to drive fast if you’re associated with racing.
Matt Peak: I have a need for speed.
Ed Bernardon: Ever gotten a speeding ticket?
Matt Peak: I have. I do have some speeding tickets. Fortunately, not for a while. But in my past, I accrued a couple of them.
Ed Bernardon: Tell us your best speeding ticket story.
Matt Peak: The evening before senior year of high school, a group of more than a dozen high school friends and I went over — I’m based in Silicon Valley. We went over the mountain to a beach in Santa Cruz late at night, came home after jumping in the ocean and just enjoying the last couple of glimpses of summertime. Came home, and I was driving my mom’s 1987 Buick Electra station wagon, that thing had nine seats, and it had a V8 engine, and it was fast as all hack. Got a little bit carried away in driving on the way home and got pulled over and cited for going 120 miles per hour in a 55 zone.
Ed Bernardon: In a station wagon?
Matt Peak: In a station wagon with nine people in it.
Ed Bernardon: I’d hate to even think what the mileage was on that car as it was cruising along.
Matt Peak: Gallons per mile.
Ed Bernardon: The living room on wheels. We like to talk about that on The Future Car podcast. So, in the future, autonomous car, no driving. Basically, a living room on wheels. You’re on a five-hour trip. What is in your living room on wheels?
Matt Peak: I’m kind of just a simple guy. I would just love to have a nice sound system that can play classical music and a pile of books, and I’ll be happy.
Ed Bernardon: If you could have any person join you. I know you want to be by yourself with your books. But if you could have any person join you that is living or not, anybody from the history of humanity, who would you have join you for that five-hour trip?
Matt Peak: Warren Buffett.
Ed Bernardon: What do you wish you were better at?
Matt Peak: I am so fascinated with social psychology and the shortcomings that we as humans all inherently have. I mean, their tendencies that lead to your rationality. And they all have various names that lead us. For instance, stay in bad investments too long, or get wedded to the wrong thing, or prematurely do this. And so what I love focusing on is the nature of these tendencies; what they are and what I can do as a human to recognize and account for them so that I’m not susceptible to these various misjudgments that I’m programmed to take.
Ed Bernardon: We have a time machine. I’m going to take you back in time to when you are standing next to yourself when you were 12 years old, and you’ve got 30 seconds to give some advice to Matt Peak, 12-year-old Matt Peak. What are you going to tell him?
Matt Peak: There’s advice that I’ve heard people give to others that I think is so relevant for me to give my younger self and for everybody who’s younger to think of, which is “You don’t have to have the answers to everything.” You don’t have to know what your future is going to hold. You don’t have to know your chosen pathway. You don’t have to know your major. All you have to do is experiment. You just have to get out there. So, don’t worry about “What am I going to be when I’m this year old?” And everything like that. Just take one step in front of the other, experiment, have fun, and it’s going to lead to stuff.
Ed Bernardon: If you could magically invent one thing, what would it be?
Matt Peak: I would invent the inverse of a microwave. So, something that takes like a drink and immediately makes it ice cold.
Ed Bernardon: The microwave cooler. I love it. Maybe you flip the plug and plug it back in and it’ll do that or something. I don’t know. Tell us something about yourself that would surprise your friends and family. You wouldn’t tell us about the flagger. So, this is probably even better.
Matt Peak: I’ve had the theme song to Beverly Hills Cop, “The Heat Is On” stuck in my mind for about the last 40 years.
Ed Bernardon: Can you give us a rendition of it?
Matt Peak: I’m not even joking. Glenn Frey – the heat is on. I don’t know if everybody does this, but at least for me, there’s de facto times where you clean out your thoughts or go into that Zen state. And honestly, that’s what plays in my head is that song, the beat of it, whenever I go there.
Ed Bernardon: It must inspire you and get you all pumped up.
Matt Peak: Yeah.
Ed Bernardon: All right, last question: Favorite IndyCar driver of all time?
Matt Peak: Look, I gotta say Jr. Hildebrand. And the reason why is because I love him as a driver. But he’s also been really good to us at the Indy Autonomous Challenge, which just biases the heck out of me. He was there even before there was an Indy Autonomous Challenge. He’s done work with Stanford University on automation. He just loves technology. He was part of our workshop that we organized for all of our students earlier this year before they had their vehicles just to impart knowledge of racing skills and tactics. So, I mean, again, he goes back to the very beginning.
Matt Peak: A close second has got to be Lyn St. James, because she’s the same category. I mean, the leadership role that she’s played as a woman in IndyCar was already inspirational and just made me such a fan of hers. But then along the way, along our process of doing the Indy Autonomous Challenge, she just became so intimately supportive of everything that we’re doing. She got it. She got the fact that we’re an emerging group of innovators and what this could mean for the academic community. So, those are my one-twos, I guess.
Ed Bernardon: Matt, thank you so much for joining us on The Future Car podcast. And good luck with your race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Matt Peak: It was a pleasure. Thanks, Ed.
Matt Peak – Guest Lead Lead Indy Autonomous Challenge, Managing Director Energy Systems Network (ESN)
Matt currently leads efforts to advance clean, safe, and affordable transportation technologies at Energy Systems Network (ESN). Previously, Matt provided strategic consulting services to C-level executives in the fields of connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) and infrastructure, shared mobility, smart cities, big data, advanced mobility, and clean energy technologies. While at CAVita and his own firm, Peak Strategy Partners LLC, Matt worked with the nation’s largest transportation research agency as its autonomous vehicle specialist, the world’s largest aggregator of solar fuels partners and knowledge to commercialize innovative technologies, and has also assisted numerous laboratories and startups commercialize their automotive and energy technologies.
Ed Bernardon, Vice President Strategic Automotive Initiatives – Host
Ed is currently VP Strategic Automotive Initiatives at Siemens Digital Industries Software. Responsibilities include strategic planning and business development in areas of design of autonomous/connected vehicles, lightweight automotive structures and interiors. He is also responsible for Future Car thought leadership which includes hosting the Future Car Podcast and development of cross divisional projects. Previously he was a founding member of VISTAGY that developed light-weight structure and automotive interior design software acquired by Siemens in 2011, he previously directed the Automation and Design Technology Group at MIT Draper Laboratory. Ed holds an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, B.S. in mechanical engineering from Purdue, and MBA from Butler.
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The Future Car Podcast
The tech-driven disruption of the auto industry cuts across domains, from silicon and software to sensors and AI to smart traffic management and mobility services. Get the chip- to city-scale story in regular interviews with technologists at Siemens and beyond.