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7 universities that are pushing the boundaries of autonomous driving

Aerial view of MIT campus: one of driverless cars' top notch research locations. (Photo: Nick Allen - CC BY-SA 4.0)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Big companies and cutting-edge start-ups often dominate the driverless car headlines. But the rapid acceleration of the technology would not be possible without the passionate work of academics around the world. We bring you seven universities that stand out from the rest.

Selecting the universities that have the biggest impact on driverless car research – by no means an easy task. There are many institutions doing remarkable work that just barely didn’t make our list. We would like to know what you think: what universities do your miss on our list? Send us an e-mail or let us know in the comments section below the article!

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA

Carnegie Mellon University: view from Hammerschmidt Mall. (Photo: Carnegie Mellon University)

A driverless car powerhouse, Carnegie Mellon’s robotic lab has been one of the most innovative hubs for research on autonomous driving for more than 30 years. Just look at ALVINN, the self-driving car the university introduced in 1989. For many years, the lab’s faculty members have been highly sought after by an automotive industry scrambling for talents – whatever it costs. This development famously (or should we say infamously) culminated in 2015 when ride-hailing company Uber announced a partnership with the institute – and then “stole” 40 of the institute’s scientists and engineers just a few months later. While Carnegie Mellon’s lab took a hard hit, it has since recovered and today employs more people than before Uber’s swoop. Herman Herman, the new director of the lab, said a year later: “It's like they say: there's no bad publicity. There are companies and people who didn't even know we exist, but now know about us.”

Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

The Old Gate at Tsinghua University (Photo: By denn - Tsinghua, CC BY-SA 2.0)

While large U.S. universities often dominate the headlines on driverless car research, several Asian institutions are making huge progress more quietly. With China being the world’s largest potential market for driverless cars, Tsinghua University in Beijing stands among the most important players. The university’s expertise lies in the combination of automated driving and electric powertrains – which makes sense for a country that is leading when it comes to embracing electric vehicles. In 2016, Tsinghua University opened a Joint Research Center for Intelligent Mobility with Japanese carmaker Nissan. The research topics include battery safety, autonomous driving technology and future traffic systems in China.

Stanford University, USA

Stanley: The autonomous vehicle that won Stanford the DARPA Grand Challenge. (Photo: DARPA)

The close proximity to Palo Alto – you can basically walk there from the Stanford campus – surely contributes to the university’s cutting-edge work in autonomous driving research. Led by Sebastian Thrun, back then director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, the Stanford Racing Team won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge – one of the first autonomous vehicle prize competitions. Their autonomous car “Stanley” earned the university a two million U.S. dollar prize. Thrun later went on to develop Google’s self-driving car program. Just like him, countless other Stanford researchers are shaping driverless car technology around the world. Transitions between the academic and business world are especially fluent at Stanford. Andrew Ng, for instance, has been conducting research on AI, machine learning and deep learning at the college since 2002, while in parallel working for Google and later as chief scientist for Chinese search engine company Baidu.

Oxford University, England

Oxbotica developed the Lutz Pathfinder - the UK's first driverless car in 2015. (Photo: Oxbotica)

“We are not condemned to a future of congestion, accidents and time wasting. We will eventually have cars that can drive themselves, interacting safely with other road users and using roads efficiently, thus freeing up our precious time.” The mission statement of the Oxford Robotic Institute shows their ambitious autonomous driving plans – intended to strengthen their reputation as of one of the world’s leading universities. And their plans don’t stop at research: in 2014, a spin-out company called Oxbotica was launched to drive the commercialization of driverless car technology. One of their signature skills is designing autonomous software. Oxbotica has developed a self-learning system called Selenium that can theoretically be uploaded into any vehicle that is equipped with the right sensor technology. The invention is currently being trialed in prototype shuttles in the London Borough of Greenwich – as part of the GATEway initiative, a six-month experiment that is testing autonomous shuttles on a 2 km stretch shared by pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers.

University of Michigan, USA

Mcity provides a testing ground for automated driving. (Photo: University of Michigan)

Deploying automated vehicles in complex city traffic is considered to be a particularly tricky challenge. So to find out how it could be done, why not just build a model city? That is exactly what the University of Michigan did. Mcity is a 32-acre, 10-million-dollar “city” that provides a real world space to test automated mobility systems. The project doesn’t just test technological solutions; it also tries to evaluate how autonomous driving will shape urban planning. For example, could the mass deployment of shared and autonomous vehicles accelerate urban sprawl? Will it make inner cities more attractive as parking spaces are freed up for green spaces and recreation areas? The research conducted by Michigan University highlights the huge impact that driverless mobility will have on the way we live.

Seoul National University, Korea

The Museum of Art at Seoul National University. (Photo: Richard Lee - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Hosting the Olympic Games always triggers a country to show off new technology and innovations. Take Japan’s race to get self-driving vehicles on the road in time for the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020, for example. Or South Korea, whose government is planning to outpace their Japanese counterpart – and parade driverless cars at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Besides billion-dollar investments from business giants Hyundai and Samsung, Seoul National University (SNU) is also heavily pursuing the goal. In fact, they already have a vehicle on the road: an autonomous car dubbed “SNUver” that is being tested on busy city center roads in Seoul. The car, equipped with 64 LIDAR sensors, was developed by SNU’s Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center, led by Professor of Electrical Engineering Seo Seung-woo. “When I started my study on autonomous driving 10 years ago, nobody was interested at that time,” he recently told Forbes. That has certainly changed – and if he succeeds in managing the challenge of driving autonomously in city traffic, this will most certainly further spark interest in his research.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA

The Great Dome at MIT. (Photo: John Phelan - CC BY 3.0)

There is almost no academic ranking where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) doesn’t occupy one of the top places – and with driverless cars, it’s no different. The ways in which MIT influences the development of autonomous mobility are countless – and it goes beyond developing sensor technology or software. Just recently, the MIT Media Lab announced it is teaming up with Toyota to explore the use of blockchain technology for self-driving cars – an approach to enable secure data exchange in vehicles. Taking an entirely different direction, the Media Lab also created the Moral Machine, an interactive mind game with the aim of finding out how to handle the moral dilemma of driverless vehicles. It asks users to decide who should a driverless car kill, if it has to kill? Raising international awareness of one of automated driving’s most sensitive issues, it is a glowing example of what academic work can achieve.

How do you like our selection? What university do you miss in our list? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

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