Last year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair brought us the story of Jack Andraka, the first place-winning 15-year-old who created a cheap and accurate pancreatic cancer sensor. This time around, the $75,000 competition for high schoolers gave the first place prize to Ionut Budisteanu, a 19-year-old Romanian who developed a self-driving car system that costs just $4,000. Google’s self-driving 3-D radar system costs approximately $75,000.
Over the past few years, self-driving cars have gone from a novelty—something that scientists work on for competitions like the DARPA Grand Challenge—to a semi-reality. You don’t see self-driving vehicles cruising down the highway (unless you happen to catch a Google prototype), but they’re coming. Google hopes to market its system to auto manufacturers; Tesla is already in talks with the company. I’ve even had the chance to watch an Audi park itself while a driver stood nearby.
But the technology is still expensive. High-priced electric vehicle batteries have hindered the industry from growing at a faster clip; steep costs could hinder the self-driving vehicle industry as well. Budisteanu recognized the problem after taking a free online Udacity course on robotic car programming from Sebastian Thrun, one of the major forces behind Google’s self-driving car. "I wanted to make another self-driving car, but a Romanian one, made by a student," says Budisteanu. He also wanted to cut down the price.
Google’s vehicle uses an ultra-high-resolution 3-D radar —in addition to video cameras and other features—to scan the world, looking for pedestrians, traffic lanes, vehicles, and other obstacles. Budisteanu’s set-up is a bit less fancy: he uses low-resolution 3-D radar to sense large objects (i.e. trees and houses) along with three artificial intelligence-powered webcams that "see" things like curbs and traffic lanes.
Testing has gone well so far; out of 50 simulated drives, problems with the system have occurred just three times. That’s not good enough for real-world driving, but Budisteanu’s set-up is still in the early stages of development.
Budisteanu’s $75,000 will go towards his college education (he’s going to Drexel University), but he still plans on continuing his self-driving car work. The young inventor already has a contract with Renault to test the system on three of their vehicles. "If the results will be good with Renault, I would like to push a little bit," he says. "I want to make a product based on the self-driving car idea."