2013-05-20

Co.Exist

Watch Out, Google: This 19-Year-Old Built A Cheap Self-Driving Car System

Meet Ionut Budisteanu, the precocious teen who decided he couldn’t wait for some big tech company to make autonomous vehicles available—so he invented his own.

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."

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