Minneapolis Tech Company Building Self-Driving Cars: The Best Way to Predict the Future Is Build It

Minneapolis, MN, Dec. 19, 2017 - According to Minneapolis-based VSI Labs, the best way to predict the future is to build it. And that is exactly what VSI is doing.

VSI Labs is building its own autonomous car, not to build a better self-driving car, but rather to support the companies that are. Today, VSI works with major automotive companies and suppliers worldwide to help them design and develop automated vehicle systems.

Many have heard about VSI or have seen their cars roving around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. These cars are research vehicles configured with sensors, cutting-edge software, and a trunk load of computers.

According to Phil Magney, founder and principal of VSI, “We set out to build a self-driving car using off-the-shelf components including a powerful gaming computer from Nvidia, and a portable webcam from Logitech. From here we were able to build a system that could detect lanes and automatically steer the car.” 

This, however, was only part of the solution. VSI also needed to create a system that could detect the distance to objects in front of the vehicle. Using radar, VSI developed an application to accurately measure the distance to surrounding vehicles and adjust the vehicle’s speed accordingly.

“Of course, making this work is not as simple as it sounds,” said Magney. “You need to install by-wire control systems in your vehicle and have digital actuators to apply steering or braking forces.”

This is relatively easy for engine control, considering most vehicle engines are controlled digitally. However, brakes and steering present more difficulty, as total control of these systems is required without human input.

3-Months Later

Within three months of starting the build, VSI was able to debut its automated car to the media. “We were pretty proud of the team that built this vehicle,” said Magney. “These guys are all under 25! They are really good with contemporary software skills which are crucial when it comes to automated vehicles.”

Once the word got out, suppliers of components and systems stepped up to offer solutions that could be tested on VSI’s vehicles. Polysync, Texas Instruments, Nvidia, Honeywell, NXP and HERE are among the component suppliers supporting VSI’s autonomous vehicle development.

“Companies that build components and solutions for automated vehicles are eager to get their stuff tested by VSI,” added Magney. “We offer the ability to test and configure different solutions and to validate functionality of components.” 

Nothing is Plug-and-Play

When it comes to automated vehicle systems, there is nothing that is plug-and-play. According to Magney, “Everything must be stitched together, and lots of organic coding is required to get everything working properly. Once you do get it working, there is a lot of trial and error to tune the performance. If the steering is jerky, it might be overcorrecting, so you need to adjust your control algorithms. All the while, you are recording inputs against outputs, and adjusting the parameters and the gains. Sooner or later you will get it right.” 

Handling Snow and Inclement Weather

Being in Minnesota, VSI is developing automated driving in one of the country’s toughest climates. “If you can make it work in Minnesota you can probably make it work anywhere,” quipped Magney.

VSI has begun building out a solution that the company believes will tackle winter conditions. There are a host of issues in getting autonomous systems to work amidst inclement weather. For example, automated vehicles typically rely on lane markings to control their positioning and trajectory, but this functionality is compromised if the lanes are covered with snow. To combat this, VSI is experimenting with precise localization methods that help the vehicle know exactly where it is and where it is going even if the lanes are obscured.

This is not to suggest that automated vehicles will be functioning in all weather conditions. “Even if the vehicle sensors are working, weather changes the physics of the automated vehicle and the control algorithms will need to take this into account,” Magney added.

Building an Autonomous Car

VSI is not developing self-driving cars to compete with companies that are investing billions into the space like Google, Uber, GM or Toyota. “To the contrary,” Magney stated. “Companies like these are our clients. For VSI, it’s all about how this stuff works so we can provide better advice to industry,” he said.

VSI’s automated vehicle build is fully documented. The entire process is deconstructed to identify and fill in the gaps. The contents of VSI’s work are detailed in its new service, VSI Pro – a syndicated research and advisory service that is designed to help R&D departments save time and money, and ultimately make better choices.  

About VSI Labs
VSI was established in 2014 to provide industry with deep insight and analysis on the enabling technologies used for active safety and automated driving. Today, VSI is considered one of the industry’s top advisors by supporting R&D and planning departments within major automotive companies and suppliers worldwide. VSI’s lab activities support a thorough decomposition of AV technologies through hands-on development and buildup of its own automated vehicle platform. VSI also conducts functional validation of critical enablers including sensors, domain controllers, and AV software development kits.