Paul Mitchell (00:00): 

Automation opens up opportunities to go at speeds that a human driver would feel uncomfortable with and do so safely. Human drivers in motorsport have for decades been doing things that regular humans aren't comfortable doing, and we're trying to prove that robots can do that and then apply that same logic to real-world scenarios. 

James Kotecki (00:30): 

This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki. CES 2023 is January 5th through 8th in Las Vegas. And on this show, we get you hyped and get you smart about the world's most influential tech event. 

James Kotecki (00:45): 

Today, we preview the autonomous vehicle technology that's roaring back to CES in the most exciting way possible. High-speed competition. This year the Indy Autonomous Challenge returns to CES and on Saturday, January 7th, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway will once again host IACs autonomous race cars as they compete head-to-head, or more accurately, code to code. To learn more about the event and how you can be a part of it, let's catch up with IAC president, Paul Mitchell. 

James Kotecki (01:17): 

Paul, welcome back to the show. I want to get to what the IAC does and why that matters, but first just let's paint the picture for folks who are listening to this. What can we expect to look forward to at CES at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on January 7th? 

Paul Mitchell (01:31): 

On January 7th, what people are going to see is the world's fastest robots competing with each other. Last year we had speeds that were reaching 170 miles an hour with our fully autonomous race cars. After CES, we boosted the engine power to make the cars faster because we had essentially found the limit of what that car could do and we set a new land speed record. So, I expect that we'll see speeds close to 300 kilometers per hour or high 180 miles per hour. 

Paul Mitchell (02:05): 

The other thing I think that will be different this year from those that tuned in or were able to attend last year is just a little bit more of a festival atmosphere. Obviously, with some of the challenges with COVID, we had some restrictions on how many people we could bring out to the track, the different spaces we could use. And so, we're hoping we can open that up much more and get a much larger crowd out there and really create that kind of excitement that you find at motorsports and racing events. 

James Kotecki (02:35): 

So I am a CES attendee and I'm registering for CES. My understanding is that there's a button or a section that I can click to say, Yes, I want to attend this event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on January 7th. And that's just part of the registration. 

Paul Mitchell (02:49): 

Yeah, so this is a CES event. This isn't the Indy Autonomous Challenge hosting the race that happens to be at the same time as CES. So if you're an attendee, during the registration process, there should be a box and a description of the Indy Autonomous Challenge and you can click on that. That obviously takes a record and connects your registration to our headcount for the event. And then transportation will be provided from the convention centers, certainly from West Hall, possibly from some of the other sites throughout CES, to and from the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It's really not too far away. It's about maybe 20 minutes away actually, if you're at the convention centers, it's kind of the opposite direction of traffic in the strip. So it's quite reasonable to get out there and back and not miss too much action back at the convention centers while watching this race. 

James Kotecki (03:43): 

Yeah, it's just a classic high speed robot battle in the desert. I mean, in some ways in the tradition, in some ways maybe the spiritual successor to, if I think back to the original DARPA Grand Challenge years ago as I recall that initially was. Can you even get autonomous vehicles to just go from point A to point B in the desert? That was the first proven ground for autonomous vehicles. 

Paul Mitchell (04:04): 

It was. And really we have been honored to be viewed as kind of the successor to the DARPA Grand Challenge. That was always our objective as we launched the Indy Autonomous Challenge in 2018 and then formally in 2019. Our goal was to bring back the excitement and the technical advancement that occurred through DARPA in 2004 and 2005 when they ran these grand challenges. But to add to it the excitement of motor sport and holding it in a venue where people can actually come and see it. 

Paul Mitchell (04:39): 

So wandering out into the desert literally and seeing those cars run in 2004, 2005, you had to know what was going on and really be into the industry. For this, I think people can come from all walks of life. People who are at CES who maybe don't even know anything about autonomous vehicles, that's not why they're there. They may be there for other technology coming to this event. What you're really seeing is not just automation, but you're seeing all kinds of technologies. High speed communication, wireless communication. You're seeing ultra low latency computing. You're seeing elements of AR and VR we expect going forward. So there's a lot of technology across CES that is on display, on full display, in the Indy Autonomous Challenge through this platform of fully autonomous racing. 

James Kotecki (05:31): 

I think it's going to be so exciting to see people in the stands cheering on these different vehicles, watching them race, compete head to head. And so when people are going to see, as far as what I remember, because I was actually able to attend last year, and it was really cool and I would definitely recommend people go to this one at CES 2023. So you're sitting in the stands and you're seeing two cars on the track just whipping around the race course. And in some ways, and I mean this as a real compliment to what the IAC teams have been able to do. If you didn't know any better, you might think people were in those cars. 

Paul Mitchell (06:01): 

Yeah, absolutely. I think the racing has gotten so professional and sophisticated. The race lines that the cars are taking, that the strategies that the cars have for passing and preventing a pass from happening, really has begun to move much closer to the most elite human race car drivers. And to be clear, a human race car driver that's capable of driving an Indy car at 190-200 miles an hour, it's not you or I, right? It's a fraction of the population that's trained and trains their senses and their brain and everything to be able to do this. 

Paul Mitchell (06:39): 

So for us to recreate that with algorithms and code and these cars were only invented essentially one year ago. That teams began to work with these cars in the summer of 2021. So in roughly a year, a year and a half, they've trained these algorithms to get closer and closer to the most elite race car drivers. 

Paul Mitchell (07:04): 

And I think another cool thing about our competition format that people will see, we run two cars at a time. So we don't run a full field where all the cars are racing simultaneously. Maybe we can talk about why that is, but our format is two cars racing head-to-head. And I often refer to it as almost like a game of chicken because the idea is they keep going faster and faster on each sequential round of laps until one car essentially throws in the white flag and says, I can't go any faster or there's a wreck. And we saw both of that, those scenarios play out last year, or I should say earlier this year rather. 

Paul Mitchell (07:44): 

And the reality is, when you don't have a human driver in the car, while wrecks are expensive, there's no danger to anybody's health or safety. So you see these teams, especially let's say in the final round or final couple rounds, they're not going to throw in the white flag. They're going to go until the car spins out of control and can't go any faster or their code fails. And we saw that with Technical University of Munich coming up just short against Team PoliMOVE from the Polytechnic of Milan in January. 

James Kotecki (08:14): 

And is that a clue to why you're only doing two cars at a time? Because if these cars are going to kind of push themselves or the code's going to push them to the limit and there's just so much expensive advanced technology out there that you kind of want to keep the damage to a minimum? 

Paul Mitchell (08:29): 

Yeah, I think that's part of it. So it's just preserving these million dollar assets to the extent we can is important to making our organization successful so we can keep running these events. The other though is that the technology we're seeking to prove out and the whole purpose of in the autonomous challenge is not really to create a racing series that would compete with or seek to replace Indy Car, Formula One or NASCAR. That's not the objective at all. The objective is to prove out technology in extreme use cases at high speed so that we can accelerate the pace of that technology commercialization into passenger cars, commercial vehicles, and actually perhaps to make human driven race cars safer and faster. 

Paul Mitchell (09:16): 

And so if you think about the use case of autonomous vehicles encountering each other at high speeds and what the sensor systems and the software need to be able to do, we hope that most of the time on a highway, if you're going very, very fast and another car is going very fast, you're only encountering two cars at the same time. At least most highway rules that don't allow for five, six cars to all kind of swarm together. So you're really training the vehicles to track and make decisions around one additional vehicle. And we think that is the most consistent with high-speed highway driving or other types of autonomous encounters that would occur in the real world. 

Paul Mitchell (09:59): 

We have and we will continue to play around with adding an additional vehicle, let's say three cars, because we do want to see how the technology can track and manage more than one vehicle and actually understand which vehicle is and which vehicle is operating differently. But it's an exponentially harder technical challenge to try to run all the cars at the same time. And as you alluded to, could be extremely expensive if it went wrong. One car going bad and making bad decisions and taking out three or four cars could be a half million dollar accident. 

James Kotecki (10:36): 

It's really interesting to think about the commercial applications for some of the technology that will come out of this and the way that all of us as consumers will benefit from this in the long term. These edge cases aren't just edge cases in racing. They're going to actually really be helpful in certain real world high dangerous situations. 

Paul Mitchell (10:52): 

Absolutely. And let's not forget that I think the future of automation and the promise that automation has and why it's so important for us to invest in these technologies, it's not one technology by the way, it's a whole host of technologies. The reason it's so important is that one, it will save lives. Because a lot of the accidents that actually result in loss of life are high speed highway accidents. There's certainly instances where people, particularly pedestrians, get hurt very badly or there's lots of life at lower speeds. But most of the deaths, at least in the United States, are highway accidents. And so preserving life is part of the mission of this technology. 

Paul Mitchell (11:34): 

The other is sustainability and efficiency. If we can have over the road trucks, even passenger cars, I guess that people are trying to get to point A to point B more quickly, that can travel at higher speed safe. If you can imagine a fleet of fully autonomous trucks in maybe a dedicated lane that are traveling closer to 80 or 90 or maybe someday over a hundred miles an hour, that's going to result in huge efficiency gains in terms of the movement of freight, the movement of goods and services. Obviously if you have automation, you can look at longer operational timeframes because you don't have somebody that's getting tired. They can run through the night more easily because the technology and autonomous vehicles can see through darkness. 

Paul Mitchell (12:20): 

So why high-speed matters is that automation opens up opportunities to go at speeds that a human driver would feel uncomfortable with and do so safely. And that's true for motorsport. Human drivers and motorsport have for decades been doing things that regular humans aren't comfortable doing and we're trying to prove that robots can do that and then apply that same logic to real world scenarios. 

James Kotecki (12:47): 

You did mention that you set a land speed record, so any more details you can share about that? I assume that's a land speed record for an autonomous vehicle. Congratulations. What did that actually look like? 

Paul Mitchell (12:58): 

The autonomous land speed record was something we had our eyes on for quite a while because we began to see speeds that were getting close to the previous record, which was around 175 miles per hour. And we were starting to see that on our racing ovals. In fact, in Las Vegas we touched 173 during qualifying at CES in January, and so we knew we could beat it. We also knew that we needed to boost the engine power and the horsepower of our vehicles, which we've done on all the race cars. But we took one race car, the one that was actually the winner of the Autonomous Challenge at CES 2022, which was Team PoliMOVE from Polytechnic of Milan and University of Alabama. So we made the engine adjustment to that vehicle, boosted the horsepower and made some other modifications and we took it to a really iconic venue, the Kennedy Space Center and the landing strip, which is at the largest and longest landing strip in the world. I believe was used by the space shuttles when that shuttle program was going on. And so now that the shuttle program isn't going on any longer, this giant runway is something that you can petition the Kennedy Space Center folks to come and utilize. So we did that. They thought it was a great opportunity to showcase new technologies. 

Paul Mitchell (14:22): 

And so we did that and set the record at 192.2 miles per hour. We were really targeting either trying to reach 300 kilometers per hour, which is the big number in Europe. Of course, we would've loved to reach 200 miles an hour, which is the threshold that's often used in American motor sports. The vehicle we currently are using, the aerodynamics and the size of the engine, I just don't think we can quite get to that 200 number, but we're definitely in uncharted territory in terms of speed. And it was definitely a successful event. 

Paul Mitchell (14:59): 

It was not just a gimmick. I think we needed to understand what the absolute speed limit was for our new engine package. So we would've had to go out and do some type of high speed straight line run just to validate the changes that we were going to be making to all the cars. But when we realized that would break the record, we said, Okay, let's go bring a film crew. Let's do this at a cool venue. And if people haven't seen it, check out our website. There's some great video footage of the car setting the record, and you can see the space shuttle in the background and very futuristic feeling. 

James Kotecki (15:32): 

We've been mentioning the folks who are actually doing the work to make this happen. PoliMOVE. I believe the team's name acronym is TUMB. That was the second place team. And so these are teams of university students that come from all over the world to compete in this challenge. Can you tell me more about the teams that are competing in this iteration of the challenge folks that people can see at CES 2023? 

Paul Mitchell (15:55): 

So really the heart and soul of the Indy Autonomous Challenge are autonomous racing teams. None of this would be possible without the incredible talent and brain power that these teams bring to bear. If you think about it, they're essentially the human element in this competition. They're the ones writing the code, they're the ones setting the parameters, they're the ones making decisions about what level of risk to take. We have nine teams, they're made up of more than a dozen universities. So some teams are just one university. You mentioned, for example, TUMB that stands for Technical University of Munich. Other teams are a mix of multiple universities. So we have a team, MITPITRW, which is MIT, Pittsburgh, Rochester Institute for Technology, University of Waterloo. So that's four universities that have come together. 

James Kotecki (16:49): 

That's sounds like a powerhouse team to me, just based on what I know about the technical brain power at those places. That sounds like a powerhouse. Yeah. 

Paul Mitchell (16:55): 

Yeah. No. I mean, well, first of all, every one of the teams, every one of the teams, every one of the universities involved in the autonomous challenge are engineering innovation powerhouses. You can't do this without being in the absolute elite of the elite. What we're seeing with the professionalization of the autonomous challenge teams is really exciting. These started out as perhaps more academic endeavors by the universities who looked at it as a prize competition that was, as I said earlier, similar to the DARPA Grand Challenge. 

Paul Mitchell (17:30): 

What we're seeing now is that the institutions that are involved are viewing it as not only a kind of academic research activity, but it is drawing attention and branding to the institutions. So it's a way to recruit top talent to come to those universities. It's a way to increase the awareness that industry and government has of those universities and what they're doing. And then, as I always expected, we're starting to see spin outs. So these teams are creating startup companies, often affiliated with the universities and spinning out of the universities. 

Paul Mitchell (18:08): 

And so if you look at the makeup of the teams today versus a year ago, the university affiliation has to be there. That is one of the requirements we have. But the teams are now made up of a mixture of let's say, full-time PhD students, but also researchers, faculty, students who may be working for a center or a lab or a spin out company. That way they're able to really maximize the technology transfer potential that comes from these teams. And I'm just so proud of, as I really call the professionalization of these teams and also their ability to go out and seek their own sponsors, their own industry partners. So the MITPITRW team I mentioned earlier, they have relationships and partnerships with Waymo, with Oracle. 

Paul Mitchell (19:00): 

So of course Indy Autonomous Challenge has our corporate sponsors and they are the ones that are providing the technology that goes on to the cars. The teams themselves also are able to go out and find sponsors. 

James Kotecki (19:11): 

And we should say for those who are going to be at CES, they can see and meet some of these sponsors. And perhaps you tell me maybe some of the folks on these teams. There's another part of CES that you're going to be active in. It's the Innovation Paddock, which is actually a section at the conference center. Basically this is your booth where a lot of these folks are going to be hanging out throughout the show. Can you tell us more about that? 

Paul Mitchell (19:32): 

Yeah, so first of all, the two things that make the Indy Autonomous Challenge work are the teams, which we just talked about, and then the sponsors, the corporate partners. Every one of the cars is identical. That's important for everybody to understand. They all use the same hardware, the same base software. And then the difference is the individual teams developing the software to run the vehicles. So our sponsors, which we've had several that are legacy sponsors like Cisco, Bridgestone, Luminar, Delara, and then we have a lot of new sponsors that are coming on, like Continental, DSpace, AWS, company called Vector Nav. 

Paul Mitchell (20:09): 

They are partnering with us and we're also collaborating with the Indy Economic Development Corporation to build out Innovation Paddock inside West Hall. And we're really fortunate to have one of the largest, maybe most prominent exhibition spaces in West Hall, much larger than what Indy Autonomous Challenge had last year. And we're able to do that because we're constructing essentially a series of almost like garages that'll look like a racing paddock. And some of our partners, some of the teams, some of the corporations that we're working with will occupy those spaces to really showcase the various technologies and innovations that are part of the Indy Autonomous Challenge. 

Paul Mitchell (20:48): 

And it's a great partnership with CES. We're not a typical exhibitor. We're not a corporation that has a typical product that we're bringing to the market. And our product really is the network effect of our teams and our corporate partners working together. And so this innovation paddock will be a way for people to learn about Indy Autonomous Challenge, understand intimately what we're doing, even without, for example, coming to the track on January 7th. We realize there's hundreds of thousands of people coming to CES, we hope, and not all of them are going to be able to go out to the track. So for those that can't, come by and see us in West Hall and learn all about it. And those that can come to the track, I think it'll just get them excited for what they're going to see. 

Paul Mitchell (21:32): 

I also should point out that we will have a live broadcast of the race. So if you can't make it to the track on January 7th, if you're working a booth or if you've got other obligations or you don't sign up in time to meet our headcount limit, you can watch the event live on Twitch through a partnership we have with AWS and AWS Sports. We'll probably have that beamed back into West Hall into our booth. If people want to come watch it at our booth, that's another place they could check it out. 

James Kotecki (21:59): 

Well, if you need color commentary on that broadcast from just a civilian like me, just a guy who can't believe what he's seeing and is just completely amazed, let me know. 

Paul Mitchell (22:07): 

We may take you up on that. We've got some good professionals that have been working with us, but we need the James Kotecki check in, like when they bring in a former NFL player something to the Monday night football broadcast. You can come in. 

James Kotecki (22:22): 

Just a guy who's just flabbergasted by all the amazing advancements that is happening. Speaking of being surprised and just delighted by all of this, does anything surprise and delight when you go to these competitions, when you set the land speed record? Obviously I know that you're passionate about this, but you also are so deep into the weeds of the technology and what is possible and what the expectations are. What surprises you or what could surprise you as these competitions continue to go forward? 

Paul Mitchell (22:49): 

There's kind of two things that come to my mind when I think about what I'm sort of awestruck by. One is the impact that what we're doing has on the next generation. So we try to bring STEM high school students to our events when we can. That's a little challenging at CES because obviously there's security and age restrictions and things associated with the show. But at other events that we have, like our race, we're going to be running the Indy Autonomous Challenge powered by Cisco at Texas Motor Speedway. We're bringing high school STEM students there. And we've done that at some of our other events. 

Paul Mitchell (23:24): 

And when you see the awe and the excitement of these young STEM students who are part of robotics clubs, maybe their entire lives, but didn't necessarily understand that that could go to the level of almost being like a celebrity, which is what they see in our teams. Oh my gosh, this robot club that I'm in could eventually lead me to being a race car driver type of thing. Every time you see that, it's very rewarding. 

Paul Mitchell (23:49): 

Then in terms of what surprises me from a technology standpoint, it's just the pace at which new technologies and new innovations are happening. We have already put new technology on the cars, a new computer from D Space, new IMU and GPS systems from Vector Nav. We boosted the engine. So the pace at which the technology changes and our ability to integrate that into our cars and then to have our cars have these extra capabilities as a result of that technology change is really impressive. 

Paul Mitchell (24:24): 

The last thing I guess I would say is that when I saw a car going over a hundred miles an hour in complete darkness and realized that race cars don't need visible light if they're autonomous, that was also pretty crazy. And there's a video of that. If you haven't seen it again, go to our website and you can check that video out. So that maybe is the one thing that we do in the Indy Autonomous Challenge that no Formula One, no Indy car driver, nobody in the world can do because humans need light to perceive their surroundings and the fact that we can do that in darkness is pretty cool. 

James Kotecki (25:00): 

So Paul, we've covered so much excellent ground in this conversation about what has happened and what will happen in the immediate future at CES 2023, but CES is also a place to make big announcements. Anything you want to share or possibly tease that's coming and people can look forward to? 

Paul Mitchell (25:15): 

Yeah, so we are absolutely viewing CES as an opportunity to roll out plans for Indy Autonomous Challenge with a number of our sponsors and partners for 2023 and beyond. I don't want to get into the details of those because we've got to save the full excitement for CES, but we're going to be looking at things like the integration of AR and VR into motor sport in ways that have never been done and frankly cannot be done unless you have autonomous vehicles. We're also going to be looking at transitioning from ovals to road courses, which is something we've talked about wanting to do. That changes the whole dynamic in terms of the software and the algorithms to be able to navigate road courses, which is probably closer to highway or road driving than an oval. 

Paul Mitchell (26:02): 

And also, just talking about some new sponsors, some new hardware and software that will go on to the vehicles. I talked earlier about the constant changing pace of the technology, and so what's exciting is our sponsors view us not as a one off. So if we're using Lumina's LiDAR today, we want to use their next gen LiDAR and the next gen technology from Cisco and the next gen technology from Bridgestone and Continental and DSpace. So the constant refresh of the car is something we're going to be talking about. 

Paul Mitchell (26:34): 

So just some fun announcements for those that want to understand where this is all going. I think we'll have a lot to say at CES this year. 

James Kotecki (26:43): 

Well, we will stay tuned and are so looking forward to seeing you and the competition at CES 2023. Paul Mitchell, President of the Indy Autonomous Challenge. Thanks so much. 

Paul Mitchell (26:54): 

Thanks, James. 

James Kotecki (26:55): 

Well, that's our show for now, but there's always more tech to talk about. Subscribe to this podcast so you don't miss a moment and get more CES at That's CES dot T-E-C-H. Our show is produced by Nicole Vidovich with Kristen Miller and Mason Manuel. Recorded by Andrew Lynn and edited by Third Spoon. I'm James Kotecki, talking tech, on CES Tech Talk.