EHS grad builds driverless car

Zach Thompson stands next to a driverless racecar that he and a team of undergraduate students have been working on.

Enterprise High School graduate Zach Thompson has been working with a team that has been building a driverless car at Auburn University since August of 2016. The process has been slow as most of those originally working on the project have graduated and moved on to different endeavors. But Thompson says, “I’m stubborn” and his desire to see the car run keeps him coming back even post graduation from Auburn University to work towards getting a driverless car prepared for Auburn’s Formula SAE racing team.

They make up a group that is made up of undergraduates. “We're the only undergraduate program in the entire United States that has worked on this self-driving car. There may be other graduate-level programs, but we were the only completely undergraduate team.”

On a senior project Thompson was assigned working with the driverless car. Thompson explained what he did as a computer vision engineer. “What I have is a camera and we plug it into a computer, and with a computer program that I’ve written, we can turn on the camera, start grabbing each individual picture that it takes because with a continuous video stream, to us it looks continuous, but each individual frame is a picture.”

Although the car has been worked on for a year it still currently is in its infancy stage. It has yet to run. Thompson explained what they are working to get the car to do. “Our goal currently is to just get it to drive itself around the track a couple of times, and that would make us happy,” said Thompson. “But after everyone graduated with their senior design projects, there's two of us left who are still coming to the meetings, and pushing things along.” Thompson works to get this done.

One of the things Thompson and his engineering teammates have done is get systems to recognize different markers on a course. “What we want to do is basically say, ‘Okay, we have this image that we've gotten from the camera. I want you to identify all the red, orange and yellow objects in this and send it off to this other program that takes that information and information from another system,’ which I have not written any code for, that another person has,” said Thompson. “We take our information and join it together within a localized network within the car." For example, the car will sense when there is an orange cone on the course and use the marker to inform itself to turn.

Thompson described what his vision was with the moving cars.

Thompson talked about the possible utilization of the driverless car in areas other than racing. “This is a race car, but self-driving cars are–they don't have to be race cars. And if your granny wants to go to the supermarket, and nobody is around to drive her, pull out her phone, she just has to press a button, and here comes a driverless car just down the street. Stops right at her house, and she gets in, and it drives her wherever she needs to go.”

That is the way Thompson thinks about the future that could be opened up with the enhancement of driverless car technology.

Thompson shed light on the mindset of a engineer. “You take something, some logical concepts, and you say these are the steps that you take to reach that.”

Thompson explained how he first got started in computer engineering. “I started off in civil engineering and later switched,” said Thompson. “I had taken a course called MATLAB, which introduced me to programming. It was through that that I was like, ‘Yeah. I enjoy doing this. I've never done it before.’ It was something new, interesting, and something that I was good at.”

To understand the purpose for a computer engineer Thompson explained the mindset that goes into developing software. “It's about making (programs) as efficient as possible,” he said. “You obviously don't want to type in a question on Google and have to wait five minutes to get your results. You want it like that. We want to make the software as fast as possible and as reliable as possible.”

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