The Wolverines Behind the Next Generation of Autonomous Vehicles
From Kitt in the show Knight Rider to the cartoon The Jetsons, self-driving vehicles have always been the definition of space-age, futuristic technology. Both consumers and corporations alike have invested interest in seeing autonomous vehicles become commercially available, creating plenty of opportunity for young engineers and entrepreneurs to find their venture. Autonomous vehicles have the capacity to revolutionize the entire transportation industry, affecting everything from food delivery to morning commutes. This is the mission of Yu-Chian (Eugene) Tsai, Rakshita Gouni, Anikeit Chanda, and James Boyce – to change the way we consider logistics through creating a fleet of self-driving delivery vehicles.
For each member of the team, the first step toward getting hands on with autonomous vehicles was the Center for Entrepreneurship’s TechLab at MCity program. The CFE’s TechLab program allows interested, technically-skilled students to engage with this resource through partnering cohort members with a technology startup. TechLab projects range from designing smart intersections to human behavior prediction. 2020 TechLab Cohort members Yu-Chian, Rakshita, Anikeit, and James have partnered with Refraction AI, an Ann Arbor headquartered startup which specifically focuses on the development of the next generation of delivery vehicles.
“The goal is to create a fleet of delivery vehicles that can handle everything from hot food deliveries to packages,” explained Rakshita, a junior studying computer science with a minor in entrepreneurship.
Rakshita was first introduced to the difficulties associated with the contemporary transportation system in her Engineering 100 class, a compulsory course for all incoming engineering freshmen. Her discussion section focused specifically on urban transportation, and laid the framework for her engagement with the Center for Entrepreneurship and her involvement with autonomous delivery vehicles development.
Imagine ordering food from your favorite restaurant, and in 30 minutes, a robot arrives outside your door with your order hot and ready – no human contact required. This is the future of REV-1.
The REV-1 vehicle would completely eliminate the need for a human food delivery driver, thus making the process of online ordering safer, smoother and more efficient. Grocers or restaurant employees would be able to place products inside the rover, and send it directly to the consumer’s doorstep. The rovers operate in the bike lanes of urban areas, and just along the roadsides of rural areas, strategically minimizing traffic encounters. The team’s current project is to hone the detection components of the REV-1, enabling it to run more efficiently in all conditions. Additionally, this technology could help mitigate some socioeconomic obstacles faced by students without cars.
“This could really help college students without access to cars get the resources they need,” Rakshita said. Users could access any items that would previously be inaccessible without a personal vehicle – ranging from fresh groceries to essential medicine. “It’s rewarding…”
The other members of the team find the technical engagement elements of the TechLab-Refraction AI partnership to be the most valuable experiences they’ve had with the project.
Yu-Chain Tsai, a junior studying computer science, has always been drawn to the technical aspects of entrepreneurship and product development. While he had been aware of the MCity TechLab program prior to his matriculation to the University of Michigan, this was his first year in the program.
“This project has been a lot of trial and error, and we’ve all been learning along the way,” he said. “When I finally got features like the machine detection to work, it was an amazing feeling.”
Each member of the team contributes to the coding and electrical engineering elements of vehicle development. Working with Refraction AI has emphasized creative approaches to code than the team members had previously experienced in their engineering coursework.
“The problem we’re trying to tackle is so unique…it’s just different from anything else we’ve ever done. Nobody has paved this path for us,” said Anikeit Chanda, who currently studies both computer science and data science.
For Ankeit, working directly with start-up entrepreneurs in the real world has been a highlight of the entire TechLab experience, “It’s just so cool seeing the entrepreneurs and engineers in their professional environment… It was inspiring.”
For most of the team, the opportunity to participate in TechLab was their first impressions of the entrepreneurial world. Named as one of the top cities in the United States for startups, many members of the team have used their time in Ann Arbor as a means to evaluate how entrepreneurship will play a role in their future.
James, an electrical engineering senior on the team said, “Getting to see a working, growing startup has been incredibly valuable to me… someday I want to start my own company, so getting hands-on here has been very useful.”
Becoming an entrepreneur has always been one of James’s life goals. From his work on the REV-1 project to his time to transferring to the University of Michigan specifically for its start-up kickstarting potential, entrepreneurship has been a focal point for him. He has concrete plans to commercialize his technology soon after his graduation in December 2020, and looks forward to a lifelong career of innovating, prototyping, and pioneering.
“Between this program, Techlab, the trek, the class… I feel so prepared to do the things I am doing now. It has been an incredible experience.”