Self-Driving Vehicles

Stanford's Dynamic Design Lab engineers are teaching a driverless DeLorean to drift

MARTY, the autonomous drifting DeLorean.

Photo courtesy of Stanford, by Jonathan Goh

The DeLorean may be one of the most coveted cars on the planet. Despite its short time on dealership lots, the car became an instant class, thanks in no small part to the role it played in the "Back to the Future" movies. The future of the DeLorean is coming in fast and hot thanks to a team of engineers at Stanford's Dynamic Design Lab.

At Thunderhill Raceway in California, among the tire smoke, dirt, sand, and pavement, is a 1981 DeLorean nicknamed MARTY – which stands for Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control – that has been converted into an all-electric self-driving drift car. The car is the work of recent mechanical engineering PhD graduate from Stanford Jon Goh and his colleagues at the Dynamic Design Lab.

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MARTY's insides are nothing like they were in 1981 or in the "Back to the Future" movies. The car's powertrain has been replaced by electric motors and batteries. The car's soft suspension was enhanced with further stiffness to improve the car's ability to drift. Mechanical steering, braking, and throttle controls have all been replaced by electric systems. The car also has a new roll cage.

Two GPC antennae sit on MARTY's roof and are able to track the car's location within a single inch. Computers are stashed in the rear seats.

Four years ago, the DeLorean did its first drift moves with inhuman precision.

"We're trying to develop automated vehicles that can handle emergency maneuvers or slippery surfaces like ice or snow," said Chris Gerdes, mechanical engineer. "We'd like to develop automated vehicles that can use all of the friction between the tire and the road to get the car out of harm's way. We want the car to be able to avoid any accident that's avoidable within the laws of physics."

When a driverless car operates traditionally, the use of a steering wheel and pedals is relegated to simplistic movements to keep a car moving steadily or stopping with ease. With drifting, it's a completely different story.

"Suddenly the car is pointed in a very different direction than where it's going. Your steering wheel controls the speed, the throttle affects the rotation, and the brakes can impact how quickly you change directions," Goh said. "You have to understand how to use these familiar inputs in a very different way to control the car, and most drivers just aren't very good at handling the car when it becomes this unstable."

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The Stanford team studied the habits of professional drivers and worked to duplicate those maneuvers when developing the software for MARTY.

"Through drifting, we're able to get to extreme examples of driving physics that we wouldn't otherwise," Goh said. "If we can conquer how to safely control the car in the most stable and the most unstable scenarios, it becomes easier to connect all the dots in between."

To get in deep on how MARTY was able to pull off the drift, check out the first MARTY-related journal paper.

McKinley Thompson Jr. was Ford's first African American designer and his influence lives on today.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Ford's design studio has churned out some of the most iconic models of all time. They're models so iconic that they need only be mentioned by one name - Explorer, Mustang, Bronco. With the Bronco, the design and engineering teams at Ford created not just the first Ford 4x4 sports-utility vehicle, but an iconic vehicle that has millions of fans nationwide.

McKinley Thompson Jr., like many automotive enthusiasts had his interest in the industry sparked by particular vehicle. The silver-gray DeSoto Airflow caught his eye when he was around 12 years old. "It just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through," he said in an interview documented by The Henry Ford. "It lit that car up like a searchlight." Thompson recalled running toward it, but the light turned green. "I was never so impressed with anything in all my life," he said. "I knew that's what I wanted to do – I wanted to be an automobile designer."

1963 Ford Bronco prototype This is one of the initial prototypes of the Ford Bronco from 1963.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

After high school, Thompson served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, learning drafting and working as an engineering layout coordinator. After the war, Thompson found he couldn't kick his enthusiasm for car design - not that he wanted to. In the early 1950s, he entered a design contest in Motor Trend magazine, submitting a turbine car with a reinforced plastic body. Both of those concepts were trendy in postwar America. That design won him the contest and solidified his decision to go to art

The Queens, New York was hired at Ford Motor Company in 1956 fresh out of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California with a degree in transportation design. Thompson is one of the many noted alumni the college has produced. The extensive list of venerable automotive designers that includes Chris Bangle (former Chief of Design at BMW), Wayne Cherry (Vice President of Global Design at General Motors), Willie G. Davidson (Vice President of Styling at Harley-Davidson), Larry Shinoda (Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang designer), Jeff Teague (former Vice President of Global Design at Ford).

He was the first African American designer that the company hired, 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball but 12 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was illegal. His first assignments included working on a light-duty cab-forward truck and Ford GT40, and several concept sketches for the soon-to-be Ford Mustang.

Thompson also worked on the futuristic space-age Ford Gyron, a two-wheeled concept car that was on display at the Century of Progress exhibit at the Ford Rotunda in 1961.

Ford Gyron The Ford Gyron, a two-wheeled, gyroscopically-stabilised concept car, designed by Alex Tremulis and Syd Mead, USA, circa 1961. A fiberglass show car was exhibited at the Detroit Motor Show in 1961. Photo by Getty Images

"McKinley was a man who followed his dreams and wound up making history," said Ford Bronco interior designer Christopher Young. "He not only broke through the color barrier in the world of automotive design, he helped create some of the most iconic consumer products ever – from the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and Bronco – designs that are not only timeless but have been studied by generations of designers."

It was Thompson's sketch of a prospective 4x4 that would influence a buyers for generations. "Package Proposal #5 for Bronco" was rendered July 24, 1963. Its design attributes carried over to the final first-generation Bronco design. In Thompson's proposed design showed the form and function of the wheels positioned at the far corners of the body for a confident and aggressive go-anywhere stance, while the curve of the wheel arches smoothing out conveyed speed.

Package Proposal #5 for Bronco This is Package Proposal #5 for Bronco, the sketch series that set the iconic design in motion.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

"I believe the hardest thing for a person like McKinley to do was working within the constraints given him to make a beautiful product," said Young. "Engineering dictates size and functionality, then manufacturing limits how it can be stamped and assembled, and finance says you have to build it for a low price."

In the years following the Bronco project, Thompson continued to have a transformative influence on the brand, and on the world. From 1969 to 1979, he worked to create high dream car in a rented garage in Detroit. He insisted the help of Wallace Triplett, who had also broken the color barrier as the first African American draftee to play for the Detroit Lions in 1949.

Together, they built a prototype and pitched the plans to burgeoning automakers in developing nations. Thompson hoped to change these countries for the better, much the same way Henry Ford envisioned with the Model T. That project never came to fruition.

1966 Ford Bronco From the first-generation Bronco to today, the model has had an exterior that sends the message that it's adventure-ready.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

After his retirement from Ford in 1984, Thompson moved to Arizona and worked to design and build a concept he envisioned as an affordable all-purpose vehicle named the Warrior. The small utility vehicle was based on a one-piece fiberglass body.

The Honda Center will be known as the Honda Center until at least 2031.

Photo courtesy of American Honda Motor Co., Inc

The home of the Anaheim Ducks will keep the same name for at least the next decade. Honda has added 10 years to its already 15-year long sponsorship of the Honda Center. The partnership will now run through 2031. The company first entered into partnership with the arena in October 2006.

Along with retaining the naming rights, the sponsorship will be supported with exterior signage, freeway marquee placement, integration throughout all forms of media, car displays on two exterior corners of the arena, and the continuation of the annual Anaheim Ducks Fan Appreciation Night sweepstakes where one Ducks' fan takes home a new Honda vehicle.

"We are thrilled to extend our partnership with Honda Center for another 10 years. We've been partners with the arena and Anaheim Ducks for over 13 years and are pleased to support the vision and financial resources that Henry and Susan Samueli invest in the building to maintain it as a state-of-the-art facility," said Jay Joseph, vice president of the Marketing Division of Automobile Sales at American Honda Motor Co.

Honda has its North American roots in Southern California 60 years ago and has its North American headquarters in Torrance, which is about 30 miles west of the arena. The company recently celebrated selling its 400 millionth motorcycle.

The arena isn't the only place where Honda has supported athletic endeavors and events in California. The company has had partnerships with the Rose Parade, the Aquarium of the Pacific, Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and Disneyland Resort.

Additionally, Honda has sponsored the Anaheim Ducks Foundation's annual Anaheim Ducks Golf Classic and Dux in Tux events, which have raised over $4.5 million since the start of the Honda partnership in 2006.