As the internet has made sure to remind you a few hundred times this week, today is Back to the Future Day! Yes, in real life we've finally made it to the future day Marty McFly traveled to in Back to the Future II, October 21, 2015. And all we have to show for it is Google Glass, Skype, and at Stanford University some car nerds have engineered a 1981 DeLorean that drives itself. Also, as Wired shows us, it drifts with the finesse of Vin Diesel's stunt driver.
Earlier this year we tallied the things about the future that Back the Future II got totally right back in 1985 namely video phone calls (Facetime, Skype), the decay of the suburbs, 80s nostalgia arcades, and big flat-screen TVs. Self-driving cars were not among Robert Zemeckis's prescient predictions, but nonetheless they're part of our technology-rich immediate future. And the engineers at Stanford's Revs Program are pushing the idea beyond Google's sober, mostly safe seeming, city-centric robo-cars into the realm of stunt driving. The purpose of this, says mechanical engineering professor and Revs Program director Chris Gerdes, is to train a vehicle to perform maneuvers that are difficult or unknown to ordinary drivers in order to out-maneuver other cars on the road in a dangerous situation. "We think automated vehicles should be able to execute any maneuver within the physical limits of the vehicle to get out of harm’s way," says Gedes. But clearly the guys involved in this project are getting some Fast and the Furious-style thrills out of the challenge too.
MARTY, as the car is known, was officially unveiled yesterday obviously in honor of Back of the Future Day as Stanford News reports. Gerdes explains that the inspiration from rally car drivers when it comes to safety is that "sometimes you need to sacrifice stability to turn sharply and avoid accidents," and most modern cars have been engineered with more strict stability control. He adds, "The laws of physics will limit what the car can do, but we think the software should be capable of any possible maneuver within those limits."
The team chose the DeLorean, purchased from a guy in Sausalito two years ago for $22,000, both because "It’s a car that says science project," and because it's a defunct brand that no one is going to mind being associated in the media with spinning donuts and drifting across parking lots.
But, they say, all these maneuvers have only been possible after a whole lot of modifications. Jokes Gerdes, "The DeLorean’s a really great car, unless you want it to accelerate, brake, or turn." Their souped-up version comes equipped with a new power steering motor, steering rack, a custom steer-by-wire system, and a motor at each rear wheel with a total of 4,100 pound-feet.
MARTY was built in collaboration with Renovo Motors, one of several automotive start-ups working in Silicon Valley and racing to be first to market with different kinds of autonomous vehicles. And then there's Tesla, which just might pull it off first.