HARRISONBURG — It can be disconcerting to see a golf cart driving itself, but creating an autonomous vehicle was the goal of a group of 21 students at James Madison University and two faculty members.
The JMU X-Labs was recognized last week by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam for the innovation behind the school’s autonomous vehicle class. It marked the second year in a row X-Labs won the Governor’s Technology Award.
Autonomous travel is a topic and technology that is gaining popularity at colleges and universities all over the country, and it was brought to the attention of JMU X-Labs Director Nick Swayne that the university didn’t offer anything in the field.
“We have students in here all the time,” Swayne said of the lab.
One day someone asked why a class on autonomous vehicle technology wasn’t offered.
Swayne told the student it was a good question and looked into whether it would be a good fit at JMU.
“That’s often how things get done here,” he said.
The class, which was offered during the 15-week spring semester this past school year, brought together students from various majors, including integrated science and technology and computer science.
But there were also history, political science and writing majors, who researched the legal aspects of creating an autonomous vehicle.
None of the students had prior autonomous technology experience.
Instead of spending close to $30,000 on a car to retrofit to drive on its own, the class decided to use a golf cart.
This not only helped save money, but the max speed of a golf cart is only 6 mph, creating a safer environment than with a car, Swayne said.
In addition to being able to maneuver a course on its own, the cart could sense pedestrians and other obstacles in its path and safely stop without hitting them.
The class will be offered again so students can improve on what the first class accomplished, and students will get a helping hand from a partner in the industry, Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, according to a press release.
Swayne said they’re considering building a fleet of self-driving golf carts that could potentially assist with transportation issues on campus.
“Imagine ordering a golf cart on your phone and having it come to you where you are on campus,” he said.
In its application for the award, JMU X-Labs staff stated, “The autonomous vehicles course developed at JMU X-Labs is a first of its kind in Virginia to offer undergraduate students the opportunity to work in multidisciplinary teams to build a self-driving vehicle.”
The original goal was to have the autonomous golf cart drive itself up to the Quad to pick up JMU President Jonathan Alger and drive him to the X-Labs, but the students didn’t quite get there.
However, the car drove itself out of the lab and along a course in a parking lot, stopping when it sensed a person in its way.
JMU senior Zack Allen assisted with the planning and navigation team, meaning he helped create the software necessary to get the car to accelerate and turn. He also developed the phone application needed to control the vehicle remotely.
“The project was very rewarding,” Allen said.
Fellow senior Phillip Stratos said he enjoyed working with students from other majors.
“This was a phenomenal experience. I’ve never done anything like it,” he said. “It was nice to work in multidisciplinary teams.”
JMU X-Labs, which is housed in Lakeview Hall, received the governor’s award in 2017 for facilitating cross-disciplinary courses where students address real-world problems using a variety of technology.