Laredoan leads a self-driving car racing team

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When most students graduate with an MBA, they have spent time learning at large companies and taking many courses. By the time Cindy Heredia gets her MBA, she will have been part of a team that ran a car down a race track at 200 miles an hour with no one around.

Hopefully, at least.

The 2013 graduate of Alexander is the co-captain of the MIT Driverless/MIT-Pitt-RW Autonomous Race Team, which is currently competing in the Indy Autonomous Challenge – a “competition designed to engage college teams around the world to Autonomously program -modified racing cars and compete in a series of historic competitions.


The Heredia team is made up of undergraduate and master’s students from MIT – where Heredia attends – the University of Pittsburgh, the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Although her team hasn’t quite reached that 200 mph mark yet, she hopes they will eventually get there and also learn a bit along the way.

“You have these vehicles that go 140, we’re probably going to have to hit 200 miles per hour in future competitions,” she said. “You have to be able to demonstrate that a car can react appropriately to other vehicles on the road, you don’t have the human constraint in that case, and so you’re able to push the hardware and the software to a way that gives you plenty of cases that many of these standalone companies would like to know about.

A new challenge

When Heredia graduated from Alexander in 2013, she went to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in hopes of going into engineering. In the end, it didn’t work out for her, as she graduated in 2017 with a degree in economics.

She then started working at a mutual fund called Massachusetts Financial Services, but she wanted more. While there, she had the chance to invest in automotive companies, some of which were working with self-driving vehicle technology.

So when she decided to go back to school to get her MBA and found out about MIT’s work with its autonomous racing team, she knew she wanted to get involved.

“In my job before graduate school, I learned the technical side and it was so exciting, and I felt like I wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “I (researched) different ways to get involved, and that’s kind of what led me to the team.”

What her path has led her to is a team working to develop an autonomous vehicle capable of not only traveling at speeds well over 100 miles per hour, but also programmed to not only drive on a road, but possess the ability to pass other vehicles and possibly prevent other vehicles from passing.

In the process of it all, his team is competing with eight others as part of the IAC with two races already down. The first took place in Indianapolis in September and the second in Las Vegas in January.

In the first competition, teams had to produce the fastest speed and lap time. In the second, the teams had to make a successful pass on a track. Their car crashed on the first attempt but was able to reach 141 mph on its second, doubling its speed from the previous run. Although they weren’t able to pull off the overtaking manoeuvre, they were able to figure it out the week after the event.

Not bad for a team made up of 65% students.

“Our team is student-led and volunteer-led,” Heredia said.

“The fact that we were still able to be competitive on the show is pretty amazing.”

She said that in pre-race simulations, the team consistently finished in the top five, but due to a system giving them a false positive before race day, they decided not to try and make the final. overtaking maneuver in Las Vegas.

“We prioritized safety,” she said.

Not a bad idea for a vehicle with a retail value of $1.2 million.

But the group has seen gradual improvement in the first two events, and they hope to continue to improve in the future. There have been races confirmed for the coming months although nothing has been officially announced yet, and Heredia are unable to divulge details of what they know.

The future

According to a report published by IDTechEx in 2021 titled: “Autonomous Cars, Robotaxis & Sensor 2022-2042”, autonomous vehicles could meet or exceed human safety levels as early as 2024.

The report also suggests that by 2046, self-driving vehicles could meet all of America’s mobility demand, and by 2050 they could theoretically meet all of the world’s transportation needs.

Heredia agrees that self-driving vehicle technology is widely available, but the research it, its team, and other competitors are currently doing could go a long way toward making that possibility a reality.

“You think about racing history, there’s been a lot of stuff that came out of the racing series that’s in mainstream vehicles today,” she said. “You think of suspension systems, those technologies came out like Formula 1 (and endurance racing). Similar to that, that’s something we hope to create with this series.

Getting vehicles to the point where they could theoretically react to normal, everyday events is a challenge far from fully understood.

Being able to react to someone riding a bike down a street or crossing a sidewalk would require massive algorithmic calculations and advancements over years. But the research has to start somewhere, and being able to work on these things at such high speeds is something few people have yet thoroughly tested.

This is the value of the IAC.

“Being able to get information just about how responsive and how well a car can exhibit in many of these extreme environments, that could be research that we could share with the industry,” she said.

While there are many steps to take before autonomous vehicles can be on the road, or even be the majority of vehicles on the road, the hope is that they will eventually lead to safer conditions.

“You think of all the crashes that happen every year, like all the fatal crashes that happen on our roads, the #1 reason for these crashes and crashes is human error,” she said. “So assuming we can get these cars to where they drive safely on their own and not be a hazard to the people around it, you could see a lot of these deaths from car crashes go down. .”

Texas marked 21 consecutive years of daily deaths on its road on November 21, 2021.

While there’s no guarantee that self-driving vehicles would solve this problem, especially not in the short term, working to fix it is something that needs to be done.

Autonomous vehicles could also help with other logistical tasks.

“Logistics is such an important part of Laredo, and there’s a shortage of truckers,” Heredia said. “A lot of these companies are struggling to get loads of freight from point A to point B, there’s been a lot of money invested in self-driving trucks.

“I worked at one of these companies last summer, and there’s a huge thing to be said for, ‘OK, we have this growing, massive shortage of drivers, maybe we can get these trucks. self-contained to be able to move freight and also reduce the cost of goods.’

“You look at a lot of price increases and you look at a lot of supply chain issues, you look at what the common things are between these two and his shortage of freight and drivers and that’s it. So I think there could be broad benefits on safety, logistics, freight and even just helping people who are not able to drive and who might be disabled to be able to get from point A to point B. »

Business and progress

Heredia has always had an interest in cars and business. Back at Alexander, she sewed felt toys and sold them for $5 apiece. She would also sell her own artwork and even sticks of gum on campus.

After school, she went to work in her father’s workshop where he worked on cars. She wanted to be able to do whatever she could to go to college and afford it, and possibly help her two younger brothers get there too.

She had a chance to succeed because of all that hard work, and she was lucky to be part of this team because of the effort she put in after graduation. Now having the chance to work in this team has allowed her to bring it all together, and she hopes that this type of work will also provide better opportunities for students.

“I’m going to work on that even during my internship,” she said. “I do this even in addition to my classes. It’s almost like, I don’t know, I feel like saying 28, 30 hours of work on top of what I already have, but I love it. The subject interests me enough to be willing to devote hours to it.

At the same time, she knows that this type of program gives students who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to work in the industry a chance.

“There’s a mission in a lot of the work we do,” she said. “Just talk to the student team itself and give students the opportunity to get involved in something robotics related that you won’t find anywhere else.

“You think of any robotics competition, there’s a lot you have to pay up front to be able to participate – to get a lot of gear, to be able to travel to those competitions and do a lot of these things, it’s just for a lot of students, it’s impossible to get involved in. Even in college, there were a lot of things I didn’t participate in because I didn’t have the money.

“So a lot of the work that we do, a lot of the reason that we’re trying to fundraise is so students can have this hands-on opportunity that will help them get jobs in self-driving. They already have project experience. They know how an autonomous vehicle works…many fundamental concepts are there. So I don’t think there’s really an end to what we’re doing.

“When this series of competitions ends, we will move on to the next thing. There’s no shortage of really cool competitions. But at the end of the day, what matters to us is simply being able to provide opportunities for students.

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