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Stanford team developing neural network system to help autonomous cars learn to handle unknown conditions

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a new way of controlling autonomous cars that integrates prior driving experiences to help the cars perform more safely in extreme and unknown circumstances. Tested at the limits of friction on a racetrack using Niki, Stanford’s autonomous Volkswagen GTI, and Shelley, Stanford’s autonomous Audi TTS, the system performed about as well as an existing autonomous control system and an experienced racecar driver. An open-access paper on their work is published in the journal Science Robotics.

Control systems for autonomous cars need access to information about the available road-tire friction. This information dictates the limits of how hard the car can brake, accelerate and steer in order to stay on the road in critical emergency scenarios. If engineers want to safely push an autonomous car to its limits, such as having it plan an emergency maneuver on ice, they have to provide it with details, such as the road-tire friction, in advance. This is difficult in the real world where friction is variable and often is difficult to predict.

To develop a more flexible, responsive control system, the researchers built a neural network that integrates data from past driving experiences at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, California, and a winter test facility with foundational knowledge provided by 200,000 physics-based trajectories.

Automated vehicles navigate through their environment by first planning and subsequently following a safe trajectory. To prove safer than human beings, they must ultimately perform these tasks as well or better than human drivers across a broad range of conditions and in critical situations. We show that a feedforward-feedback control structure incorporating a simple physics-based model can be used to track a path up to the friction limits of the vehicle with performance comparable with a champion amateur race car driver. The key is having the appropriate model. Although physics-based models are useful in their transparency and intuition, they require explicit characterization around a single operating point and fail to make use of the wealth of vehicle data generated by autonomous vehicles.

To circumvent these limitations, we propose a neural network structure using a sequence of past states and inputs motivated by the physical model. The neural network achieved better performance than the physical model when implemented in the same feedforward-feedback control architecture on an experimental vehicle. More notably, when trained on a combination of data from dry roads and snow, the model was able to make appropriate predictions for the road surface on which the vehicle was traveling without the need for explicit road friction estimation. These findings suggest that the network structure merits further investigation as the basis for model-based control of automated vehicles over their full operating range.

—Spielberg et al.


Schematic of control process using a learned neural network model. Spielberg et al.

With the techniques available today, you often have to choose between data-driven methods and approaches grounded in fundamental physics. We think the path forward is to blend these approaches in order to harness their individual strengths. Physics can provide insight into structuring and validating neural network models that, in turn, can leverage massive amounts of data.

—J. Christian Gerdes, professor of mechanical engineering and senior author

The group ran comparison tests for their new system at Thunderhill Raceway. First, Shelley sped around controlled by the physics-based autonomous system, pre-loaded with set information about the course and conditions. When compared on the same course during 10 consecutive trials, Shelley and a skilled amateur driver generated comparable lap times. Then, the researchers loaded Niki with their new neural network system. The car performed similarly running both the learned and physics-based systems, even though the neural network lacked explicit information about road friction.

In simulated tests, the neural network system outperformed the physics-based system in both high-friction and low-friction scenarios. It did particularly well in scenarios that mixed those two conditions.

The results were encouraging, but the researchers stress that their neural network system does not perform well in conditions outside the ones it has experienced. They say as autonomous cars generate additional data to train their network, the cars should be able to handle a wider range of conditions.

With so many self-driving cars on the roads and in development, there is an abundance of data being generated from all kinds of driving scenarios. We wanted to build a neural network because there should be some way to make use of that data. If we can develop vehicles that have seen thousands of times more interactions than we have, we can hopefully make them safer.

—Nathan Spielberg, lead author


  • Nathan A. Spielberg, Matthew Brown, Nitin R. Kapania, John C. Kegelman, J. Christian Gerdes (2019) “Neural network vehicle models for high-performance automated driving” Science Robotics doi: 10.1126/scirobotics.aaw1975


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