Feature Story | 5-Jun-2023

Argonne’s Autonomous Vehicle Competition returns to the spotlight

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

On hiatus since 2020, Argonne’s annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition resumes at the Museum of Science and Industry, challenging high school students to work together to develop, test and present their own self-driving vehicles.

Recently, visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago found an unexpected surprise on the museum’s upper level. In the middle of the floor’s rotunda sat a large, maze-like track, and unique, miniature vehicles traversed the course. If guests wondered what this all was, they could simply ask the high school students gathered at tables along the rotunda’s rim. More than happy to share their excitement, the students explained that they were competing in the Autonomous Vehicle Competition (AVC), run by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, which had returned to MSI after a three-year hiatus. 

In the AVC, high school teams design their own autonomous vehicles that can successfully navigate through an obstacle course, all the while recording their triumphs and setbacks in research journals. Then on competition day, they present their development process to lab volunteers and send their vehicles through the track.

“I was so relieved (that the AVC returned), because it helps my students see that science is more than just measurements and calculations: it’s about communication, teamwork and adapting and then sharing what you found. The lessons learned here can’t be taught in the classroom.” — Benjamin Voliva, Lincoln-Way East High School coach 

“The AVC teaches students problem-solving skills through quick, tight iterations of ​‘code it, test it’,” said Steven Clayton, coach for Jones College Prep. ​“It also builds collaboration, as whenever people compete like this, you get to make things better for the good of everyone; it’s not ​‘me vs you’, it’s ​‘us vs the problem.’ These students had very little coding experience before this competition, and now they’re teaching me things.” 

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Argonne, which annually runs the AVC, had to cancel the competition in 2020. This is the first time since then that Argonne has held the competition, and schools that participated in past years were excited for the chance to return. 

“I was so relieved (that the AVC returned), because it helps my students see that science is more than just measurements and calculations: it’s about communication, teamwork and adapting, and then sharing what you found,” said Benjamin Voliva, coach for Lincoln-Way East High School. ​“The lessons learned here can’t be taught in the classroom.” 

As in past years, Argonne hosted the AVC at MSI, but this time the competition took place in a prominent location within the museum. With this in mind, Argonne added an additional judging requirement for students to interact with museum guests. While challenging, students enjoyed this opportunity to showcase their work. 

“It has honestly been a lot of fun,” said Nico Caulfield, a student from Benet Academy High School. ​“Since we’ve spent so much time building and designing it over the last few months, it has been nice to explain our process and how it works to people, and to see them excited over something we built. It’s like an exhibit for people to see, and it’s cool that we get to share that with people.” 

The obstacle course portion of the competition this year also marked a new achievement at the AVC. In past years, no vehicle had ever reached the finish line unassisted. This year, Lincoln-Way East’s vehicle slowly but surely made it the entire way. 

“Coming in, we were nervous but also excited,” said Shane Romberg, a student at Lincoln-Way East. ​“After all the hard work we put in, this was when we got to show it to the world. Now that we’ve won, there’s this sense of accomplishment. Every single one of us put in a ton of time, work, energy and personal sacrifices, and we’re very proud of how we did.” 

Winners (Design) 

  • 1st Place — Lincoln-Way East High School 
  • 2nd Place — Benet Academy High School 
  • 3rd Place — Jones College Prep 

Winners (Performance) 

  • 1st Place — Lincoln-Way East High School 
  • 2nd Place — Benet Academy High School 
  • 3rd Place — Jones College Prep

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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