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The Indy Autonomous Challenge features racecars without anyone in the driver's seat

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Race cars are zooming around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today. It's not the B.J. Leiderman 500 - named for the man who writes our theme music - but nine cars racing, none with an actual driver strapped in the seat. Indiana Public Broadcasting's Samantha Horton has this report on the Indy Autonomous Challenge.

SAMANTHA HORTON, BYLINE: It's a sunny fall afternoon as teams make practice laps on the 2 1/2-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

HORTON: Team members push the freshly decorated race cars into position in the pit lane. As some look at computers, others start the car, and off it goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

HORTON: This very much resembles a typical race car practice day. It is certainly odd to see there is no driver in any of the cars. The car's driving itself based on computer programming. In fact, some of the college students here racing the cars don't even have a driver's license. Instead, they've developed software to drive the car. The Indy Autonomous Challenge has been going on for two years. It began with 41 teams from around the world and was reduced to the final nine competing here today at speeds topping 100 miles per hour. The winning team will walk away with a $1 million prize.

For many here, this is not just about speed but about safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates more than 38,000 people died in car crashes in the U.S. last year. Paul Mitchell's with Energy Systems Network and helped organize the event. He blames human error for most of those crashes.

PAUL MITCHELL: If we can improve the safety of vehicles on highways, where a lot of those deaths occur at high speeds, you know, and save, you know, tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of lives, there's no more clear real-world benefit than saving lives.

HORTON: Autonomous technology development has been on the rise with carmakers for decades. They've already spent tens of billions of dollars to develop software and tweak the technology. Melanie Mitchell researches artificial intelligence at the Santa Fe Institute. She says there are significant challenges beyond speed and controlling a car on a track.

MELANIE MITCHELL: The real problem is that the real world involves all kinds of possible events that could happen and all kinds of different entities, like pedestrians and animals and weird kinds of obstacles that a car might encounter.

HORTON: For today's competition, high school students from all over Indiana are attending, along with the state governor and top technology executives to watch these cars compete. University of Pittsburgh student Nayana Suvarna says that for most of her life, she's been the only woman in any STEM environment she's been in. She hopes that girls attending today's competition will go into a science career.

NAYANA SUVARNA: I really do hope that, like, if people look and see this competition, maybe if they see me, they'll see maybe it isn't so intimidating to be in a room full of men and try to go toe to toe against them and compete against them.

HORTON: Just getting here with a super fast self-driving car is an accomplishment. Even before the green starter flag is waved, organizer Paul Mitchell thinks this competition is a success.

P MITCHELL: I think we can already declare a success. We've developed an amazing race car, the fastest autonomous vehicle in the world, the most advanced autonomous vehicle in the world. We've run it around the track and are competing. And teams are learning.

HORTON: Learning to move from simulation to the racetrack and implementing new algorithms into each car. While organizers haven't announced a follow-up event, there's likely to be more demand for racing cars without a driver literally behind the wheel. For NPR news, I'm Samantha Horton in Indianapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENT SONG, "K.I.S.S.E.S") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.