A UH Maui College Autonomous Vehicle Technology class, turned autonomous vehicle racing team, is off to Italy this June.

The Indy Autonomous Challenge started as a $1 million prize competition for university-based teams, representing top engineering and technology programs from around the world. 

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That open call led retired high-tech executive and racing fan Gary Passon and his small “Autonomous Vehicle Technology” class at the University of Hawaii’s Maui College to ponder, why not us, too?

The Kahului campus, Passon acknowledged, is not “Stanford or MIT.” UH Maui College has about 3,000 students, mostly part time, and offers just two bachelor’s degrees. Neither is focused on automobile design or racing.

The students prepared their application by zipping 12-inch nano race cars around a parking lot. But Passon, co-owner of the Aloha Aku Inn and Suites on Maui, and his students were eager — and the only applicant from Oceania.

“We were like that SAT student, who really shouldn’t be where we are, or shouldn’t have qualified for that university, but because we have all that extra-credit stuff, and we happen to be the best university in the center of the Pacific, being the only one, they opened up (the field) from 40 to 41 (teams),” Passon said. “We thought, what a great experience to participate … Just because you’re not the best doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play.”

But UH Maui quickly became the best, too. Its AI Racing Tech team attracted collaborators from the University of California San Diego, UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University.

It was the top American team at the 2022 Indy Autonomous Challenge and finished in third place at The Autonomous Challenge at the Consumer Electronics Show in January in Las Vegas, earning the UH Maui-centered team a No. 3 ranking worldwide as well as one of only six spots in an upcoming race on the renowned Monza Circuit track. 

That MIMO 2023 competition happens June 16-18 in Monza, Italy, just north of Milan, where F-1 racers have become international sports heroes, and the UH Maui College team will be among them. 

“All hands on deck,” Passon said as the UH race car was being prepared for shipment to Europe. “We know this is an amazing opportunity to showcase the team on the international stage, and we want to do our very best to represent hard work and commitments made by so many to get the team to this level of success.”

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A late night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the A-! Racing Team successfully finishes the last official passing qualifier, clearing them to race in two days in the Indy Autonomous @CES. (Courtesy of C.K. Wolfe/2023)

The Rules: No Driver, Only Software

Autonomous racing is an engineering challenge as much as a racing one, with the driver replaced by sensors that act as the eyes and ears for the vehicle. 

The competition rules are simple, said C.K. Wolfe, a UC Berkeley graduate student and project manager and logistics lead on the team. It’s “a high-stakes game of chicken.” 

The speed of each round, up to 180 mph, increases as the attacking vehicle must make the pass, while a defending vehicle can block. Both cars must maintain a 10-meter minimum distance front-to-rear, and a 2-meter cushion when side-by-side at all times. The first autonomous vehicle that cannot make the pass is disqualified and does not advance. 

The basic premise behind the Indy Autonomous Challenge is that it provides a sophisticated platform — including the racing car, autonomous computers, sensors and controllers — to experiment with driverless cars. 

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Each team analyzes its vehicle during the race on monitors that are receiving real-time data communication across a customized network for that particular race track. Once the car receives a command to leave the pit box and drive to the race track, though, the teams are not allowed to touch it or send any information to the vehicle other than for it to stop.

“The vehicles are therefore totally preprogrammed to a degree that it has to be capable of making on-board decisions for all the stuff it has to do, from set speeds, to steering angles, to detect an additional vehicle out there to make sure it doesn’t hit it,” Passon said. “All those decisions are being made inside of the vehicle completely without our engagement or involvement once it goes out onto the track.”

“Sometimes, it feels like (the car’s) a sentient being,” he added. “We’ve taught it all of that cool stuff, and then it goes out and does it.”

Programmers each build their pieces of the system, Passon said, in a similar way to how space exploration missions are constructed and managed. 

The Car

At the baseline of this competition is the Dallara-built Indy Lights AV-21 race car, a common vehicle in the industry. 

The Indy Autonomous Challenge is responsible for maintaining and transporting the cars, which are housed in Indianapolis, where none of the participating members or universities are based.

For events such as the Indy Autonomous Challenge, a half-dozen AV-21 Indy cars and their spare tires and extra parts are transported by trucks from track to track. For Monza, though, the cars will be transported at a more sophisticated level, crated in aircraft-size transport bins, loaded into airplanes and flown to Italy. The cases will then be taken to the track and unloaded. 

The Maui team was given its car to work on at the event in Italy just a few weeks before the competition.


With the car usually being stored in Indianapolis, the Maui team’s day-to-day remote jobs in the meantime included building the car’s logic and planner. The path planner is like the brain of a self-driving car, Passon said. It’s how the vehicle makes decisions about how to move through the world. Sensors — including  LiDAR, cameras and RADAR — will allow the car to perceive the depth and texture of its environment while racing. 

The planner will perceive the world through its sensors and determine the strategy for where to go, and the controls algorithm will keep the car’s movements smooth and balanced throughout high speed maneuvers during the race.

The team has frequent “build farms,” where they remotely build software stacks that will then be put into simulators. These simulators effectively train the race cars to stop or avoid a collision at unstable speeds over 150 mph.

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Preparing for the CES race in January. Track side calibration and testing by the Telemetry and Perception Team. (Courtesy of C.K. Wolfe/2023)

This is no trivial task, Passon said, as it offers opportunities as well to drastically increase the margin of safety for consumer autonomous vehicles that travel at lower speeds and explores solutions to critical-edge cases that would otherwise never be developed. 

“It is at that absolute limit we find and solve new problems and critical issues that you don’t get to see if you’re just a passenger vehicle on the road traveling under 65 miles per hour,” team member Wolfe said. 

Thus, autonomous racing is not for academic or entertainment value alone, he said. These competitions are intended to significantly improve the performance and safety of the vehicles of tomorrow.

Passon said that draws immense auto industry interest. “They can’t do this,” he said. “We are the only people who are doing this,” he said.

As for the event itself, picture thousands of empty seats in the stadium, and the racing teams glued to their big monitors on the track.

“It turns out what we are doing is so research-based,” Passon said, “there’s really not an awful lot of spectators.”

The Birth Of The Team

Passon said after he retired from the tech industry, his interest always was in supporting science, technology, engineering and math education.

“I was trying to work with grade schools and high schools to get robotics programs going and get kids excited about technology and engineering and all that fun stuff,” he said.  

During his work career, Passon said he was building and running high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and Southern California, and in 2019, decided to retire to Maui. 

“My background is I-tech,” he said. “I had a really amazing, fruitful, and fun career, and then retired, but coming to Maui, I knew that it would probably be a little bit of a dearth of technology here.”

He quickly became frustrated by making little progress in STEM departments in Maui high schools. It wasn’t until UH Maui was trying to upgrade the things they were doing and reached out to Passon that he struck some luck.

“They said, why don’t you tell us what you want to work on,” Passon said. “So that was what got (the) autonomous vehicle class started. It’s one thing to hire a STEM teacher or help fund a bunch of robots or something like that, but that’s still sitting in the stands, and that’s just not my style.”

His first AVT class in 2020, he recalled, had just a half-dozen students. 

When Purdue University added an autonomous division to their EV Grand Prix contest in 2018, the class began using go-kart-sized cars for tests. Passon saw the contest as a perfect fit. Students would be able to take their classwork and apply it to bigger electric vehicles. 

“We were working away testing in the U.S. Embassy parking lot,” he said, “testing in the Maui parks … and doing a little bit of promotion about what we were doing to get more student contribution and get professors to take a look.”

The class use of the bigger go-kart sized electric vehicles brought notoriety in the field to their work. But for the next challenge, Passon said, they needed to work on even bigger vehicles, which required UH Maui to find collaborators at other institutions to join the team.

Programming In Paradise

Since the establishment of the larger team, involving multiple universities, development sessions have been set up to help unite team members beyond just the minimum month before each event.

These collaboration sessions, named “Programming in Paradise,” include students from all of the partner schools flying to Maui twice a year, for a month at a time, to conduct what the team calls “software sprints.” 

“We don’t make them work 24 hours a day,” Passon said. One minute, the students might be tangling with some of the most advanced mathematics and physics, and the next they could be lying on one of Maui’s most-glorious beaches.

“The hands-on really prepares them for when they come out of school, to be confident, that, hey, I can do this,” Passon said. “The stuff we are doing is not the blocking and tackling that most students get to go through school and learn.”

The UH Maui AVT Class And The ART Team

The class and the team at UH Maui have grown apart in recent years, with the class continuing to work on the smaller 10-12 inch nano-sized cars, as an introductory level.  

Working with the larger vehicles requires knowing about controls theory, C++ programming and higher-level mathematics, Passon said. The class can help students better understand and gain confidence with the architecture of what the team is doing, and the students in the class are welcome in the autonomous vehicle shops and garages. 

Next month will be the first time the team travels out of the United States for a competition. Passon and the team members will rendezvous in Italy at different times, depending on their roles on the team.

In Italy, the software and the race car will need to be modified by team members to go from high-speed head-to-head racing around ovals at speeds of over 170 mph to racing on one of the most famous road-racing tracks in the world, with its harrowing twists and turns. 

“The opportunity to connect the University of Hawaii to these amazing partner universities has been a great experience and working with some of the best up and coming engineering talent in the fields of autonomous systems has been an honor,” Passon said. “We look forward to being one of the top autonomous racing competitors.”

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