Torc’s self-driving vehicle pulled up to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant on April 1, 2017 without fanfare. The street was mostly empty and the sun had started to set when the team of technicians and engineers walked up to the steps of the building and took pictures, while the LiDAR sensor on top of the car continued to spin. However, when the team lead called Torc headquarters and announced, “We’re here!” the silence of the street was broken by the sound of cheers and rapid-fire questions from the other line.

The arrival marked the end of the first day of a round trip from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Detroit, Michigan, in one of Torc’s self-driving cars. The engineers noted that the car performed consistently well along the way, logging a total of 1023 autonomous miles. It drove on the winding roads of West Virginia in the rain, was not deterred by heavy traffic on multi-lane highways in Ohio, and handled the bumpy, jagged pavement in Michigan with ease.

Torc’s self-driving vehicle on the road.

Torc’s self-driving vehicle on the road.

The car — with its myriad cameras and large, roof-mounted Velodyne LiDAR— triggered many conversations with passersby and observers along the route. One of the most popular questions asked was if Torc was a team of storm chasers. Some who approached the car just repeated the words emblazoned on the side of the vehicle. “Torc. Self-driving,” they’d say by way of greeting. Then they would stare at the team, waiting for an explanation.

At a West Virginia rest stop, a woman leaned out of the window of a large brown RV and filmed the team wiping off the rain-covered GoPro cameras set up to document the trip. A car full of teenagers passed the vehicle in Ohio, each grasping a phone in one hand and vigorously waving with the other.

The few people who passed the car on Piquette Street in Detroit stopped to ask the story of the camera and sensor-laden car parked there. The team replied that it had driven there to demonstrate Torc’s self-driving technology. The trip paid homage to the city that spurred the automotive revolution in America.

The Ford Piquette Plant destination was not chosen at random. Torc co-founder and CEO Michael Fleming said he chose the plant for its historical significance. “We chose the birthplace of the Model T as our destination, because it represents the start of a transportation revolution,” Fleming said. “Self-driving vehicles are the next revolution; they have great potential to enhance all of our lives.”

On April 2, the Torc team traveled back to Virginia. Despite arriving on a Sunday evening, they were greeted by a large group of Torc employees when they pulled into the company garage. They immediately gathered to discuss trip data, improvements and the plan to continue with progress. The vehicles were back on the local roads Monday morning and have been on public roads almost every day since.

It was the end of a successful trip, but just the beginning of our journey. Stay tuned for announcements in the coming months.

Project Background

Ten years ago, a self-driving vehicle developed by Torc Robotics (TORC®) and Virginia Tech drove across the finish line, placing third in the DARPA Urban Challenge. Since then, the company has grown exponentially, and developed autonomous vehicle solutions for the mining, defense, construction, agriculture, and automotive industries.

In 2016, Michael Fleming issued a new challenge to his team: to develop a complete autonomy system for consumer vehicles. He said the automotive industry was ready, and it was time to reveal what a decade of progress with a winning team looked like.

Torc developed two self-driving vehicles as a demonstration of a system built on 10 years of multidisciplinary engineering progress. Each vehicle carries an end-to-end software stack that the Torc team has honed for this automotive challenge. The team continues to test and develop the system capabilities.