“The Indy Autonomous Challenge is a broadly collaborative effort that brings together public, private and academic institutions to challenge university students around the world to imagine, invent and prove a new generation of automated vehicle software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent.” 
One of those locals, Mark West, is my better half, so I got the opportunity to see the cars in action.
Aside from brief stops at O’Hare airport in Chicago, I’d never been to the Midwest before. It was also the first time I had traveled by plane since the pandemic started. So not only was I going to see some cool technology in action, I was going to a new place, which I always enjoy.
When the mask mandate first started, I swore I wouldn’t travel until I could do it maskless, but that appears to be WAY off in the future. So, off I went to Indianapolis, Indiana.
The night before I left, I got an email from Alaska Airlines informing me of a new program launched by the Port of Seattle called SEA Spot Saver. It allows a select number of travelers to reserve a timeslot each day for general screening at TSA Checkpoint 3 and 5 (closest general screening to the C, D and N gates.)
I decided to give it a try and experienced expedited contact-free screening. In other words, I sailed past all the people waiting in line for security and walked right up to be screened. If you get this email before a flight, I highly recommend taking advantage of this new service. It made my morning flight much less stressful.
After a brief delay to fix a light that wouldn’t go out, we embarked on the 4-hour flight to Indiana. A tall person with a substantial backside, I had decided to spring for first class this time to avoid the dreaded 17-inch-wide seats with their 31 inches of legroom, never a comfortable situation for Viking-sized me.
I followed along with the in-flight tracker and realized I needed to bone up on my Midwest states as I found myself thinking, “Is that a Dakota? Or maybe Minnesota? No, it’s Missouri, definitely Missouri.” Before realizing I was over Iowa. My past geography teachers would have been disappointed in me.
Aside from some bumps over the Rockies, the ride was uneventful, and before I knew it, we started our descent to Indianapolis International Airport.
My first impression of the Hoosier state from the air was a sense of extreme flatness. Like I think I can see the curvature of the earth’s flatness. Having grown up in Washington, it was really striking to me to see no hills or mountains. In fact, the highest point in the state is Hoosier Hill at 1,257 feet which may be one reason why agriculture is one of the biggest industries in the state.
Indianapolis is slightly larger than Seattle, but after studying the airport map to be sure I knew where I was going, I realized their airport is MUCH smaller with only two twenty gate main concourses vs. Seattle’s 4 concourses and 103 gates. I easily navigated my way to the arrival area.
Stepping outside the airport, it was HOT. The entire state of Indiana falls into the hot-summer humid continental climate category, and I just missed the hottest month by 3 days (I think it carried over just for me). I quickly found my ride, and we headed into downtown Indianapolis.
Since mid-July, Mark has been in Indiana, working on the autonomous Indy car at the various racetracks in the area. Indiana is home to many racetracks, and he was spending his time mostly at Juncos Racing who is providing vehicle assembly, service and maintenance of the racecars and Lucas Oil Raceway Park where the cars were tested on the track, with one visit to the biggest of them all, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
We stayed in the Wholesale District, a neighborhood in the southern section of downtown; this district contains the Bankers Life Fieldhouse (home of the Pacers), the Circle Center Mall, and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in the city center.
As we left the hotel searching for dinner, it quickly became apparent this would be a difficult task. The annual FDIC (Fire Department Instructors Conference) was in town, and you couldn’t swing a firehose without hitting a handlebar mustache in the bright sunshine. Settling for burgers in the air-conditioned room, we caught up and went to bed in preparation for track day the next morning.
Indiana is on East Coast time, so track day came a wee too early for me. I sent Mark on his way and ubered over a few hours later. My driver was an immigrant from Gabon who, after hearing I dreamed of going to Africa someday, filled the 25-minute drive with tales of different African countries and which one he thought I should go to someday. Rwanda and Botswana are now on my shortlist, but alas, according to him, his home country should not be.
I arrived at Lucas Oil Raceway to find several tents lining the track in the hot sun-filled with engineers and university students staring at computer screens. The cars sat behind them on the track; I heard terms like; Lidar, GPS and ROS (Robot Operating System), of which I understood little but was still wholly impressed to see a car make loops around the track sans driver. The cars themselves were impressive machines made of carbon fiber with complicated engines, sensors and computers.
I intended to walk around asking questions. Still, it quickly became apparent that the competitors were too busy, and my questions would have been too basic to elicit anything but, “who is this person bothering me?” So, I decided to leave the blinding sun and uber back to the hotel, leaving them to their impressive task.
I asked Mark to explain what was going on: “On track day we are doing one of three things: 1) collecting data from sensors which we will later analyze in order to get a sense of what the real world looks like, 2) testing new or changed functionality in very small steps, or 3) bringing a new car up to parity with the rest of the fleet. Presently we are all working together to reach a level of base functionality. At some point fairly soon we will switch focus to efforts that seek to provide an advantage to our own teams individually.“
My driver on the way back was a long-time local whose daughter lived in Bellevue for a time. He gave me the scenic drive back and pointed out all the local landmarks. He told me all about the Indy 500 and was fascinated to hear about the Autonomous Challenge. Everyone I met in Indianapolis was amiable, wanted to know if it really does rain a lot in Seattle and were delighted to find out I lived in Twin Peaks!
The next day was spent in a flurry of activity, after finding out Mark would have to stay another two weeks, securing him another room, doing laundry and grocery shopping. Still, I managed to stop by the city center and look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument while dodging the sun’s relentless rays. I left the next day grateful to see rain back home in North Bend.
All in all, my short time in Indianapolis was uneventful, but I came away with a good impression of the city and the people who live there. I will NEVER go back in August, really, I shouldn’t go anywhere in August, but if the weather were more conducive for sun intolerant exploring, I would go again.
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