These Stanford Engineers Taught a Self-Driving DeLorean to Drift Like a Professional

To show it off, they even made their own Gymkhana-style video—and it’s massively impressive.

Self Driving Electric 1981 DeLorean DMC12 - Stanford MARTYKhana Dec 2019
YouTube | Stanford University

It appears master stunt driver Ken Block has some serious competition emerging, and it’s not exactly human. The days of people skillfully outdriving computers may be coming to an end as engineers at Stanford University’s Dynamic Design Lab in California recently produced a Gymkhana-style video showing off a DeLorean drifting around obstacles at an enclosed track. Only the slick sliding DMC-12 wasn’t being manhandled by the person in the driver seat; rather, it was drifting autonomously.

The video is called “MARTYkhana,” which pays tribute to the DMC-12’s most iconic placement in the Back to the Future films. It’s the result of Chris Gerdes and his team, PhD graduates Tushar Goel and Jon Goh, coming together to show off some of their latest advancements in autonomous driving research.

The nearly three-minute-long video shows the all-electric, self-driving 1981 DeLorean DMC-12, named MARTY, performing donuts and figure eights in a smooth and masterful form that’d make you think Block himself, or perhaps a champion Formula D driver, was behind the wheel. But instead, MARTY had Goh and Goel in the passenger and driver seat with a laptop and some on-board telemetry monitoring the whole process.

It’s outrageously cool to watch and it serves as proof of how well Gerdes and his team are able to replicate some of the most challenging driving situations that were once thought only to be managed by the most skilled of human drivers. The crew hopes to get to the point where self-driving cars could potentially exceed a person's masterful driving skills.

“We’re trying to develop automated vehicles that can handle emergency maneuvers or slippery surfaces like ice or snow,” explained Gerdes,  the laboratory’s director and lead professor of mechanical engineering at Standford’s Center for Automotive Research. “We’d like to develop automated vehicles that can use all of the friction between the tire and the road to get the car out of harm’s way. We want the car to be able to avoid any accident that’s avoidable within the laws of physics.”

YouTube | Stanford University

“Through drifting, we’re able to get to extreme examples of driving physics that we wouldn’t otherwise,” Goh said. “If we can conquer how to safely control the car in the most stable and the most unstable scenarios, it becomes easier to connect all the dots in between.”

Finally, 2015 Formula Drift champion Fredric Aasbo weighed in on the experiment, saying:

“It’s really impressive how snappy the car can make those transitions and also how precise it could be. Because that’s the trick as a driver. That’s what we’re all trying to figure out.”

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