In Pursuit of the Checkered Flag: The Challenge of Developing a Driverless Race Car System

CMU Master of Science in Product Management program student Erick Valencia landed a PM experience of a lifetime as part of a student team developing a driverless race car system to race in the Indy Autonomous Challenge

Product Managers often face a race to the finish, so to speak. But for Erick Valencia, a student in Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Science in Product Management (MSPM) program, that race to the finish in the summer and fall of 2021 was all too real.

And so was the prize for the winning team: bragging rights – and a million dollars.

“It’s as real as you can imagine,” says Valencia, who could hardly hide his excitement at the opportunity to join one of many multi-university teams from around the world in developing and ultimately racing a driverless Indycar race car in what was the first edition of the Indy Autonomous Challenge.

“Autonomous driving has become an area of huge interest for me, and even is the subject of my ongoing research for my Human-AI Interaction course at CMU,” he says. “Plus, I’m a big motorsports fan, so when I saw this opportunity, I couldn’t say no. All our teams are writing the book on autonomous racing. Being part of all this and at the same time having the chance to feel the energy and emotion of competing at such a high-level is an absolute win.”

This first-ever racing challenge, launched in late 2019, pitted student teams from universities around the world against each other in a multi-stage competition to program Dallara AV-21 racecars to race autonomously at a final fall 2021 event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. First prize was $1 million for the team who achieved the top average speed performing autonomous laps with their car.

The event was organized by Energy Systems Network, an initiative of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, a non-profit industry consortium promoting innovation in advanced energy technology. To date, the public-private-sector consortium also has achieved the following, among other firsts: The first and largest all-electric car-sharing system in the nation; the largest electric bus fleet of any city in the U.S.; the first electric bus rapid transit line; and the largest public fleet of plug-in vehicles of any municipality in the U.S.

A most unlikely invitation

Valencia joined the MIT-PITT-RW team that included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pittsburgh, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the University of Waterloo. The team had approached Carnegie Mellon University and its MSPM program in the spring looking to recruit not a computer software engineer or robotics expert, but rather a product design-oriented business student.

“At that point, they were looking for support in marketing, budgeting, and specific management tasks – like keeping track of really important deadlines and progress, in order to know how well the team is performing,” he says of the invitation to Carnegie Mellon students to join the racing team.

erick valencia, product manager driverless race car project

Valencia, originally from El Salvador, meanwhile already had spent four years as a business engineer and aspiring product manager in the aerospace and financial technologies industries before deciding to strengthen and refine his product management skills via Carnegie Mellon’s MSPM program.

Business engineering, he says, “is a very special combination of industrial engineering, data science and business administration and sits between many roles. As a business engineer, just like a Product Manager, you’re trained to perform different key roles in an organization.”

Apparently, that’s just what the racing team was looking for.

“The thing about the MSPM program and CMU is that we get access to very interesting, innovative projects,” Valencia says of the racing team’s unique invitation to Carnegie Mellon students.

The team accepted him as part of the team in June 2021.

“This race has been, indeed, a very technical and special project,” he says. “But it’s in my DNA to take on such challenges. I think a Product Manager should be that versatile to take on any endeavor where his or her expertise can be of use.”

Synchronizing a sub-team

Valencia says he took on the role of a Product Manager for the State-Estimation sub-team, including student developers who were responsible for designing a module to track the position of the race car “at all times during the race” using cameras and perception input. His was one of six sub-teams all designing portions of the autonomous driving system.

“I came in to be a communication liaison and keeping track of the team’s progress,” Valencia says of the role he played – an applied extension of what he was learning in the MSPM program. “There’s so much hard work behind this – from the car’s aerodynamics and design to the race strategy and developing the algorithm that enables the car to drive autonomously using perception data from the car’s surroundings. It really is a huge team effort. I see it as a machine that needs to work in a very synchronized way, powered by highly talented people.

“Most of my role was about coordinating SCRUM weekly stand-ups and communicating complex ideas,” he adds. “But I also helped create a more comprehensive design of the PM Tracker Tool that was being used across the whole team.”

Valencia is quick to credit to the MSPM program’s learnings in how to track development processes and communicate ideas appropriately as a product management team leader.

Mid-summer test

In July 2021, Valencia’s team, along with the rest of the teams, had their first opportunity to put their racing systems to the test, at least in a simulation race.

“It was not the final race, but it was still a competition, and prizes were on the table,” Valencia says of the simulation race. “We were following the results on the edge of our seats.”

The team came in fourth place out of 16 teams.

“It was a very special moment for everyone,” he says.

Among the lessons learned in the test: “It validated our efforts at the moment and showed us the importance of not only reaching high speeds, but also completing a solid race.”

Lesson: “World of opportunity”

Valencia, while continuing to attend his MSPM classes throughout the race team’s progress, says he has learned a lot throughout the competition.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned during these past several months is that there is a world of opportunity where you can join motivated and ambitious people to achieve amazing things,” he says. “And then there’s the fact that I have learned and grown alongside really intelligent people, collaborating with them and having fun together.”

“The world is huge and full of possibilities,” he adds. “It became an eye-opener to be exposed to different types of innovation, more than I had imagined. Helping put an autonomous race car on the track has been a huge accomplishment.”


On October 23, 2021, the final race of the Indy Autonomous Challenge powered by Cisco took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Valencia describes the effort as an “epic culmination” of a two-year effort made by all teams. For MIT-PITT-RW, things took a dramatic shift when the team’s Dallara AV-21 went off track due to unforeseen GPS issues — something that also plagued other teams that day.

Still, says Valencia, “Regardless of the result, as a team we are very proud of our participation. The team is now looking ahead for the next races coming in 2022, where the only student-led team on the grid will show what they are capable of.” CMU’s Master of Science in Product Management program connects its students with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to apply the product management skills they learn to real-world challenges and make a meaningful difference that will accelerate their careers. That includes prestigious competitions, capstone projects, internships, and jobs with major industry partners.