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BYU Professor Constructs Mini Town to Test Self-Driving Car Tech


It’s been a big year for miniatures at Brigham Young University.

First, the university unveiled a diorama of the campus, complete with tiny trees and itty bitty couples. Then came a LEGO bricks model of the former Brigham Young Academy inside of the BYU Store. But “Leehi,” located in the basement of the new engineering building, isn’t just small. It’s meant to teach students skills without endangering real life humans, buildings or cars.

The fictional town is named after DJ Lee, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, who constructed it with students as a way to teach them about self-driving cars.

“The main thing that we learned is the things you design and build, they work differently in the real world than you would expect from simulations,” said Harrison Garrett, a graduate student studying electrical and computer engineering at BYU. “No matter how well we planned, it took real-world testing to show why different people’s algorithms wouldn’t work.”

Leehi includes roads, a fire station, a bakery, miniature people, and in true local fashion, a Costco.

Students built the miniature town over the summer and were divided into groups to test their remote-controlled cars in the fall during the special topics course.

The students reviewed techniques professionals use in the field regarding how to make self-driving cars stay in lanes, follow traffic laws and spot and avoid obstacles.

But despite their research, the first day the cars hit the road sent the autonomous vehicles all back to driver’s ed.

“It was so much fun to watch them not do what we wanted,” Garrett said. “There were many issues all of the teams had to deal with in the beginning just because we had to learn how to use the cars.”

The team tweaked their projects as they went along. Many, many miniature crashes later, the cars could stay within the right hand lane, stop at stop signs, detect traffic lights and determine what color the light was showing at the time.

And yes, the students even programmed the cars to stop at the miniature Costco.

“Hopefully, after this class they know enough and they can get into a job market as a self-driving car engineer,” Lee said in the YouTube video.

Lee was out of the country at the time of publication and could not be reached.