In the middle of all the activity around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May was a workshop that could help put Indiana in a position to show off its strength in a high-demand area of research and technology. Industry and education leaders came together to talk about how racing and technology could come together to highlight the rapidly-growing field of autonomous vehicles.

The idea seems like a natural - use the Racing Capital of the World as a backdrop for a global autonomous vehicle competition.

Energy Systems Network Chief Executive Officer Paul Mitchell says the organization has been working for more than a year on the idea, and bringing together more almost two dozen leading research institutes from throughout the United States and beyond for a daylong workshop was the way to “accelerate that conversation and cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.”

Mitchell says there was “tremendous amounts of enthusiasm” from the participants in the May 23 event for autonomous technology and racing coming together. He says it’s an opportunity to take the constantly evolving autonomous industry to the next level; specifically, taking the vehicles and speeding them up. While there are a lot of details to work out, including timelines, logistics and funding, Mitchell says the universities seemed to think a competition is feasible within the next year or two.

The meeting brought together a slate of big names in the education, technology and automotive sectors. They included Indiana schools like Purdue University, IUPUI and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, national schools including Clemson University and Ohio State University and institutions from as far away as South Korea and Israel.

ESN believes universities would jump at the chance to have their students take part in an autonomous vehicle competition on a global stage, and the industry stands to benefit because of a talent shortage in STEM-related fields.

“There’s really no place where that’s more evident than in autonomous vehicles, which bring together things like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, software design and big data analytics,” says Mitchell. “All of these issues have to come together, all of these technologies have to work together for vehicles to drive themselves.”

Another benefit, says Mitchell, is that a competition on a stage as big as Indianapolis Motor Speedway would give the public an important opportunity to see and educate themselves about the latest in autonomous vehicle technology.

“We want to make sure that we do something in a way that is public enough and exciting enough and big enough that it also creates more exposure and more understanding of this technology for the general public,” says Mitchell. “People can see these vehicles working at racecar speed and say, ‘Well, if it can work for a racecar going 150 miles or 180 miles per hour around an oval, then it can probably work on a highway at lesser speeds.”

Mitchell says plans for a potential competition are “off to a good start,” and that IMS is a perfect place to bring it. The Speedway has had a history of automotive innovation since opening more than 100 years ago, and Mitchell says this is an opportunity to spark that legacy once again in the new discipline of autonomous vehicles.