If the unknown is scary, perhaps it’s better to understand it rather than shun it.

That’s what Alex Polonsky believes, anyhow.

Polonsky, the founder of the Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Group, points to Elon Musk’s quote about artificial intelligence being the biggest existential threat to mankind when explaining why he started an autonomous vehicle hackathon for students.

Problem solving is all part of the experience. This year's hackathon will be at Lawrence Tech University.
Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Group Problem solving is all part of the experience. This year’s hackathon will be at Lawrence Tech University.

The more people that understand technology, the less scary it is. Maybe one of the participating students will go on to make AI less scary, he says.

The important part is getting children interested in technology at an early age. Polonsky calls autonomous vehicles the most exciting thing happening in technology today. A perfect fit, then.

Alex Polonsky is with the Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Group, which is dedicated to a passion for using technology for a better world.
Elena Polonsky. Alex Polonsky is with the Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Group, which is dedicated to a passion for using technology for a better world.

“As a kid myself, I was kind of a wild child and missed out on a lot of projects. So I’m big on enabling other people,” Polonsky says.

“Let’s give kids the opportunity to do something useful. Let’s start with the youth and hopefully get them hooked and create better lives for themselves.”

Polonsky’s Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Group has partnered with AutoSens to present the Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Adventure Kids Hackathon. The event will be held on May 11 and 12 at the campus of Lawrence Technological University. The hackathon precedes the AutoSens Conference itself, which is to be held on May 14, 15, and 16, 2019 at the Michigan Science Center.

AutoSens approached Polonsky after reading about a previous hackathon of his. The two organizations agreed that Lawrence Tech was the best site for the event.

“With LTU, their mission is to educate kids and maybe these kids at the hackathon will become interested in attending LTU. It continues that pipeline,” Polonsky says.

“It helps students answer the question of what they should do next.”

Inspiring passion for cars and computers

As for the hackathon itself, 15 students from across the metro Detroit region will gather to build and race their own autonomous RC cars. The students will be grouped into teams of three as they seek to win categories that include fastest lap time, most creative, and more. Students also keep and take home their cars.

On the morning of Saturday, May 11, students will learn the fundamentals of autonomous technologies. In the afternoon, they’ll be given pre-built RC car kits and then focus on the software side.

On Sunday, May 12, students will race their cars and hear from industry professionals. Polonsky also hopes to bring an autonomous vehicle on site for in-car demonstrations.

“This is the whole pipeline: Students learn the basics, apply the basics, demonstrate success, and see an actual product,” Polonsky says.

“These kids will see how fun this is and want to do more.”

In developing the hackathon and partnering with the AutoSens conference, Polonsky sees an opportunity to not only reach these students but also tell the story of southeast Michigan and its role in shaping the autonomous vehicle industry. While it’s true that the region has its automotive legacy rooted in the twentieth century, it’s also true that it’s positioned to flourish in the twenty-first century, too.

Polonsky himself was born in Russia, raised in San Francisco, and moved to southeast Michigan because of his passion for cars and computers. He hopes the hackathon will inspire others’ passions for the same.

“In doing these events, it shows that things are happening here. The global community sees that things are moving at a rapid pace and on different levels here,” Polonsky says.

“The hackathon brings new technology to the city and to the youth. We’re building the next Detroit.”

Photos courtesy of Detroit Autonomous Vehicle Group. Portrait of Alex Polonsky by Elena Polonsky