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The popular video game Grand Theft Auto is helping Penn researchers test new autonomous vehicle technology.

Electrical and Systems Engineering professor Rahul Mangharam is leading a team of six to test an autonomous driving software called the Computer Aided Design for Safe Autonomous Vehicles. 

“We can crash as many cars as we want,” Mangharam told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

To test the self-driving cars, Mangharam and his team use virtual simulations that mimic crashes in Grand Theft Auto. This helps better evaluate how the vehicles respond to their surrounding. 

The autonomous car technology is constantly executing a three-step process: perceiving its surroundings, routing, and then driving. As the car teaches itself through experience, it creates what scientists call a “black box” mystery in which researchers cannot tell exactly why the car makes certain choices.

It can be especially confusing when the car makes a mistake, though.

“Was the cause of the problem that it cannot perceive the world correctly and made a bad decision, or did it perceive the world correctly and make a bad decision?” Mangharam said. 

The researchers can modify the environment within the game to better understand how the car reacts to different weather conditions, as shown in a simulation found on Mangharam’s research website.

This research falls under the umbrella of Penn's branch of Mobility21, a $14 million federally funded program that aims to ensure safe and efficient transportation in the 21st century. Mangharam is the director of Penn’s branch of the program, and his research focuses on determining regulations for autonomous cars to ensure safety to the public.

“They need to be very transparent in the development of this technology,” said Leslie Richards, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “To get the public buy-in, people do need to understand.”

This technology is quickly growing and is being introduced in other parts of Pennsylvania. In Pittsburgh, Uber has already begun to introduce autonomous cars. 

“There’s never been anything quite like this, other than the introduction of the automobile,” said Kurt Myers, the deputy secretary for Driver and Vehicle Services in Pennsylvania, to The Atlantic.