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Stanford made a self-drifting electric DeLorean named Marty

But still no hoverboard

Last night, a group of Stanford researchers unveiled the university's latest self-driving vehicle, only at first glance this one looked more retro than the autonomous car of the future.

The new prototype is a DeLorean DMC-12 with a power steering motor that can drift with, well, let's call it "robotic precision." (Strangely, this isn't the first self-drifting car, but it's definitely the first self-drifting DeLorean.) And, in keeping with the tradition of giving their autonomous vehicle projects human names, the Stanford Revs team named the car Marty, which technically stands for "Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control." In reality, it's an obvious nod to Marty McFly from Back to the Future.

While some of Stanford's previous autonomous prototypes have been testbeds for avoiding objects on everyday roads or determining the time it takes for a human to take over control of a car, Marty the DeLorean is built to drift like a professional race car driver — even better than a race car driver — in an attempt to show how autonomous vehicles could handle control and stabilization in hairy, real-life situations. Unlike other autonomous vehicles that have a spinning LIDAR dome on top to detect the objects around them, the DeLorean is using a combination of finely tuned mechanical engineering and automated driving software to control movement.

Stanford Marty DeLorean

"Drifting, for us, was part of our larger goal on vehicle safety," Chris Gerdes, director of the Stanford Revs program, said in a panel discussion moderated by MythBusters star Jamie Hyneman. "All cars are subject to the laws of physics. But we think automated vehicles should be able to do anything within those constraints."

Supercar maker Renovo worked on the drivetrain

The DeLorean is built with two separate motors on the rear wheels, meaning the amount of torque delivered to each wheel can be controlled more precisely. Each motor is capable of about 200 kilowatts of power, though the DeLorean is running at about a third of that right now.

It's not the first time the team had done drifting work, Gerdes said. But the last time, back in 2008, the team ran into problems with the motors of the car they were working on. "We weren't able to control them fast enough or communicate with them," he said.

That's where Renovo Motors, the Silicon Valley-based maker of an electric supercar in the body of a Shelby Daytona Coupe, came in this time around. Renovo provided the drivetrain and transmission for the DeLorean, so that the Stanford team could focus on things like the power steering and the automated driving software.

So, why a DeLorean, something that you probably never associated with power steering and control? Jon Goh, a PhD candidate at Stanford and one of the project leads, said there were a few reasons why they chose Doc Brown's ride. For one, Stanford has a history of working with major automakers — and in this case, it didn't want to step on any toes by choosing one over another.

"Drifting was a part of our larger goal on vehicle safety."

It was also easy to work on, and relatively cheap, Goh said. Wired reports that the team spent just $22,000 to buy the DeLorean from someone using it as his daily driver in Sausalito, California. And finally, the team was looking for a rear mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, and the DeLorean fit the bill.

With Back to the Future Day finally upon us, "everyone says, 'Where's my hoverboard?'" Goh said. "Well, you don't have a hoverboard, but you have an electric autonomous DeLorean, so that's pretty cool."

Just don't try to take it through the drive-thru, Shannon McClintock says. On the master's student's first day on the Revs team, she realized during a trip to a fast food joint that the car's ground clearance was so low that she couldn't reach the drive-thru window. And she just as quickly discovered she couldn't open the car's gull-wing doors there, either.

"Rookie move," she says.