North Carolina Central University Student Spends Summer at the Controls of a Driverless Car

Every Fall, students return to class with stories to tell about what they did over summer break. But how many can say they spent the summer at the controls of a driverless car? North Carolina Central University student Yesenia Velasco can.

Thanks to a University of Arizona College of Engineering 10-week summer research program focused on driverless car technology, Velasco and 11 other college students helped to advance the UA CAT vehicle, or cognitive and autonomous test vehicle. Velasco worked on developing hybrid predictive controller technology, which helps the vehicle identify obstacles in the environment without compromising velocity.

“I had little experience working with autonomous vehicle technology before starting the program,” Velasco said. “This program has given me insight about what it means to be a researcher and actually solve real-world problems.”

The NSF program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, provides opportunities for undergraduates to work with faculty mentors and graduate students on exciting research projects at universities throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

“I always thought research was for the Albert Einsteins of the world, but this summer I realized anyone can do research if they’re determined enough,” she said.

University of Arizona electrical and computer engineering professor Jonathan Sprinkle, an NSF CAREER Award winner who led the 2015 University of Arizona REU program, said the program was a good way to introduce students to research and graduate school. 

For more on the UA CAT vehicle program, visit, and to learn about the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, visit