While companies like Google, BMW, Audi and Volkswagen pour millions into developing self-driving car technology with expensive components, 19-year-old Romanian high school student Ionut Budisteanu has designed an autonomous vehicle system that would cost just US$4,000. Budisteanu’s design took out the Gordon E. Moore Award in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair to pocket him a sweet $75,000.

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is billed as the world’s largest high school science research competition, with this year’s event seeing around 1,600 high school students selected from 433 affiliate fairs held in more than 70 countries, regions and territories. There is a number of awards, with a total of over $4 million in prize money up for grabs, but the Gordon E. Moore Award awarded to the top “Best in Category project is the most prestigious.

Budisteanu told NBC News that his goal was to remove the expensive, high-resolution 3D radar that is at the heart of Google’s self-driving car technology to bring costs down. To that end, he used a much cheaper, low-resolution 3D radar to recognize larger objects, such as other cars, buildings and trees, while webcams mounted on the vehicle are used to detect lane markings and curbs and monitor the real-time position of the car.

Imagery from the 3D radar and webcams is analyzed by artificial intelligence technology running on a suite of computers that calculates a safe route for the car. Budisteanu says his system performed without a hitch on 47 of 50 simulations, failing to recognize some people at a distance of 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 m) away in three of the simulations. However, he says a slightly higher-resolution radar that would still much cheaper than that used in Google’s vehicle would fix the problem.

Budisteanu has already attracted funding from a Romanian company that will allow him to test a prototype of his system in the coming months.

Other prizewinners included 18-year-old Eesha Khare from Saratoga, California, who took out the $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award for her invention of a tiny device that fits inside mobile phone batteries to allow them to fully charge within 20 to 30 seconds. The technology also has potential applications in cutting the charge times of electric vehicles.

Another $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award went to 17-year-old Henry Lin from Shreveport, Louisiana, who created a simulation of thousands of clusters of galaxies, thereby giving scientists valuable new data with which to study dark matter, dark energy and the balance of heating and cooling in the universe's most massive objects.

More than 500 finalists received awards and prizes, including 17 Best in Category winners who each picked up $5,000, with a $1,000 grant also going to each winner’s school and to the fair they represent.

Source: Intel, NBC News