Audi’s screaming-hot race car drives itself – USA TODAY
SEARS POINT, Calif. – As scenes go, this one is as frightening as it is magical.
A red Audi RS7 sits calmly at the starting line of Sonoma Raceway when suddenly it snarls to life, wheels spinning and engine revving. And then it’s gone, speeding down this sinuous northern California track—with no one at the wheel.
Robby, as the test-car is called, is one of three Audi prototypes pushing the limits of self-driving car technology. Using radar, lasers and cameras, Robby is able to drive with the acumen of a pro without a human in sight.
While a self-driving race car or Google’s autonomous pods garner a lot of gee-whiz interest, Audi and other automakers ultimately are banking on consumers being more interested in cars that can take over some, but not all, of the tasks of driving.
“We want to produce a car that gives people the freedom to decide whether to drive yourself or have the car do it while you think of something else,” says Klaus Verweyen, Audi’s head of automated driving functions. “These changes (to cars) won’t just arrive one day, it’ll be a step-by-step adding of functionality.”
The next step for Audi, a sales star along with Porsche in the 12-brand Volkswagen Group, is the appearance in early 2016 of Traffic Jam Assist in its flagship A8 sedan. The feature allows the vehicle to drive itself in highway traffic but requires the driver to touch the steering wheel occasionally to demonstrate oversight.
In about five years, Audi engineers hope to pull the wraps off a consumer version of next-generation technologies that explicitly do not require human monitoring, what it calls the Traffic Jam Pilot and Parking Pilot.
“The idea is to increasingly give customers less stress, and more situations in which they can relax in their car,” says Verweyen.
Audi’s commitment to increasingly automated driving took root in 2009, when a modified TTS coupe, developed in partnership with Stanford University’s REVS program, tore across the Bonneville Salt Flats solo at 130 mph.
In 2013, Audi was granted a license to drive on Nevada roads, and this past January a custom A7 drove a group of journalists from Silicon Valley to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Tucked into a trackside garage here sat Jack, the A7 that made that 550-mile trek. It serves as an ongoing test bed for autonomous-tech development.
“The question we have to ask is, ‘If the car went on sale tomorrow, what would the interior look like?'” asks Erik Glaser of Audi’s Electronics Research Laboratory.
The answer is, pretty much the same way it looks now. Jack features two buttons on its steering wheel; getting the car into piloted or self-driving mode requires both to be touched at once so as to avoid miscues.
Once the system is activated, an array of blue lights stretches out beneath the windshield. The lights are blue when the system is active, and switch to yellow and then red when the system is set to turn off.
“The key in understanding HMI (human machine interface) is where one takes over and the other one backs off,” he says. “What you don’t want is control being dumped back on the human driver at a moment’s notice.”
Beyond consumer acceptance of cars with increasingly autonomous features, there’s also the matter of regulations and infrastructure keeping pace with in-vehicle tech. Little surprise then that one of the invited guests to Audi’s demo was California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and his four-year-old son Hunter.
“A lot of people talk about the future, but looking at this display makes you realize the future is now, I just experienced it,” says Newsom, not long after riding as a passenger in Robby while the car screamed around the track.
Newsom acknowledged that a self-driving racing car may not represent a practical advance, the technology underlying such performance could serve to reduce both fatalities and fuel consumption. He argued that California should lead the way.
“A few years ago, it was illegal to test (autonomous cars on open roads),” he says. “The key is flexibility in rule-making. I sense we’ll start unifying those rules as a nation. As for California, we’ve got innovation in our veins and it makes absolute sense to keep working on improving this technology.”
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