Audi’s Self-Driving Car Hits 150 MPH on an F1 Track – Wired
In the realm of self-driving cars, Google tends to get all the attention. Its vehicles have covered more than 700,000 miles on their own, and an adorable, steering wheel-free prototype joined the family in May. But Audi is no less serious about autonomous technology, and to prove it, it sent an RS7 flying around Germany’s Hockenheimring at race pace. Without a driver inside.
On Sunday, a group of Audi engineers closely watched as the largely stock RS7, nicknamed “Bobby,” lapped the Formula One track. The 560-horsepower car took the six straightaways at full throttle. It precisely hit each of the 17 turns, topping out at 149 mph. It completed the lap in roughly 2 minutes, 10 seconds, about 30 seconds slower than the times posted by the professionally-trained humans in the DTM races held after the Audi demonstration.
“We wanted to come close to matching the speed, precision, and vehicle control of a professional racer,” says project manager Peter Bergmiller. “We took the sportiest piloted driving car in the world to the race track and did just that.”
Taking a ride in Google’s self-driving car comes with a quiet wow factor: At low speeds on suburban roads, sitting in the Lexus SUV is super boring—that’s how good the system is. When Audi wants to show off its technology, which it’s been working on for over a decade, it’s not quite as subtle. In 2009, its self-driving TTS hit 130 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats and carved the brand’s four-ring logo into the ground. The next year, that same car ran the 156-turn Pikes Peak mountain race circuit in 27 minutes (the course record is 8 minutes, 13.9 seconds, set by Sebastien Loeb in 2013). The TTS took on California’s Thunderhill Race Track in 2012.
At each, the car performed magnificently, making us humans feel excited, but also increasingly irrelevant. Those tests show two things: 1) autonomous cars can be a freaking blast, and 2) Audi’s approach to the technology is very different from Google’s.
Those tests are a complete blast for people who love watching cars race, but they don’t make much sense at first glance. At this point, the real challenge of getting self-driving cars on the market is proving they can safely handle a huge range of situations, the most difficult of which involve unexpected obstacles like cyclists, pedestrians, and construction. So why test on a racetrack lacking those variables?
It’s to see “how do you control a car at the limit,” says Thomas Mueller, Audi’s head of development of braking, steering, and driver assistance systems. While the RS7’s computer had a detailed digital map of the track and was following an optimized path through it, Audi did not preprogram things like torque or steering. It was up to the car to decide how to keep up speed and stay on track. It had to adjust to things like changing traction and grip, and the chance to see how it fared is what makes this testing useful.
That shows us how Audi’s approach to autonomy—in its parlance, “piloted driving”—is fundamentally different from Google’s. The tech giant calls its approach a “moonshot”—it plans to introduce a fully self-driving car as its commercial debut. To get there, it tests its cars on public roads all day, getting better and better in those conditions. Audi, like other automakers, is taking a gradual, evolutionary approach, installing autonomous technologies one by one as they are proved reliable. It’s the safer approach, and lets it steadily add features to add to its latest models.
Many cars today, including Audi’s, can stay in their lane, adjust their speed on the highway, and hit the brakes in emergency situations, all on their own. But while Mercedes and Nissan talk about putting a fully self-driving car on the market within a few years, Audi is more circumspect. Yes, it has a self-driving car prototype. No, it doesn’t think it will be ready for customers in the near future. But it’s making progress.
The hardware and software in the RS7 aren’t much different from Audi’s competitors are using. The car has a laser system to read its surroundings, along with radar, cameras, and an ultrasonic system. Mueller, though, emphasizes what Audi calls zFAS (why it felt the need to abbreviate zentrale Fahrerassistenzsteuergerät isn’t clear to us), a computer system that brings data from those disparate systems into one place. It’s “a central brain like the one we have in our head,” Mueller says. Two years ago, it took up the whole trunk of Audi’s demonstration vehicle. By January 2014, when it was shown at CES, it was half as big as a shoebox, and had as much computing power as the entire A4 sedan has today.
One thing Audi wants to add to its car next, Mueller says, is the ability to automatically and suddenly change lanes to avoid collisions on the highway. To do that, it has to know how the car handles at extremes. The Hockenheim lap, which doubled nicely as a PR stunt, gave Audi the chance to collect that data.
Audi also does more mundane—and possibly more important—testing in California, where it was the first company to be licensed to use autonomous technology on public roads. But watching an autonomous car patiently wait to turn left at an intersection is way less fun than seeing one barrel around a Formula One track, and the public relations significance of that isn’t lost on the Germans. Pushing a car, especially one as fast and powerful as the RS7, to its limit without a human at the wheel, is an exhilarating, attention-grabbing way to show everyone what it’s up to.