Step One: Prove Robot Cars Can Handle the Worst
This fall, a driverless Audi TTS will attempt to race up Pikes Peak. If a robot can ace this harrowing mountain run, your daily commute could be next
When an Audi TTS roars to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado later this year, it will rumble over 12.4 dusty miles, navigating 156 hairpin turns at up to 90 mph, a speed only a pro racer would attempt. Yet Audi won't have to hire one: The TTS will make the perilous ascent without a human at the wheel.
Audi and its Volkswagen parent, in collaboration with Stanford University and Volkswagen's Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) in Silicon Valley, have already birthed some of the world's most gifted robo-cars. In 2005 a VW Touareg dubbed Stanley became the first fully automated vehicle to negotiate a 132-mile Mojave Desert course and win the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge. Last year in Manhattan, we twiddled our driving thumbs inside Junior, a robotic VW Passat designed for the urban environment, sensitive to traffic signals and stray pedestrians. The latest offspring of the collaboration is Shelley, a production-based TTS sports car named after rally racer Michèle Mouton, the first woman to win the prestigious Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
The Audi has already carved across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah at 135 mph, an unofficial land-speed record for automated cars. Hernandez says that designing a car to drive itself at extreme speeds on slippery dirt roads isn't a show-off technical exercise. By expanding technology widely available today, cars like the TTS would become your wingman, taking expert control during emergency maneuvers or parking themselves while you grab lunch.
Burkhard Huhnke, the head of ERL, says that many people are just poorly programmed for accident avoidance: They're panic-prone, unprepared for reflexive action, and unfamiliar with the proper techniques to avoid a crash. Unlike Junior or Stanley, the racy two-seat Shelley doesn't "see" the road or obstacles using cameras, radar or other sensors.Instead it will navigate Pikes Peak's harrowing turns using differential GPS, an enhanced system that corrects for atmospheric interference to an accuracy of less than an inch, to heel to a preprogrammed digital map. Meanwhile, algorithms will crunch data from wheel sensors, an accelerometer and gyroscopes to determine the right speed, acceleration and direction to ace the course.