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The Driverless Audi At The Racetrack

Driverless AudiWell, I guess we saw this one coming as soon as the driverless car concept started becoming more than being reserved for use by science fiction authors.  Audi has been doing some tinkering to find out if a driverless car can get faster lap times than a conventionally driver car.

For most of the designers and other boffins playing around with driverless cars (i.e. Google, Volvo and Toyota), safety is the main idea.  Human error is the main cause of car accidents, so by getting technology to do it, the human error is thus eliminated (although I’m reminded of the saying that came out in the 1980s: To err is human but if you really want to stuff things up, use a computer).  However, when Audi started modifying an Audi RS7 to make it into a driverless car, the idea was to see if a fully computerised driverless car could do it faster than a real person.

The first thing that Audi did was to put loads and loads of sensors all around the body of the car – an absolute must for any driverless car or, indeed, just about any production car worth its salt these days. (Those of you who have read Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who” sci-fi novels may wonder if we really are heading towards a world where humans can mesh completely with a machine and its sensors. OK, no more speculative sidetracks…).  These ultrasound sensors on the Audi RS7 check how close the vehicle is to the side of the track and other objects, and the front camera can read road signs as well. Just for fun, they threw in an infrared camera to give the car night vision.  These sensors are designed to work in with a super-precise GPS navigation system.  Most of the navigation systems you’ll find on good cars are pretty precise and can pinpoint your location to within about 15 m – enough to get you home or to help you find the nearest public loo or café.  However, the one on the driverless RS7 is much more precise, tracking and pinpointing locations within 10 cm or 1 cm (one of the videos shown below says 1 cm; the .  Add in a mapping programme showing the road ahead that can work at really high speeds (up to 240 km/h) and the car’s ready to roll.  All this information gets fed to the central computer that controls the steering, the brakes and the throttle. And here’s the result, as demonstrated at the Hockenheim track:

This wasn’t the only public outing for the driverless Audi RS7. They also got it out to race against a human at the Ascari circuit in Spain, with the result that the driverless car beat the human:

One of the big secrets behind why this driverless car gets such good lap times is that the tracks are pre-programmed into its system. We all know that the one thing that computers do a lot better and quicker than humans is to carry out complex mathematical operations. This means that a driverless car doing laps can calculate the perfect lap line, probably with a bunch of quadratic equations (see, they are useful in real life rather than a torture inflicted on you during high school mathematics). It can also calculate the perfect time and level of braking and acceleration to get around the curves perfectly. What’s more, the car probably doesn’t have to worry about driver discomfort and the amount of G-force involved, meaning that if it needs to brake hard or swing around a corner hard, it can, even though this would feel ghastly for the human body.  And the car can adapt itself to the conditions.

It’s pretty amazing; there’s no doubt about that.  Part of me loves the idea that the effect of any momentary distractions and bad habits can be eliminated just like that.  However, there’s another part of me that’s just a little bit technophobic and doesn’t like the idea at all.  I mean, we’ve all seen how computers and other electronic equipment can throw wobblies and do what you didn’t intend them to do at awkward moments.  Take my electronic keyboard (of the musical type), for instance.  After being in storage for a month, it developed the habit of suddenly making a loud “WOP” noise at random and resetting every single tone to plain piano (including the preprogrammed drumbeats), which means that we can’t take the out to perform in public because it’s got faulty electronics that cost a bomb to fix.  Imagine if the circuitry in a driverless car failed at a critical moment – it would be a lot worse than merely embarrassing. And we all know how spell checkers, autocorrect and speech recognition software can get things badly wrong.  One clanger I’ll never forget that happened to me were when Microsoft Word decided that the British slang for gumboots, “wellies”, should really have been “willies”.  The other was when my phone decided that instead of texting my brother “Dropping off hay bales at your place,” it should have been “Dropping off gay baker at your place.”  Check out the website for worse examples.  Again, if simple things that think for themselves can get it so badly wrong, then can you imagine what would go wrong with a fully driverless car?

The other objection I have to a driverless car is that it takes all the fun out of car ownership and driving.  Remember the day when you first got your car licence and could actually be in charge rather than merely sitting in the passenger seat being driven?  Driverless cars seem to be a bit of a step backwards.  If they become really common, why bother learning to drive at all?  For that matter, if all you want on your commute is to sit back and check out your social media feed, read a book or just daydream, then why not just take public transport?

However, if they manage to iron out any electronic kinks that are the equivalents of autocorrect fails and other gremlins, then it is kind of exciting to think of a world where drunk drivers, idiots who can’t keep their eyes off their mobile phone and other distracted drivers won’t be a problem.  I know I’ve got a few bad driving habits myself that an autonomous car would probably correct.  I guess that people felt jumpy about automatic gears when they first came out; they certainly thought that the internal combustion engine was black magic when Herr Benz first developed it.

So what do other people think of the driverless car?  A great idea or a bit of a party pooper?  Would you ride in a driverless car?  Own one?  Or would you rather stay firmly in charge of things?