This would’ve been labelled as science fiction in the not-too-distant past, the idea of a car as powerful as a 560bhp Audi RS7 hurtling around the Hockenheimring on its own, with no driver inside. Remarkably, Audi’s piloted driving technology has reached the stage where this has become a reality, as Bobby (the car’s lovable nickname) polished off a lap of the circuit in just over two minutes. In the break leading up to the finale of the DTM season, Bobby and another RS7, this one with a driver behind the wheel, took to the track. Guess which one won? Bobby did, by five seconds.
How on earth was this whole feat made possible? It was through a combination of GPS technology, lasers, sensors and cameras, monitoring, guiding and controlling Bobby the whole time, allowing him to drive at very high speeds. The GPS was specially corrected and accurate to within 10mm, with hundreds of 3D images also being taken and analysed by the RS7’s computers. The lap was approached just as it would have been by a human, with unbridled acceleration along the straights, punctual and hard braking into corners and full power back out the other side. You can watch one of the many YouTube videos here.
Many people think of Google as the leaders in developing driverless car technology, but Audi’s boffins have been passionately tinkering away with it for quite a while. Although Bobby is Audi’s most powerful robot car at the moment, he’s not their first. Back in 2009, the year in which Michael Jackson died, Labour was still in power and flooding caused havoc in parts of the UK, Audi let a driverless TTS loose on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The following year, Shelley the TTS tackled the Pikes Peak, before driving around the Thunderhill Speedway in 2012. Shelley wasn’t able to give professional human drivers a run for their money back then, but Audi has surged development ahead, which is evident when you consider Bobby the RS7’s achievement.
Call me a Luddite or a killjoy, but despite my amazement and respect at such technological capabilities, I really don’t feel all warm and fuzzy inside if I think about a future in which all cars are self-driven. I’m very passionate about cars and driving and would be sad to see the fun and enjoyment taken away. So it’s a good job that, unlike Google, who seem to want to see a futuristic world brought about, Audi’s words and actions over recent years have reassuringly shown that they’re human and still see cars as fun. They just want to reduce the stressful, nervy and tedious aspects of driving, which get all of us down at times.
Audi is a member of the Open Automotive Alliance and works alongside Google and other technology and car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and Volvo to name but a few. Many of these firms have pioneered autonomous systems to improve safety and make driving easier. Just think of radar cruise control, automatic braking and parallel park assist systems, for example. Even the cockiest of drivers will admit that some technology is useful, some of the time. The Adaptive Cruise Control system on the latest Volkswagen Golf Mk7 will, for instance, monitor the distance to the car in front and brake for you if it reckons the need’s called for.
Imagine you’ve just driven on one of the most sublime roads you can remember, only to find yourself stuck in a really long motorway queue because of roadworks, an accident, or just sheer volume of traffic if it’s rush-hour. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if you could just sit back and let your car do the rest, accelerating and braking for you, whilst you check your social media or emails, eat a bag of crisps, read or book or close your eyes for some kip? If you’re in a hectic city like Rome and don’t fancy trying to shoehorn your car into a tight space you’ve spotted, how about getting out of the car completely and walking into the city whilst it parks itself? Another situation in which a driverless car would be most welcome is if one has had rather too many beers. No problem, just get your car to pick you up and drive you home. Visions like these are edging ever closer to becoming a reality thanks to Audi and other manufacturers, so I guess we should embrace them.