In the field of self-driving cars, Google has always managed 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 recently. But, Audi is no less serious about the autonomous technology and to prove the same, it sent an RS7 flying around Germany’s Hockenheimring at race pace that too without a driver inside.
A group of Audi engineers closely watched the RS7, nicknamed “Bobby,” lap 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. The project manager Peter Bergmiller said that they wanted to come close to matching the speed, precision, and vehicle control of a professional racer. Hence, they took the sportiest piloted driving car in the world to the race track and did just that. Watch the video here.
Audi has been working on the autonomous technology for some time now. 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, the 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 TT then took on the California’s Thunderhill Race Track in 2012. Watch the “Shelley” in action. The tests were a complete blast for people who loved watching cars race. At each track, the car performed magnificently. Those tests showed two things: 1) autonomous cars can be a freaking blast, and 2) Audi’s approach to the technology is very different from Google’s.
In 2016, Audi came up with the successor to “Bobby”. It has been nicknamed “Robby”.Robby has the edge in weight (it is 881 pounds lighter than Bobby), all the better to rip around at high speeds, shaming human drivers with its cold precision. Robby also has the distinction of being the first self-racing Audi to put tire to track in the U.S. since the autonomous Pikes Peak–climbing TT of a few years ago, having just torn it up at Sonoma Raceway in California. With Robby, Audi says a big chunk of the weight loss came from the elimination of redundant visual and mechanical back-up systems.
The RS7’s computer has a detailed digital map of the track and follows an optimized path through it. Audi does not pre-program things like torque or steering. It is up to the car to decide how to keep up speed and stay on track. It has to adjust to things like changing traction and grip. This shows us how Audi’s approach to autonomy—in its words, “piloted driving”—is fundamentally different from Google’s. The tech giant called 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. Whereas, 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. The RS7 has a computer system that brings data from those disparate systems into one place. It’s like the central brain like the one we have in our head. In the earlier stages of development it took up the whole trunk of Audi’s demonstration vehicle. By January 2014, it was half as big as a shoe box, and had as much computing power as the entire A4 sedan. One thing Audi wants to add to its car next, 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.