Audi and Lexus have special prototypes that can drive autonomously – our editor rode shotgun as their observant human co-driver.
YOUR eyes are not mistaken – the Audi RS7 pictured (on the left) tackling a race circuit doesn’t have a driver.
I couldn’t believe my eyes either when I saw the Audi perform autonomously at Spain’s Castelloli Racetrack. The driver drove it to the track’s start grid, exited the vehicle and then remotely activated its run from outside.
The driverless RS7 took off aggressively, with its turbocharged 560bhp V8 engine and loud exhaust pipes roaring. It braked hard and fast for the first turn about 200m from the start grid, and continued on its way with a wide open throttle.
It moved and sounded like a racing car in action, but without a driver inside. Spooky, but thought-provoking.
After getting past my inner fear of Disney movie Cars becoming an eerie reality in my lifetime, my first thought was: “Is Audi’s advanced ‘autopilot’ faster than an average human?”
The human in question would be me – I was going to drive a standard RS7 on the same track to compare my lap time against the special RS7 that handled the track with nobody on board. Before that, I would take a ride in its similarly capable sister vehicle.
I wasn’t alone during the ride, though, and I’m not referring to the “robot” somewhere inside Robby (the surprisingly cool name given by its German engineer fathers to the autonomous-driving prototype I would be riding in).
For safety reasons, there was a test driver behind the wheel. After he drove Robby to the start grid, he took both hands off the steering wheel, flipped a switch on the centre console and held a trigger device in his right hand, thumb hovering above the top button.
“Ready?” he asked me.
As I gave the thumbs up, in my head I answered: “Ready for the future, yes, let’s go…”
The driver depressed the button and held it there (the system would stop its automated driving mode if the button was released).
Robby didn’t dilly-dally. It went racing right away – working the V8 engine and gearbox hard,hammering the carbon-ceramic brakes before each turn and taxing the high-performance tyres throughout.
It aimed at, and clipped, every apex on the 12-turn track. It steered, accelerated and “jam-braked” like it was trying to set a good lap time.
Robby was one of the most determined “drivers” I’ve ever sat with on a circuit.
According to Klaus Verweyen, head of pre-development of automated driving functions in Audi, Robby operates at the limit of its (ample) grip and (all-wheel-drive) stability on the track.
“The question is how the car stabilises in real time, steering and controlling itself at the physical limit, reacting to changing tyre conditions,” said Verweyen.
“A fast race lap is not our main focus, so we didn’t overdo it. We’re calculating new functionalities for our customers. If a professional racing driver drives a lap on the same track with a standard RS7, we think he can be a little faster.
“If you’re an experienced driver, you can drive faster than Robby. Don’t be afraid.”
But I was afraid. Because I wasn’t aided by any of the clever equipment that made Robby so racy and so good on a racetrack.
I could only rely on common sense instead of uncommon sensors, see with my 40something bespectacled eyes instead of all-seeing cameras, and store a rough idea of the circuit’s layout instead of accurate GPS data.
Robby’s lap time was just under 2 minutes and 9 seconds. I was about half a second quicker in a regular RS7. This average man turned out to be a little faster than the above-average machine.
More importantly, Audi’s state-of- the-art “autopilot” technology is faster and further ahead than transport legislation and traffic-infrastructure on the long road to autonomous motoring.
Also ahead of applicable legislation and current infrastructure is Lexus’ high-tech “chauffeur” for the highway.
It was the smoothest highway driving I’ve ever experienced as a passenger in urban Japan. And it was the car doing the driving, not the driver.
The test car was a Lexus GS450h hybrid saloon, specially modified to serve as a development vehicle, named Highway Teammate, for Toyota’s automated driving technology under the umbrella term Mobility Teammate Concept.
It looked like any white GS, but with weird little “windows” in its bumpers and a strange “spoiler” above its rear windscreen. These house some of the sophisticated sensors and radars that work with an array of cameras to enable the car to function as a co-driver.
A button on the steering wheel activates the Lexus’ computerised “cruise controller”.
And the vehicular co-driver functioned very well during the demonstration, done on a section of Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway. It wasn’t a closed course, so there were other road users around, unaware that this car could drive itself, safely.
The distance was just a few kilometres, but the ride transported me a few years down the road, to a near future where autonomous driving features would be as common as cruise control.
In this case, it was a smooth cruise and the self-driving car was in control during the cruise,but only after the Lexus test driver behind the wheel pressed a button to activate the system.
Dedicated real-time infographics on the dashboard display showed what the car’s autopilot was doing, accompanied by a gentle (synthetic) female voice.
She kept the cabin’s occupants well informed, with periodic updates such as “Starting auto drive mode”, “Changing lanes”, “Merging into the right lane” and “Leaving the lane”.
The car performed the lane-changing/merging/leaving like a skilled driver who not only memorised the highway code, but also attended an advanced driving course. The manoeuvres were smooth, prompt and precise, at least in the light traffic situations we encountered during the demo.
The car also showed excellent “lane discipline” and maintained a safe, sensible gap to the vehicle in front.
The test driver could override the system anytime, but there was no need to. It did everything right, from the Fukuzumi entrance ramp after the electronic toll gate to the Ariake exit ramp at the next toll gate. Along the way, it also handled a fairly sharp, sweeping right turn so neatly that I couldn’t have done it neater myself.
Audi’s Robby has about €50,000 ($75,000) of equipment on board, which enables it to tackle a racetrack by itself, quickly.
Instinctively, I tried to help the GS and its staff driver to keep a
lookout en route for approaching cars, trucks and motorbikes. But the
autonomous system already had that covered, gently reminding us to
“Beware of merging vehicles”.
With 360-degree sensors to detect/track moving vehicles in the vicinity and also nearby hazards (such as roadworks), computers to crunch the data correctly, and automated driving controls to react appropriately, the system’s situational awareness on the road was probably greater than mine.
In about five years’ time, when Lexus and Toyota start selling select models with automated driving technology, their early adopters should give credit to this particular prototype that I rode in. Because it was one of the very first vehicles to hit the highway this way.
"Audi’s “autopilot” technology is faster and further ahead than transport legislation and traffic infrastructure."
"The highway teammate ride transported me to a near future where autonomous driving features would be as common as cruise control."