Nov 222010

The Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak research Vehicle

How long before it betters a human driver?

Not long ago, there was informed debate on whether a purpose-built computer would ever beat a chess master. Nowaday, a HTC mobile phone can achieve Grand Master status. Computers continue to get exponentially faster, not to mention considerably smarter through improved software, whereas humans are effectively nearing their limits. Hence, it’s arguably only a matter of time and R&D focus before computers (plus improved sensors and software) surpass any specific human capability. This week Audi revealed that its Autonomous TTS research car had completed the 12.42-mile Pike’s Peak mountain course in 27 minutes. An expert driver in the same car would take around 17 minutes – now we have a benchmark, the race is on, and it’s almost inevitable that a computer will one day outdrive the best of our species, and it may be sooner than you think.

Humans are not very good at driving cars, as is evidenced by our ability to destroy 1.3 million souls on our roads each year. Our deficiencies for the task of safely controlling a car on public throughfares are many. We are almost incapable of driving safely while multitasking, are ridiculously easily distracted, take all manner of mind-altering substances before we drive, continually take imprudent risks and our situational awareness is largely restricted to our field of vision, which is but a sliver of the ideal 360 degrees.

By comparison, computers can monitor a full 360 degrees plus thousands of variables simultaneously, are diligent and attentive in the extreme, and calculate each and every risk, erring on the side of caution to exactly the degree to which they are programmed.

That’s why Toyota, General Motors and Volkswagen are spending so much money in the field of autonomous vehicles – autonomous vehicle expertise is already being used to make us safer in our cars and over the next few decades, the deployment of more and better intelligent automotive systems will help to stop us committing genocide on such a grand scale.

Hence the ascending of the demanding Pikes Peak mountain course by Audi’s autonomous TTS in September is a significant achievement in that it sets the benchmark, visible for the first time, as to how close autonomous vehicle are to the best human drivers. It might seem like a lot of difference in the times between an expert driver and a computer in the TTS (17 minutes compared to 27 minutes), but I must confess to being staggered that the autonomous vehicle was immediately so close to the theoretical best – roughly an extra 59% over the fastest time of the best human driver. In Grand Prix racing, where the best drivers and riders in the world compete, lap time differentials of 7.5% are allowed by regulation, and quite often greater differences are tolerated.

The 265 bhp research car has been cooperatively developed by Volkswagen/Audi in conjunction with Stanford University and Oracle, and it is unquestionably progressing at a phenomenal rate. The 27 minute time was achieved the first time the vehicle achieved the 14,110-foot summit in Colorado without stopping. Five other times during the week-long testing, the car ran the complete course, pausing briefly to verify route data. It is most likely to get much faster very quickly.

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