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Audi's autonomous Audi TT conquers Pikes Peak - how long before it betters a human driver?


November 19, 2010

The Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak research Vehicle

The Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak research Vehicle

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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 difference in lap times between an expert driver and an average commuter would also be dramatically different, so the Audi TTS might already be much closer to the average person's driving ability than the figures suggest.

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.

Admittedly, it's still a long way from cracking the ten minute mark being approached by Monster Tajima in his 900 bhp Suzuki, but a significant start has been made and the approach has been far more cautious than the way humans tackle timed courses. It's an old racing adage that it's a lot easier to make a fast driver who crashes safe than to make a slow driver faster. The penalty for error on Pikes Peak is massive as the edge of the circuit is often a massive cliff. Audi is logically taking a cautious and considered approach because the negative publicity of a car plunging over a fatal drop would hinder the development.

Volkswagen’s Electronic Research Lab and Stanford have been at the forefront of autonomous driving research for several years, having won the second DARPA Grand Challenge and finishing second in the most recent DARPA Urban Challenge held in Victorville, California in 2007.

From the Audi press statement: The Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak reflects the ERL-Stanford strategy of conducting research in tiers that thoroughly investigate technologies needed to perform different autonomous driving tasks ranging from low-speed maneuvering in urban environments to high-speed handling on varied road surfaces on a challenging course like Pikes Peak.

When research began on the Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak research project just over a year ago, the direction was clear: employ emerging software, algorithms and electronics to help everyday drivers stay in control, and safely on the road, even during extreme driving conditions.

The aim of the Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak research was to develop a technology that would enhance a driver's abilities, much as computerized systems of passenger jetliners assist skilled pilots.

"We are not trying to replace the driver," said Professor Chris Gerdes of Stanford University, "Instead we want to learn how the best drivers control the car so we can develop systems that assist our robotic driver and, eventually, you and me." Working together, Audi, Stanford University, the Volkswagen Group Electronics Research Lab and Oracle developed a distinct engineering achievement. The Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak integrates advanced algorithms, the Oracle Java real-Time System (Java RTS), Oracle Solaris and GPS with safety and navigation systems found in stock Audi TTS models to maintain control at a physical performance extreme.

Java and Oracle Solaris provide a significant advancement over traditional execution models in terms of reliability, transparency, debugging capability, programming model, predictable response-time characteristics, and cost. Using the standard Java programming model and memory management functionality, developers were able to program the Autonomous Audi TTS to easily differentiate processes based on their importance and precisely determine when time-critical functions should be executed.

"Oracle Java RTS is the first enterprise-class solution to formally address the issues of latency and unpredictable response times for Java applications and we're thrilled to be part of this research project," said Greg Bollella, chief architect, Embedded Java, Oracle. "For the Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak, Java was used to acquire GPS position coordinates and distribute those coordinates to all of the other components in the system. It also served as the safety controller for the vehicle, responsible for gracefully bringing the car to a stop if any of the traditional systems malfunctioned."

Deciding on a location to prove the technology was an easy choice as the Pikes Peak route offered steep inclines, switchbacks and varied road surfaces for the autonomous Audi TTS to navigate. Pikes Peak is also the place where Audi technology became legendary in the rally racing world a generation ago thanks in large part to the distinctive quattro® technology, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary as a technological all-wheel-drive breakthrough exclusively on Audi vehicles.

The Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak achieved this year's goal on the mountain. The next stage of the research project will involve autonomous high-speed handling on paved surfaces. The research team is evaluating race tracks where they can conduct the next phase of this research.

In keeping with all trials of the technology, the Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak research team worked with local authorities to conduct the mountain testing during closed-course runs that emphasized public safety.

To celebrate its accomplishment, Audi is featuring the Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak at its inaugural display at the SEMA Show, which begins today in Las Vegas. ENDS

This is just the start. It’s an enormously significant event and a milestone on the road to much safer automobiles. Hats off to Audi, Stanford and Oracle for the achievement. We look forward to watching the progress and wonder not just how long it will take for a suitably equipped car to be able to best a Sebastien Vettel or Lewis Hamilton, but how long before drivers are judged by how close they can get to the "ideal time" set by a computer.

Indeed, it's a fascinating mental exercise to imagine the future of racing altogether - do computers have a place in motorsport? We're increasingly seeing F1 teams such as Ferrari employ simulators to hone their drivers and to test changes - it's not such a big step from advanced driving aids to fully autonomous any more.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, Telstra.com.au (Australia's largest Telco), Seek.com.au (Australia's largest employment site), top100.com.au, hitwise.com, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon

\"whereas humans are effectively nearing their limits.\" This is the silliest comment I have heard of absolutely anywhere. We, the human race, use only a fraction of our possible brain capacity, and to suggest we are anywhere near reaching our so called \"peak\" is bordering on current and past religious brain washing, whereby, according to them we were and are condemned to die ....so out of date! Get with it Gizmag, you are meant to be our Tech Leaders, start acting like it. And as for Audi, of course they are trying to replace the driver...it has to happen, no matter how much we kick and scream, crying foul ..... they just don\'t want you to know it ........ yet, but it IS going to happen. Get REAL! We are not all sheep. Oh, I am a driver and will be screaming the loudest!

Tash Gregory

"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." Yeah, any capability except creativity, ingenuity, comedy, compassion and love.... just to mention a few.

Jeremy Nasmith

\"We, the human race, use only a fraction of our possible brain capacity\"

False, false, false. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=people-only-use-10-percent-of-brain


If only the computer programmers (as the human element) were smart enough to write code that warned the passive driver (passenger) of impending doom (based on a myriad of actual and possible inputs and external conditions), the driver/passenger could elect to take control or eject, should notification come after the computer determines that the wheels are no longer on the ground i.e., we\'ve gone off a cliff....


Silliness. I see posts like this from time to time. The rephrased question \"will a machine ever be better at controlling another machine?\" Inevitably yes. They have a lot in common after all.

But will the car ever care that it won? Will it ever feel joy or sadness or fear? Will it ever override it\'s program to spare the existence of another machine?

No matter how many parts, processors or AIs we stuff into the box it is never going to be human.

Raum Bances

Raum Bances and co - the point of the article OR the object of the article (a computer controlled car) is NOT that a computer, car or computerised car is or will become BETTER than a human. The point is that it eventually become better at a specific TASK (driving in this case) than a human. Nothing wrong with the subject (or content) of the article. Read it again.


I hope the team does analyse the high possibility of road terrosism, car-system hacking, etc. Even a slight turn on a few meters broad of road can be extremely crucial. Just say autonomous driving along the steep cliff, someone would vandalise the system by, on a right-turning road, placing a white removable strip directing the car to the left. Once a car is victimised and plunged down the cliff, yup, white strip removed and job\\'s done. Even GPS has not have that kind of resolution, thus the system must rely on local radar, optical data observations and stuff, which can be flawed by just putting removable barricades or false guidances.

Akemai Olivia

The key is to answer the following question:

What is the key to intelligent systems? http://gregcowin.blogspot.com/2010/09/what-is-key-to-intelligent-systems.html


I am going to ignore the silly remarks made about this amazing feat of computer/car/whatever, Audi and their fellow computer experts have achieved at Pikes Peak, A big round of applause please


One idea: Everyone will get Old enough and may get sick enough or may be troubled enough to drive one day and may not find anyone to drive him/her . What is achieved here is a great step , perfecting it (as possible ) for public use is needed . This will be solving many driving related issues . Human Driving is far less than perfect and I bet when Human driving safety vs computer driving safety gets tested in the Future , I know who will win ... Applause for Audi and their Team.

jaison Sibley
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