The age-old battle of man versus machine will move to a new arena in 2010 when Audi will begin pitting an autonomous TTS Coupe quattro against record times of some of the great driving challenges, including a likely attempt at the infamous 12.42-mile Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado, USA. The driverless Audi is from the same team that built the VW Touareg which won the first race for autonomous vehicles, the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. The inevitable incorporation of advanced robotic technologies into our automobiles will ultimately yield a safer vehicle and it’s the thin end of the wedge – one day soon your car will not only be smarter than you are, it will also be faster and maybe even better looking.
The autonomous Audi TTS Coupé quattro is being created at the Volkswagen Group Automotive Innovation Laboratory (VAIL), a collaborative effort set up by the Volkswagen Group Electronics Research Laboratory and Stanford University USA. Audi is one of the Volkswagen Group’s high tech, prestige and performance marques, along with Lamborghini, Bentley, and Bugatti, with a merger with Porsche planned for 2011. The group is the third largest auto manufacturer in the world, and has a number of significant joint-ventures in China, also owns European manufacturers SEAT and Škoda, and has a controlling stake in truck manufacturer Scania and an effective controlling 29.9% stake in MAN.
Currently in testing, the Autonomous Audi TTS quattro is being readied for several still-to-be determined real-world driving challenges in 2010, with Audi’s 30 year successful race history at Pikes Peak making it a logical target from several aspects. Industrial robots are already many orders of magnitude more accurate, cost-effective and productive than humans, and they are quickly replacing humans in extremely dangerous tasks such as landmine removal, IED disarmament and firefighting.
Robots come into their own for jobs where a human life may be at stake, and they hence make great candidates for driving a car at speed on a circuit such as Pikes Peak where a mistake at the wrong spot can mean death.
Humans also make terrible drivers – our ability to concentrate and make continuously flawless judgment calls under dangerous, loud, hot and stressful conditions is notoriously bad. On the roads, we now are required to multitask for prolonged periods in addition to simply driving, so robotics and intelligent driver aids and accident mitigation technologies are simply inevitably going to be incorporated into the automobiles we drive.
While Stanley, the VW Toureg which won the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005, was chock full of computers, as was the Volkswagen Passat which placed second in the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge, the mass of computers is quickly being reduced. The autonomous TTS is currently controlled by a computer located in the boot but next year Stanford algorithms will be running in the car using Java “real time” receiving programming updates via telemetry with a range of 20 miles. Ultimately, it is envisioned that aerial towers will be able to send and receive signals to these cars in a manner similar to cellular mobile telephone aerials today.
The autonomous Audi TTS Coupé quattro will not be directly pitted against humans in competition just yet though – Audi’s autonomous attempt , and is separate from the actual Hill Climb Championships being staged next June.
The wording of VW’s press announcement was carefully crafted to ensure it didn’t alienate any of its monied, sports-driver-oriented clientele: “the Autonomous Audi TTS project is not aimed at making motorists, or the thrill of driving, dispensable. Instead, it is intended to explore the best capabilities of current and future driver assistance technologies to help Audi enhance the experience behind the steering wheel for future driver generations.”
Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, executive director of the Electronics Research Laboratory, has noted that the technology found in the Autonomous Audi TTS quattro could help motorists respond more effectively to changing traffic conditions to reduce road congestion and allow better reactions to safety hazards. Dr. Huhnke also suggests the technology could return time to the car owners by taking care of routine driving chores, such as locating an assigned space in a car park.
Dr. Huhnke commented: “We believe that developing a car that can perform as well and respond as rapidly as a ‘professional’ driver, like a race or rally driver, will eventually be able to drive its way around incidents in a way that a ‘normal’ driver couldn’t.
“While a less experienced driver may freeze or make the wrong ‘correction’, the Autonomous TTS would be able to take over or guide the driver to escape from a critical situation. It could also compensate if a driver is inattentive to conditions or distracted but of course, it won’t prevent all accidents.”
The Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab has converted a standard Audi TTS quattro to “drive by wire” and is developing a safety system to ensure a reliable autonomous drive that can perform a vehicle shutdown if it determines conditions have become unsafe. The autonomous TTS includes a telemetry system that can transmit all vehicle parameters to a receiving station up to 20 miles away which can remotely engage the safety systems and bring the car to a controlled stop.
Audi’s quattro was the world’s first volume production four-wheel-drive road car. Unveiled at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show, the quattro dominated World rallying and touring car racing.
The autonomous TTS Coupé prototype is based on current standard Audi TTS specifications and uses a turbocharged 2.0-litre FSI engine delivering 350 Nm of torque.