What It’s Like to Ride in a Robot Car

Self-driving cars are the future, but don’t expect to see them in the passing lane just yet.

Audi's autonomous A7.
National Journal
Alex Brown
June 30, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s a bit dis­con­cert­ing the first time you see a steer­ing wheel move on its own.

Trav­el­ing down the high­way, with your life in the hands of a com­puter, it’s hard not to won­der if a ro­bot car is really as safe as ad­vert­ised.

What if that semi drifts in­to our lane? Can we evade un­ex­pec­ted debris?

Those are all ques­tions auto­makers will have to an­swer in time. On this day, Audi’s com­puter-con­trolled A7 handled all the tests en­gin­eers — and Vir­gin­ia’s er­rat­ic drivers — threw at it.

This May, Audi offered to take me for a ride in their ro­bot car down the high­way in Fair­fax County, Va. And after hav­ing writ­ten about the safety be­ne­fits of com­puter-con­trolled vehicles, I had no choice but to put my­self at the mercy of the ma­chine.

I spent the morn­ing talk­ing to en­gin­eers, dis­cuss­ing the tech­no­logy and policy that will de­term­ine ro­bot cars’ entry in­to the mar­ket­place. Then it was time to put their car to the test.

When you first climb in­to Audi’s ro­bot car, it’s hard not to won­der — “is this it?” Un­like Google’s ro­bot ride, which fea­tures a roof-moun­ted spin­ning laser dome, Audi’s for­ay in­to the driver­less car scene is pretty much in­dis­tin­guish­able from a stand­ard-mod­el A7.

A few tiny sensors are subtly built in­to the front and rear bump­ers. The car’s brain­power, which a year ago took up the rear end of a sta­tion wag­on, now slides in­to a side trunk pan­el with an iPad-thin pro­file.

The dash­board is also, dis­ap­point­ingly, nor­mal. This car looks noth­ing like the ma­chine of your sci-fi fantas­ies.

The A7 is de­signed to of­fer driver­less mode when it’s on the high­way but trav­el­ing less than 40 mph — a fea­ture Audi calls “traffic jam pi­lot.” In this case, a po­lice cruis­er in front of us provided the sub-40 traffic speed. An­oth­er of­ficer be­hind made sure on­com­ing traffic didn’t come up be­hind us too quickly. While the po­lice es­cort in this case was to en­able a traffic-spe­cif­ic fea­ture, driver­less car test­ing laws vary widely; only a hand­ful of states cur­rently al­low the vehicles on their road­ways.

As we pulled onto the high­way, the A7 re­cog­nized its sur­round­ings, and a dash­board alert in­formed the our driver, Kaushik Raghu, that con­di­tions al­lowed for a com­puter takeover.

Once we settled in be­hind the lead car, Raghu pressed the but­ton on the steer­ing wheel to ac­tiv­ate auto­mated driv­ing. The fea­ture re­quires the driver’s go-ahead be­fore it kicks in. A graph­ic changed on the car’s dash­board, and Raghu took his hands off the wheel. The ro­bot car took con­trol.

The A7, as pro­grammed, main­tained pace with the car in front. When the po­lice car sped up, it gradu­ally closed the gap. As it slowed, the A7 fol­lowed suit to keep a safe dis­tance. The steer­ing wheel turned, un­guided by any­thing but a com­puter, to nav­ig­ate the high­way’s slight turns (the ped­als re­mained mo­tion­less, much like a car in cruise con­trol).

After a few minutes, the stable speed and gradu­al turns began to seem al­most bor­ing. Audi says that’s by design. Bor­ing, in fact, is the word en­gin­eers say will show their product is suc­cess­ful. After all, per­suad­ing people to put their lives in the hands of a ro­bot will come a little easi­er if they’re not on the edge of their seat the en­tire time.

Oth­er ro­bot-car pi­on­eers, like Google, are test­ing cars that can handle more driv­ing situ­ations. Those are fur­ther from com­mer­cial read­i­ness. For now, Audi’s en­gin­eers are con­vinced the ro­bot car re­volu­tion will start with cars that do simple things — and do them well.

In our first test, the car was even more bor­ing than ad­vert­ised. Fail­ing to pick up the vehicle in front, it gradu­ally re­duced speed un­til Raghu re­took con­trol. After a couple of more un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts, we went back the the po­lice sta­tion to re­boot the com­puter.

The second at­tempt went off without a hitch. That is to say, not very ex­cit­ing. No sharp turns, no lane changes, no rap­id ac­cel­er­a­tion.

Then the test took an un­ex­pec­ted turn. One would ex­pect, brack­eted by a pair of po­lice cruis­ers, sirens flash­ing, that deal­ing with out­side traffic would be something of an af­ter­thought. That would over­es­tim­ate the aware­ness of Vir­gin­ia drivers.

As we passed an en­trance ramp, a rogue car squeezed in ahead of us, ap­par­ently ob­li­vi­ous to the fact it had joined a slow-mov­ing po­lice es­cort. The driver who cut us off also sep­ar­ated us from our pace-set­ting po­lice car. It was the type of scen­ario that would send the av­er­age driver in­to road rage.

To his cred­it, Raghu did not grab for the wheel or in­stinct­ively pump the brakes when the rogue driver squeezed in ahead of us (any driver in­put im­me­di­ately over­rides auto­mated con­trol, much like hit­ting the gas or brakes turns off cruise con­trol). And our ro­bot car had no trouble lower­ing its speed to ac­count for the new car in front of it.

After a while, the in­trud­ing car thought bet­ter of driv­ing in the midst of a po­lice con­voy, and the Audi reac­quired the po­lice car as soon as it merged over.

Soon after, we ex­ited, Raghu took over, and we circled back to the po­lice sta­tion. The ride was only a few minutes.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×