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.

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