Audi’s autonomous cars are becoming quite the world travelers: Recall the much-ballyhooed first robotic drive from San Francisco to New York City, about a year ago. Impressive stuff, though honestly, humans can hold their own at pulling into a rest stop.
Here in Spain, the man-vs.-machine competition will be at higher speed and for higher stakes. I’m about to take on Robby, the autonomous RS7 sport sedan that’s designed to rock a racetrack at speeds that would blister Google’s cartoonish bubble car. If a human driver can’t keep up, it occurs to me, then our obsolescence draws that much closer. It’s only a matter of time before governments and automakers pry the ignition keys out of our fallible, accident-prone hands for good.
Robby is looking cool and confident in the pits at Parcmotor Castelloli, near Barcelona. And for good reason: The Audi weighs 400 kilograms (882 pounds) less than Bobby, the RS7 that holds the world speed record for autonomous cars, at 240 kilometers per hour (149 miles per hour).
I take to calling the newer car Robby the Robot, after the glass-skulled automaton from the 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet. Miklos Kiss, Audi’s head of predevelopment for driver assistance systems, introduces us to his two autonomous brainchildren. Popping Bobby’s hatch, we find it full to bursting with computer gear. Robby’s, in contrast, has plenty of room left over for luggage. There’s a single MicroAutoBox brain and power supply and two other small computers.
Incredibly, Audi’s latest differential GPS unit can fix Robby’s position to within 2 centimeters, vastly better than today’s GPS standard of roughly 1.5 meters. This price-no-object system also uses redundant cameras to triangulate and thus to confirm the car’s location. Keeping a fully autonomous vehicle safely within lanes will require zeroing in to 50 cm (around 20 inches).
Controllers adjust the engine, electric steering, transmission, and brakes, with redundant fail-safes: There’s a spare power supply and brake controllers if the first ones conk out. A 4.0-liter biturbo V-8 produces a villainous exhaust note that echoes off the dusty canyon walls.
I slide into Robby’s shotgun seat with some trepidation, thinking that the driver’s side will remain spookily unoccupied. But surprise! There’s an Audi engineer in the seat, along for the passive ride but holding a plunger connected to a cord. If something goes wrong and he lets go of the plunger’s button, the Audi will slow and halt on the track. Theoretically.
The checkered flag waves. The RS7 launches itself down the front straight and charges into the first corner, the steering wheel twirling, the ghosts fully in charge of this machine. The brake and throttle pedals aren’t moving at all because the computer commands are bypassing the old analog connections.
Before I arrived, Audi engineers had manually driven Robby around this Spanish track to measure its barriers and “geo-fence” a safe zone beyond which Robby will not go. Like a real-life slot car, the Audi locks onto its programmed track line, its path varying by only a few centimeters. Yet the RS7 also reacts in real time to conditions such as a slippery track or wearing tires, dialing back power or correcting the steering if it begins to slide off its satellite-guided path.
Robby turns out to be a smoothy, a race-instructor type who puts up great, flowing lap times yet keeps the car utterly balanced and composed. Its dead-consistent laps vary by less than 0.3 second, including a best this day of 2:09.2.
Now, it’s my turn, and I jump aboard a production Audi RS7. Suddenly, I’m John Connor taking on Skynet, a human fighting for his increasingly pitiful and superfluous species. After one reconnaissance lap on this unfamiliar track, I turn the Audi loose. Please, Lord, don’t let me lose to a stinking machine.
I drive back into the pits and dash over to the timer. A few Audi engineers applaud, a bit grudgingly, I’m thinking. But my lap of 2:05.4 is nearly 4 seconds quicker than Robby’s. Even after hundreds of laps in recent weeks, Robby’s best is still 2 seconds behind my first trip around Castelloli. Take that, you remorseless Terminator, German accent and all.
But as my adrenaline subsides, I’m forced to concede that adrenaline is among my biological advantages. Robby may know speed, but the words “race” or “win” simply aren’t part of his vocabulary. Yet.
Where I punished the tires and pushed the limits, Robby stayed emotionless, programmed to run safe, endlessly repeatable laps. The last thing Audi needs is for a self-driving car to disintegrate against a wall or injure its passengers, setting back autonomous driving by a few years. A few tweaks of the algorithms, a few more generations, and Robby’s offspring will be chip-enabled Michael Schumachers. (Please, Audi, name your next car Ricky Bobby.) They’ll scan and pick out us humans up ahead and make us eat their digital dust, if they choose. Or they’ll chauffeur our miserable hides straight to the police if we act up, as did Tom Cruise’s 2054 Lexus in Minority Report. What’s to stop them?
Yes, the rise of the machines seems inevitable. But as my race with Robby showed, some humans will still put up a fight before going to the scrap heap.