We were invited to Stanford on Thursday for a sneak peak at their latest robot car, from the family that includes Stanley and Junior. It’s an Audi TTS that’s been modified with sensors, GPS guidance, and a trunkfull of computers, but it’s not intended to drive you to work in the morning… It’s actually a race car, designed to push the limits of driving performance. Already, this TTS holds the unofficial world speed record for an autonomous car at 130 kph (edit- they meant to say 130 mph, which is a lot more impressive), but it’s capable of a whole lot more. Basically, Stanford is figuring out how close to the edge of control a car can be driven, and then they’re going to program their Audi to drive on that edge. They’ve set themselves a challenge of racing to the top of Pikes Peak sometime next year:
So what’s the point of all this besides being totally awesome? Simple: knowing how to drive a car to the limit gives you more options when it comes to things like accident avoidance. Most human drivers aren’t experienced enough (or have a fast enough reaction time) to take advantage of all of the potential escape routes that may be available when an accident is imminent, and research like this has the potential to teach intelligent cars how to save some of the 40,000 lives that are lost due to auto accidents every year.
UPDATE: The car’s name is Shelley, after Michèle Mouton, the most successful female rally driver ever and the first woman to win the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. She did it in an Audi, of course.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.