"In the future, you can imagine that driving your own car could be illegal."
Simultaneously, every single journalist in the audience turned on their audio recorders. Perched on the enormous stage at the GPU Conference in San Jose, Elon Musk was perilously ad-libbing about the future of the autonomous car while being casually interviewed by Nvidia co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang. "You can't have a person driving a 2-ton death machine." I quietly groaned, knowing he was going to regent that.
And, of course, like everything Musk utters in public, it was instantly picked up by the major news outlets, recast as some sort of profound, Jules Verne-like prediction of the future, and then ricocheted around the Internet.
And predictably, Tesla's founder was quickly tweeting clarifications "To be clear, Tesla is strongly in favor of people being allowed to drive their cars and always will be. Hopefully that is obvious." Yet, even though he was back-peddling, he wasn't reversing very much. "However, when self-driving cars become safer than human-driven cars, the public may outlaw the latter. Hopefully not."
Besides dramatizing the importance of a good night's sleep before a public interview, the hubbub also illuminated how volatile the subject of autonomous driving has become for car enthusiasts. Will the magazine you're holding eventually get retitled European Autonomous Car? Might our much-loved corner-apexing and double-clutch-heel-and-toeing go the way of clipper ship captaining or stage coach driving?
At the risk of getting into the same hot water as Musk, I think he's fundamentally right. Why should I know anything, you very reasonably ask? Because recently, I twice had the chance to briefly step through the looking glass into our autonomous future, thanks to two fascinating trips that showcased Audi's latest work in this area. The first, to Spain, was a front-row seat of an autonomous RS7 as it tippy-toed at the limit while being flung around a racetrack; the second put me behind the (rarely touched) steering wheel of an A7 during an historic, first-ever public-road autonomous trek by ordinary guys like me from California's Silicon Valley (near Volkswagen/Audi's Belmont Electronic Research Laboratory) to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—560 miles away. Together, these two gave some dimension to Audi's particularly impressive advantage in autonomous technology.
December 2014, Ascari Race Resort, Spain
There's nothing quite like the total horror that washes over you as you stare at a completely unfamiliar, wall-mounted track map while all the other journalists around you are murmuring about their previous best times and all the game-console practice sessions they've already logged in preparation. I looked around. Am I the only guy here who doesn't know the first thing about this place? Though the private (and quite beautiful) facility is composed of iconic corners plucked from famous tracks around the world—and its landscape is punctuated with familiar, very Laguna Seca-like oak trees—frankly, it simply adds to the confusion.
So while "Bobby"—an autonomous Audi RS7 (named after the fast, but cantankerous Bobby Unser)—sat waiting in the pits, each of us were first ushered into a stock RS7 for some lead-follow familiarization laps behind a driving instructor. Unfortunately, this seemed to do me no good at all, so I went back to the wall map to stare some more while desperately trying to figure out how to avoid being timed (the times would soon be appearing on the nearby monitor).
"Kim, ready for your laps?"
"Ah, gee, how about we just skip that for now and go directly to riding in Bobby?" With the whole program running behind schedule anyway, the Audi team readily agreed, so—somewhat relieved—I buckled into the RS7's passenger seat and turned to its driver and chief engineer Dr. Peter Bergmiller.
Despite this being his umpteenth show-and-tell, the boyish-looking Dr. Bergmiller was bubbling with enthusiasm. "Before we go, let me explain the car." As his finger pointed to the stereo camera system in the windshield, Bergmiller, a graduate of Stanford University, described the sensor system as actually quite simple. There's a centimeter-level enhanced GPS and this camera system, that's it. Oh, and also a bewildering trunk-full of cables and processors. The magic, however, is in the sensors integration, and the blending of this information with the car's existing stability control system.
Bobby's purpose is to demonstrate that an autonomous car can remain completely under control while rivaling a human's racetrack lap times (as it already had at Hockenheim). And to do it, its pre-calculated (and optimized) GPS path is retraced at the tire's limit of adhesion by a matching the car's real-time GPS data with video images that are being furiously compared to a prerecorded library (showing precisely what the view ought to be looking like). If the car yaws or drifts off-line, both its GPS and vision system will recognize it and the steering, throttle, and brakes will edge the car back on line. Later, I did drive Bobby's back-up car, "AJ," with the system turned off (anointing for my cowardly evasion of being directly compared to my colleagues) and found the system's extra weight—particularly in back—quit daunting. The software is doing a hell of a job.
As Bergmiller intentionally sat on his hands, the car robotically flew around the track, sliding and just-kissing apexes. And strangely, I wasn't worried at all. Even laughing at times. This is the best roller coaster ride in the world; they ought to sell tickets.
Coming into the pits, I noticed a series of skid marks. "What are those?" Peter laughed, "When the GPS detects you're not on the track any more, it'll slam on the brakes. You're supposed to push this button first to turn it off—but my colleagues sometimes forget!"
January, 2015, Marriott Hotel, Bakersfield, California
It was 7 a.m. and I was trying not to spill my triple-shot Grande dark roast as I speed-walked from the Starbucks coffee bar in the Bakersfield Marriott into the parking lot. "Jack" Audi's autonomous road-going A7, was about to depart for the second day of our historic, 560-mile drive from Menlo Park (in the Silicon Valley) to the CES in Vegas. The parking lot was filled with support vehicles, too—about 30 in all—but first out of the lot would be our A7. I got in, with its engineer, Daniel Lipinski (who had a redundant set of pedals just in case) in the passenger seat.
Exiting town, I would be driving the Audi the old-fashioned way as for now, their Piloted Driving system only operates on highways; it's actually GPS geo-fenced to turn off at city limits. Weeks before, I'd spent a day of training at Volkswagen's proving ground in Maricopa, outside Phoenix, where I got the basics in how it operates (and also got put through the ringer to test that I could control the car if the system went berserk.) This was followed by a remarkable (maybe even more historic) Saturday afternoon phone interview by a noticeably nervous California DMV lady who wanted to check me out before releasing me, and my four other journalist co-drivers who'd be rotating through the car, loose on public roads. At the last second before our drive was to begin, our autonomous driver's licenses arrived—the first five ever issued to private citizens (it's getting framed!).
Like Bobby, Jack employs a similar arsenal of computing electronics in the trunk, but a far more elaborate array for sensors to perceive the road and surrounding traffic, though much of it is actually already found on the production car. At the front and rear, narrow-view long-range radars watch for distant traffic; four medium-range radars observe to the side (ultimately at intersections, too); LIDAR (laser radar) beneath the front and rear bumpers 3-D-image nearby cars (and lane-splitting motorcycles); ultrasonic proximity sensors perceive close-by obstacles, and a forward-facing MobileEye video camera vision- recognizes road markings, reads signs, and also identifies vehicles. Surprisingly, the car's GPS is unchanged from the production car (Audi isn't a fan of relying on it too much).
Once on the highway, their system surveys the surroundings, and if it's a go, displays a small band of green LEDs on the dash to indicate autonomy's availability. Simultaneously pushing two buttons on the steering wheel activates the system, and the wheel slightly retracts as the green band expands; when the system wants you to take over again, a voice politely asks that you retake control within about 15 seconds, the color band changes to orange and the wheel resumes it normal position (if you do nothing, the car will eventually pull to the right-most lane and stop).
What's it like? Very cool. For the most part, it feels like somebody else is driving, but with you sitting in the wrong seat (like a passenger in a right-hand-drive car). The Audi braked for slow cars and traffic, changed lanes and passed people, and even (while another journalist was behind the wheel) made a rather daring move to get out of the way of a crazy speeding car in the fast lane. The only oddities (minor ones) were its tendency to wander slightly when the right-side lane striping veered away as it demarked an offramp, and a spell of puzzlement just outside of Bakersfield as we drove eastbound, directly into a glaring morning daylight (in truth, I was finding it hard to see, too). Audi figures you'll be able to buy a highway-only system like this in just a couple of years.
At that GPU Conference I mentioned, Audi gave two different technical presentations on its autonomous programs. The first one, a run-through of its engineering details, was absolutely packed, a standing-room-only full-house. Unusually, the organizers even announced a repeat performance at the end of the second day because demand to get in had been so high. During Musk's earlier interview, the McEnery Convention Center's main ballroom was flooded with thousands of rapt attendees; the atmosphere seemed like a Steve Jobs/Apple launch, not a drab conversation about cars. This is what automotive enthusiasm is going to start looking like.
Companies like Audi might have the most to lose from the advent of autonomous driving. Like BMW, a lot of both brands' added-value derives from a hard-won (and expensively developed) reputation for driving pleasure. Can they command the same price premium when you really become a passenger much of the time? As one GPU presenter perceptively noted, while most drivers delight in having loads of power underfoot and nimble cornering in their hands, the opposite is always true for their passengers, who just want a smooth, quiet ride—and will holler at being tossed around.
However, during my 350-mile, deadly dreary drive back to L.A. on the featureless Interstate 5, I would have killed to be in that Piloted Drive Audi A7. Or for that matter, on my 45-mile, stop-and-go trudge to work the next day on the snarled 405 freeway. And maybe we can have our cake and eat it, too—sometimes driving autonomously, but occasionally opting for very narrow, lane-width geo-fences within which we can still drive, but outside which, the autonomous Hand-of-God intervenes if we make a mistake or some nearby nut we didn't see is being dangerous. Kind of like the Autopia ride in Fantasyland.
Whether we like it or not, times change, technologies advance. My collection of 33 1/3rd LPs now sits stacked in a pile in my garage while I listen to Pandora online via my Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Cars are no different.