It takes a certain kind of driver with skilled hands to brave the bumpy flats and sharp turns that mark Colorado's Pikes Peak Hill Climb...a 12-mile stretch of mountain switchbacks, rough terrain, and steep curves bordered by sheer drop-offs. But engineers from Stanford University and Volkswagen Group will soon attempt the feat with no hands on the wheel at all, in an effort to improve vehicle safety.
Their unique racecar is a modified Audi TTS coupe called "Shelley." Standard equipment on this autonomous coupe includes GPS sensors, a digital roadmap, and an array of computers that control the navigation and steering. Shelley is also linked to base stations that emit radio signals to improve the accuracy of the GPS. In most tests, the prototype has managed to stay on course to within a few inches.
Marcial Hernandez, a senior engineer with Volkswagen, says this research could help automakers improve electronic traction and stability systems for future products. "There's a lot of applications for safety that could come from the car being able to handle better in critical situations, as well as the convenience factor of being able to sit in a traffic jam and letting the car follow the car in front of you," Hernandez says.
When it was first tested on the open expanses of Utah's salt flats, the car reached speeds of 130 miles per hour. Now, with a high speed run up Pikes Peak scheduled September, researchers are pushing the limits of autonomous vehicle performance, and teaching Shelley how to really hug the road.
Chris Gerdes, program director at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, says "if we can design a car with the capability of using all available friction, that can also help you in a turn, so, if you go into a slippery corner, it can use all of its capabilities to help you make that turn safely to be pointed in the direction you want to go and not to leave the lane."
Lucky for me, Shelley knew exactly where she was going when she took me out for a spin. Plus, there was an old fashioned failsafe system on board in the form of a grad student with hands hovering near the steering wheel, just in case. I was also relieved to see a "kill switch" on the dash, but we never needed to use it. As I rode shotgun, I could feel the car making critical decisions, accelerating down the straights, figuring out when to break to take the turns as quickly as possible, and making corrections to stay stable. We reached speeds of 40 mph, and it was quite exhilarating.
There's still a long road ahead, but this partnership could one day transform the way we drive...by letting our cars, drive us.
Claudia Cowan currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) San Francisco-based correspondent. She joined the network in April 2008.