Killer Video of Robot Audi Racing Up Pike’s Peak. The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown Down!

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Robot are on course to challenge the most skilled of human drivers.

It's a trecherous course with more than 12 miles of breakneck turns on dusty mountain roads 14,000 feet high. Pike's Peak is one of the oldest, most impressive, and difficult races in the US, and it was just conquered by a robot. Stanford University, along with the VW Electronics Research Lab, and Oracle built an autonomous Audi TTS that could race up the peak without a human driver. Though only recently announced, the robot car made its historic run in September, just a few months after human racers competed in the 88th annual Pike's Peak International Hill Climb. We homo sapiens still outperform our robotic creations -the top times for Pike's Peak are near 10 minutes, while the autonomous Audi TTS took 27. But don't rest easy my fellow humans. Robot cars have started to challenge our most extreme courses, and they'll only get better in the future. Watch clips from the historical Pike's Peak run in the video below. Seventeen minutes seems like a mighty slim buffer right about now.

As we covered before, Stanford's Volkswagon Automotive Innovation Lab (VAIL) has been preparing for this run for about a year. While previous ventures into robot cars have concentrated on safe driving, the Pike's Peak run is all about pushing the needle into the red. They don't simply want to drive up the mountain, they want to drive fast. Really fast. Even in the most treacherous stretches of the course, the autonomous Audi TTS was still pushing 45 mph. I'm not sure about you, but I don't play it that fast and loose when I'm on a dirt road on the back side of the mountain. Just watching the driverless Audi climb those hills gives me goosebumps. It may not be able to challenge the best among us, but this robotic car is probably getting close to my level at least.

Even though the Audi performed all its own maneuvers this race was still in controlled conditions. Members of the PPIHC were on hand to certify the car's time for the course. According to the press release, local and state traffic officials made certain that the test could be run with the utmost regard for safety. Outside observers were kept to a minimum, and as you can see in the video, a manned car followed the Audi on its run. In that regard, this trial wasn't all that different than the DARPA Urban Challenge, or the recent miles logged by Google's autonomous cars. We have a highly trained robot car, but we keep it on a very short leash.

Yet even with that leash the Pike's Peak run represents something new in autonomous driving. We're not simply looking at a system that can perform hairpin maneuvers under strict conditions, we're looking at a system that is challenging human supremacy on the road. It's not just about whether we could have robot cars, it's about whether those cars would be better drivers than we are under any circumstance. The answer for now, is no.

But how quickly will that change? Over their entire lives human drivers improve their skills, but as a whole the Pike's Peak  record only comes down a few seconds at a time. Autonomous cars have the potential to rapidly improve themselves, and to keep improving over time. At 27 minutes, the autonomous Audi is probably better than many human drivers. Every minute it shaves off its record it will overcome millions of drivers in skill. At some point in the future, there will be few, if any humans that will be able to match these cars. The gauntlet has been thrown down and robot cars are a potent challenger.

Yet when they defeat us, we will also win. Imagine a world where we have widespread autonomous vehicles, and where each of those autos has the capabilities that exceed the most experienced rally car drivers. Not only could you let your robot automobile drive for you, you could rest easy knowing that it will dodge hazards, brake for children in the road, and speed down the highway with a grace you could not produce on your own. When we can produce a robot car that can win at Pike's Peak the whole world should rejoice, because the whole world could be made much safer.

I fear, however, that it will take much longer for us to accept these cars on the road than it will for them to master it. As I mentioned when discussing Google's foray into autonomous vehicles, legal and social issues surrounding robot cars are likely to retard their adoption considerably. Even expert rally car drivers crash occasionally. Until we can psychologically accept our machines routinely killing innocent bystanders we will not be able to trade the millions of traffic deaths in our current world for the thousands of deaths we would have in a world with automated roads.

Automotive perfection seems closer every day, but we have to keep in mind that it will take time and global effort for it to arrive. For now we can simply enjoy watching an empty car racing up Pike's Peak. This is just a first step towards something better. The future is going to be so cool.

[screen capture and video credit: Audi of America]
[source: AudiUSA]

Discussion — 16 Responses

  • Hjalmar November 23, 2010 on 8:41 am

    I guess it is impressive, but I am still sort of disappointed. There was so much hype about this earlier this year (and last year); about an autonomous car that should race up pike’s peak powersliding the curves etc. What I saw on the video looks just like all other videos I have seen of autonomous cars. The driving is ok, but it doesn’t seem to be challenging the Audi TT’s possibilities.

  • Ivan Malagurski November 23, 2010 on 9:37 am

    Wow, amazing…
    Ivan Malagurski

  • Msubramaniancse November 23, 2010 on 11:32 am




  • Casus November 23, 2010 on 11:57 am

    That’s funny, I thought it was supposed to be RACING UP PIKE’S PEAK not going for a leisurely drive. They had all that time to map the road and prepare for this and they decide to take the road at 20mph… nice…

  • Joey1058 November 23, 2010 on 12:18 pm

    I figure five years until I can snooze behind the wheel if I want.

  • A human November 23, 2010 on 1:34 pm

    Honestly, that video is a major let down, especially, as the other poster pointed out, after over a year’s worth of build up to this race. If you really want to see how a car with a skilled driver climbs up Pike’s Peak, check out this video: (Ari Vatanen, Pikes-Peak 1990). Now, THAT’S what I call impressive driving!

  • pk November 23, 2010 on 4:34 pm

    I suspect the safety(and money) aspect sortof ruined the potential awsomeness of this drive.

    If they instead were given enough money to build two cars, and instructed that they either beat the human record, or only get one of the cars whole trough the course i guess we would’ve seen some more exciting driving, or rolling down the hillside, perhaps both.

  • The Avenger November 23, 2010 on 8:27 pm

    Well, that was a bit of an anticlimax.

  • Michael November 24, 2010 on 1:01 am

    I remember reading that the Sept. “Race” was not going to be all out, more for data gathering and testing. I have no clue where or if it is even true though. Anyone else read that to? (I have no clue where it came from or what to google in order to find the original source)

  • November 24, 2010 on 11:43 am

    How well do these robots respond to other drivers on the road?

  • Chrisk826 November 24, 2010 on 4:05 pm

    Since this was the first drive up Pike Peak for an automated vehicle (as far as I am aware) I pretty certain the intention was just to get to the top without going over the edge and set a baseline for future drives. Pushing the technology little by little will happen, but for anyone who thinks they are going let this multi-million dollar investment go full bore up the side of a mountain on its first attempt obviously does not understand the RnD process. Baby steps my friends; this video represents a toddler who walking confidently and an Olympic sprinter in training.

  • Lcr97 November 25, 2010 on 3:41 pm

    “Imagine a world where we have widespread autonomous vehicles, and where each of those autos has the capabilities that exceed the most experienced rally car drivers. Not only could you let your robot automobile drive for you, you could rest easy knowing that it will dodge hazards, brake for children in the road, and speed down the highway with a grace you could not produce on your own.”

    – Yeah, until it breaks. Then the robot automobile becomes a missile.
    Look its all very cool stuff, but no computer can replace the human dynamics that are absolutely essential for something like controlling a car.
    thanks but no thanks

  • Invest It Wisely November 27, 2010 on 11:44 pm

    This has the possibility to really revolutionize transportation at some point. Imagine telling your car to park itself, and imagine even bad drivers being able to share the road safely with others. Although I’ll be a bit sad at the loss of control, I’m definitely looking forward to this day.

  • Pure Cleanse December 3, 2010 on 12:19 pm

    Amazingly video and news and Most of them fantastic opinion of members on this topic..And that should be in this ultramodern era,

  • Anonymous December 4, 2010 on 3:40 pm

    This is killer video? Have you watched top gear apocalypse? That’s the way go! 🙂

  • Racing Parts January 3, 2011 on 5:30 pm

    That’s an amazing video.Serious hp.