Life in the driverless lane has been progressing at an impressive pace since the Audi Autonomous TTS Pikes Peak challenger first rolled into public view last year. The latest and most visible change to this unique all-wheel driver comes in the form of its new exterior graphics, which Audi says reflects the flavor and flair of its vehicles that made history at the Pikes Peak Hillclimb as well as in a host of other world rally events. Although it won't be competing in the actual Race to the Clouds over the 4th of July weekend, the Autonomous TTS will attempt an ultimate showcase of its self-directing skills by negotiating that treacherously winding 12.42-mile dirt-and-tarmac venue later on this fall.

A collaborative effort between the Stanford University Dynamic Design Lab (DDL), the Electronics Research Lab (ERL) for the Volkswagen Group in Palo Alto, California, and Oracle Corporation, this one-off Audi TTS has already strutted its stuff on the salt flats at Bonneville last year. Then as in its upcoming tests, the goal has been to create a new form of driver-assistance that will improve all aspects of traffic safety and help save lives in the process.

According to Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, Executive Director, ERL, while progress continues, there are still issues to resolve before a system like the one in the Audi Autonomous TTS Pikes Peak car a system can be implemented on a widespread basis. "With this project we are working on electronics that will help drivers steer their way out of dangerous situations. But first we need to create programs that would replicate the quick decisions and rapid maneuvers of the best rally racers under the most difficult road conditions."


On the road to a hands-free future

The development team originally selected the Audi TTS because its design features like a drive-by-wire throttle and DSG semi-automatic gearbox fit well with the demands of the electronic control systems required to create a driverless incarnation. Audi's competition-proven quattro all-wheel drive package only added to its absolute capabilities. At the moment, a pair of trunk-mounted computers calls the shots in this cyber-centric charger. One runs various safety-critical algorithms using Oracle's Real Time Java (Java RTS) while the other handles implementations of the vehicle-dynamics algorithms. Together, they endow the TTS with some pretty amazing dynamic chops, at all speeds and on all road surfaces. Currently, the differential GPS system in the Audi Autonomous TTS Pikes Peak challenger can keep it within two centimeters -- about 0.8-inch -- of the calculated center line of a "normal" course. However, the engineering team admits that tolerance will have to be opened up to about a one-meter (39-inch) margin to accommodate the extreme dynamic and surface conditions the car will encounter when on it does attempt to conquer Pikes Peak. As an added fall flourish -- also weather permitting -- the Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak challenger will try to secure a spot in Guinness Book of World Records by setting a land-speed mark for autonomous vehicles, either on the dry-lake bed at El Mirage in southern California or at nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

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