The thought of autonomous, self-driving cars brings doom and gloom to most gearheads. It's hard not to imagine a future where driving for fun is a thing of the past.
We probably don't have to worry for quite some time, so in the meantime it's easier to appreciate the technology behind cars like Stanford University's self-driving Audi TTS, "Shelley".
The German sports coupe has previously driven itself up the infamous Pikes Peak hillclimb circuit, but now it's been proving its worth around Thunderhill Raceway in California.
That run up Pikes Peak was fairly leisurely by the standards of human racers--taking 27 minutes rather than a more typical 17 minutes in a car like the turbocharged, all-wheel drive TTS--but its pace at Thunderhill is a little higher.
In fact, between heavy braking points and fast, sweeping turns, the Audi has been hitting 120 mph--without the driver behind the wheel having to do a thing.
The mix of straights, tight turns, fast corners and hills at Thunderhill allows Stanford's technicians to put the TTS through its paces, testing different parts of the car's autonomous algorithm. It certainly isn't a steady cruise either, with the car taking turns quickly enough to squeal the tires.
Despite this, Stanford says a human driver is still a second or two quicker around the course.
For one, humans are smoother, and with their ability to think ahead they make subtle changes in their position on track to benefit one corner over another. Even so, the team says that the autonomous car's line is remarkably similar to that of a human driver.
As the team learns to take the car to its limits--and beyond--it also learns how to program a car that could, if necessary, help an inexperienced driver recover from a slide in bad weather. So doom and gloom aside, the car is about much more than taking away our love of driving.