Lessons From 2 Robotic Drivers: One Named Kimi
Exploring an autonomous future -- in performance driving.
Dr. Hardy, my optometrist, leaned back and blanched. There aren't many excuses that sound as made-up as "Yeah, I need these new contacts in a hurry because next week I'll be driving Ferraris at their Fiorano test track in Maranello." But I was genuinely worried. My current split-focus lenses are fine for dodging the harebrains on the 405 (and most important, not looking like I need reading glasses). But little ol' me venturing onto Fiorano, the famous asphalt canvas once painted by the brushes of Lauda, Villeneuve, and Schumacher -- the da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio of the Scuderia? Can Biofinity lenses be air-dropped into central Italy?
Ten days later, it was see-your-breath cold and drizzling outside the red brick conference room as Ferrari's chief test driver, Raffaele De Simone, circled the track in an F12 to set a target lap time. Half-drunk with jet lag, I swayed over to the coffee bar and chased a Vivarin with a cappuccino. Raffaele's car screamed the other way, now traversing the quick, sweeping bends on the back side of the circuit. I hooked back to the espresso bar. "Another cappuccino, please." The wary young barista locked eyes as I pressed a second tablet out of its foil nest. At the last second I popped in the new contacts and blinked. This is as good as it'll get. Walking past Enzo Ferrari's old farmhouse office on the way to the pits, I could imagine il Commendatore frowning. "Hey, Lampredi -- who's that joker?"
Out there, an irritable 731-hp, $320,000 F12 was slithering at the brink, trailing a mist as it set the stage for Ferrari's first and only F12 Master Class. I suspect the motivation for unbolting Fiorano's doors to heathen journalists was to help dispel the car's rap as being "too powerful"; Ferrari's team of test drivers and data analysts were going to teach us to tame the beast and hopefully go home with brighter opinions. For me, though, it was more complicated.
We're in an almost hallucinatory era of speed. Yet we're strapping creatures into these cars' drivers seats that have the same reflexes, the same eyeballs, the same neurons in their noggins they had when one horsepower pulled our wooden-spoke carriages. When I was a teenager, I stood behind the ropes at the L.A. Auto Show and stared at a magnificent black Ferrari 365 Daytona. Someday I'd tear up Highway 1 in one of these, I dreamed -- and with 352 hp and a 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds, it was a plausible fantasy for somebody with decent driving skills. Now I need a team of Ferrari specialists to help me control the 731-hp, 3.5-seconds-to-60 F12. We don't seriously exercise modern supercars ourselves anymore; we watch guys with freakish drifting skills do it on YouTube instead.
With every quicker supercar, the murmur resumes over whether we've reached the precipice of "too fast." We like to tell ourselves that it's the pleasure of driving that matters, but the dirty secret is that we're mesmerized by the gleam of their menacing numbers. We stare longer at Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum than the other guy's .38 Special. Nissan's GT-R NISMO can reach 60 mph in 2.9 seconds; the Tesla Model S P85D's g's are so violent off the line it's advisable to lean your skull against the headrest first. Reading those things just focused your attention, didn't it? It's why ever-greater performance is never going to stop.
What does this mean for the future of high-performance driving, then?
My best Fiorano time was about mid-pack among the journalists. Clobbered by my two American counterparts, though not clobbering any of the barriers, felt like a minor triumph. None of us really tamed the F12, but at least we petted it for different lengths of time without getting our hands bitten off.
"Ever-greater performance is never going to stop."
Ushered into the data-analysis room, we were placed before large monitors glowing with graphs of our previous session's data overlaid on De Simone's bogey run. I grimaced. The engineer's eye was drawn to how violently I hit the brakes -- a big initial spike that trailed off with a wobble. It looked like an arrhythmic EKG heartbeat trace. In the somber tone of a cardiologist informing me that I have six months to live, the engineer slowly shook his head and explained how seriously this disturbs a car's pitch balance. I shook my head too.
However, there was a particular comment during the day that hung with me while I tried to follow the plot of Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" (for the third time) on the flight back to L.A. Exiting Fiorano's first slow right-hander, my driving coach -- who'd become apoplectic with my violent steering -- yelled over the howling engine in his musical Italian accent, "Smooother, smooother -- the stability control won'ta know what you waanta." Won't know what I want?
Smoothness has been the mantra of great driving since Piero Taruffi's 1959 book, "The Technique of Motor Racing." Whatever. I've always been a grab-it-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck type, taking solace in a clip you can find on YouTube of Senna correcting the heck out of an Acura NSX at Suzuka. Our in-house Zen Driving Master, Randy Pobst, has studied that video, too, but regards it differently. "To me it just shows that he came from karting and really wasn't a production car driver." Ever the driving instructor, Randy pantomimes with his hands and feet. "While the steering wheel starts the turn, cornering is really done with the pedals."
In Taruffi's day, smoothness was purely about staying longer on the fringes of the friction circle, mining the edges of the performance envelope. Today, it's required, too, for delivering clear intentions to the stability control system. But like many drivers, John Heinricy, America's quintessential engineer/driver and 38-year veteran of GM's top echelon go-fast tech, isn't a fan. "I prefer the system completely off. It can be disruptive and upset the balance, but if it's really good -- and placed in a competition setting -- a pro driver can often drive extremely fast without the system really doing anything at all. Where it can be helpful, though, is in endurance racing where mistakes inevitably happen."
Tadge Juechter, Corvette's chief engineer, agrees. "If you're an extremely skilled driver who can walk that line perfectly, you can out-perform our PTM. But you'd have to be an extremely good driver on a track you know extremely well after doing a lot of laps that day on that set of tires. Otherwise you'll be faster with it on."
Harrumph. Well, if my braking and steering were jerky, then at least I was exiting Fiorano's corners rather nicely -- smooth, long power drifts onto the straights, unspooled like clockwork. Then my cheery data-analyst friend pointed out that my right foot's choppy antics didn't match the smooth line of the speed trace. Basically, it was the F12's traction control sweetly playing the violin while I was hacking away with the bow. Lucy pulled away the football again. With the traction control switched off, I'd have been twirling in the grass.
Unlike with stability control, though, Heinricy's a fan of performance traction control. "Two advantages. Number one: Though it takes practice, you can get to the point where you can apply the power earlier and even slightly alter your line so you're onto the straight faster. Number two: In fast corners that are almost flat-out, you can apply power and still be very stable." Unfortunately, that trajectory might still conclude against a concrete barrier. Are there computing smarts out there clever enough to keep you contained within the road's width?
Meet Bobby. A computer-stuffed, track-lapping robotic Audi RS 7 that's as maniacal about its mission as the marching brooms were in "Fantasia" -- going fast around a racetrack, repeatedly, perfectly. In a demonstration prior to last year's DTM race at Hockenheim, Bobby -- named for Bobby Unser in a quirky example of German humor ("Unser could be both very good … and very bad!") -- held the grandstand spellbound as it skidded and careened its way through the stadium section with just a rotating steering wheel visible as it flashed past.
The ghost in the machine is a trunkload of blinking data loggers and computers, connected by a thick nervous system of cables. The only modification to the RS 7's stock sensor array is the addition of twin stereo video cameras and enhanced GPS. Its racing line around Hockenheim was calculated by simulation software (not a driver's line), and to trace it, the processors rapidly compare its real-time GPS location against the prediction while its stereo view ahead is being simultaneously matched against a library of prerecorded images. In real time, the smarts in the trunk compute course corrections, rotate the steering wheel, modulate the throttle, apply the brakes, and if necessary, intervene with stability and traction control. A key breakthrough is Bobby's synthesis of all the sensors' often-dissonant evidence into one thought-like judgment. Usually, it's adrift of the racing line by no more than 6 inches, but if it's more, the system smoothly bends the car back while still at race pace. Only if it's way off for some reason will it deliberately slow, and unlike a human driver, it won't invent a new line through the subsequent corners; it'll just drive back to the right one and start over.
At the Ascari racetrack in southern Spain, I had a chance to ride in Bobby myself with its chief engineer, Peter Bergmiller, behind the wheel and deliberately sitting on his hands for dramatic effect. Through the first few turns I gaped, round-eyed, as the car bounded through the esses and roared flat-out toward the first hard left. Annoyingly, its steering motions were noticeably smoother than mine. And the car was seriously hauling. Through another left-hander I smiled as I sensed the car's characteristic Audi understeer. Yet as I relaxed into a conversation with Bergmiller, Bobby was producing lap times in the 2:12s (repeatable to within a few tenths); a professional driver had previously done 2:11s. "That 1 second we're slower is mostly due to the extra safety bounds in the higher part of the track due to the missing free space next to the track there." It's made intentionally slower because those barriers are too close. Later I had the opportunity to actually drive Bobby's back-up car and identical twin -- AJ -- with the system switched off and realized what a handful that extra weight makes compared to a stock RS 7. Dr. Bergmiller, your software is better than me; I'd be slower even if I knew this track. Although Bobby (or maybe Robert, due to my newfound respect) obviously has its (his) entertainment value, it also makes a significant point: If its sensors and software can control a heavy car on its tiptoes at these speeds, the same will confidently handle the vehicle dynamics of a production autonomous car in a real-world emergency.
"What if you could race your car -- but its robotic oversight prevented you from ever crashing?"
After our fifth and final lapping session at Fiorano, Ferrari F1 ace Kimi Räikkönen, fresh from the Brazilian GP three days earlier, posed for pictures then climbed into one of the F12's driver's seats. The passenger door opened. Care for a ride? When my turn came, I clicked the seatbelt and introduced myself. "Hi -- I'm Kim!" (the first time in half a century my unusual name has come in handy).
Poker-faced, Kimi turned, his ice-blue eyes flashed from beneath his red baseball cap, and, gauging that I obviously wasn't Korean, and probably not Finnish either, he grunted a half chuckle. I took that to mean we were buddies in Iceman-speak. A walkie-talkie squawked an all-clear, the signalman waved, and stone-face tore onto the track, immediately twirling the wheel and throwing the car into slides looking like digital effects in a "Fast and Furious" car chase. Approaching Fiorano's narrow bridge, he deliberately spilled two wheels off the road; in one Mississippi we'd be bisected by the guardrail's tip. At the last possible instant, he flicked the wheel and the F12 twitched with just enough rotation for the steel strip to flash by the door at 80 mph. I shouted, "Aren't you ever scared?" With a smile you'd need a micrometer to measure, he slightly shrugged his shoulders. "I guess, sometimes." Could Bobby beat Räikkönen's driving? Probably not. But look, Bobby is 2 years old. Räikkönen is 35, a World Driving Champion with 11 seasons in Formula 1. Just wait. Yet some remarkably similar thinking (including from Audi advisor Chris Gerdes of Stanford) suggests a future technological meshing of the two.
Tadge Juechter: "Autonomous technology has a future in performance cars. You take the car to the point you're capable of driving then the autonomous technology instructs you how to do better. We've already talked about turning our Performance Data Recorder system into an instructional tool; on the windshield might be a head-up augmented-reality display, showing the ideal line along with where you are. If you add autonomous, it would be like having a driving instructor reaching over and tweaking the steering wheel so you're back on line. It could range from a gentle nudge to fully automated steering. Theoretically today's EPS systems already have the capability to give this feedback to the driver. It'll be awhile before we're comfortable putting these in the public's hands. But you could imagine dialing up the amount of instruction as you develop capability, from nothing -- you're on your own -- to 10, the car is driving itself." Outside of something catastrophic like a tire blowout, you couldn't crash.
How about this: What if Räikkönen were to record F12 laps at major racetracks; Ferrari owners could push a button and request a re-enactment. "Hmm,now let's see how he compares to Vettel." And off you'd go again.
At the end of my real ride with the Iceman, he twisted the F12's steering toward the pit garage. "Have-a-nice-day" he offered in his wonderfully robotic, flat intonation.
I had. And we'll be having lots more when autonomous racing software can turn ordinary Kims like me into Kimis.
The future of the rest of our driving
It won't be remembered like Lindbergh's flight to Paris -- no roaring crowds in the floodlights at Le Bourget or ticker-tape shower in New York's concrete canyons. But Audi's groundbreaking two-day, 560-mile "Piloted Drive" trek from California's Menlo Park, near Stanford University (10 miles from Volkswagen's Electronics Research Laboratory in Belmont) to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a major milestone on the way to the autonomous car. I know firsthand because I was one of those behind the wheel.
After a day of training at Volkswagen's Desert Proving Ground in Mariposa, Arizona, to practice turning the system on and off, getting used to resuming control, and proving on a handling course that I could gather things up if matters went haywire, five of us journalists were awarded the first autonomous driver's licenses ever issued to ordinary citizens. Yes, an autonomous driver's license might sound like getting authorization to take a nap, but actually California law (Nevada and Florida have also green-lighted autonomous testing) expects you to be ever-alert to take control -- you'll be legally responsible for an accident.
Within city boundaries (as well as unpredictable construction zones) Jack -- the name of Audi's Piloted A7 -- was restricted to manual operation. But on the highway, it takes stock of its surroundings and, if everything's a go, communicates its readiness via a thoughtful scheme of changing dashboard coloring. Simultaneously press two buttons on the steering wheel spokes and the dash's green illumination grows, the wheel slightly retracts, and you're autonomous. The system beckons your manual resumption with the lighting changing to amber, followed by audible requests -- about 15 seconds of warnings before it will commence slowing the car and moving to the right lane. This places it at Level 3 on SAE's autonomous operation scale (5 being completely self-driving -- many years away).
"Kim is either driving autonomously or being robbed."
Jack (its backup sibling, Igor, following just in case) adheres to the nav map's embedded speed limit, though you can bump it up to a maximum of 80 mph. Twin long-range radar from Bosch below the car's front bumper, a Mobileye camera on the windshield, a pair of side-looking short-range radar astride the trunk, and several proximity parking sensors are unaltered from the production car. Added to these are two more side-looking radar to the nose and a pair of small, Valeo-sourced 160-degree LIDAR (laser radar) units tucked under the front and rear bumper. Cost? Surprisingly reasonable -- probably a few hundred dollars for those LIDAR units. No twirling, Robbie-the-Robot gizmo on the roof; without the car's paint graphics you'd never know it's self-driving.
On the road, Jack motored along serenely, only occasionally wobbling slightly in its lane when the road striping bent away for an off-ramp, and a brief period of being dazzled by the morning sun (as we were) leaving Bakersfield. Beyond that, it worked beautifully, hour after hour, leaving us plenty of opportunities to raise two hands for the photographer in the international gesture of autonomous driving. It changed lanes and passed people, even slotting into adjacent traffic when a guy rocketed up behind Jack a little too aggressively. It was fascinating to confront how hard it really is for a sub-human mind to comprehend traffic and the road ahead. A bad paint-marking job here -- a wiggle; a change in road camber there -- a wiggle. Our brains are pretty good at this.
The electronic guts and software brain in the trunk are the same as Bobby's, the Piloted Racing RS 7, but I was frequently reminded that its bulkiness only reflects its test-bed role; production electronics could be quite small. Moreover, Jack's savviness with every inch of imperfect road (and those imperfect drivers on them) should grow exponentially in the future as each autonomous Audi on the road someday uploads its experiences to machine-learning software, and then downloads greater wisdom gleaned from the fleet.
As our 30-vehicle caravan pulled into Vegas, a few tourists turned to look, but most were busy marching to the next goofy casino. Too bad. What happened at CES is technology that won't be staying in Vegas long.
|Levels Of Autonomy|
|SAE Level (per J3016)||Steering & Acceleration/Brake||Monitoring of Driving Mode||Fallback of Driving Task||Driving Modes||Examples|
|Driver Assistance||Human & System||Human||Human||Some|
|Partial Automation||System||Human||Human||Some||GM SuperCruise, Tesla Autopilot, MB Traffic Jam Assist|
|Conditional Automation||System||System||Human||Some||Audi A7 Piloted Driving Concept|
|High Automation||System||System||System||Some||Google (25-mph top speed)|