It's hardly surprising that an Audi TT two-seat sports car would climb to Pike's Peak, along the famously twisty 19-mile road that ascends to 14,110 feet above sea level. In fact, the Colorado mountain has hosted a well-known race to the top since 1916.
Less common, however, is that the car would drive itself to the top at race speeds, with no one inside it.
Stanford University's autonomous Pike's Peak racer, Shelley, image by L.A. Cicero
That's what's planned to happen in September, when the third autonomous vehicle developed by Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, or CARS, tackles the fabled hill-climb. CARS is funded in part by Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan.
Following Stanley and Junior
Those historic events showed that real-time computing, to interpret continuous data from an array of often-pricey sensors, could make vehicles sufficiently aware of their surroundings to navigate themselves safely through it by following a set of rules about how to operate.
A different kind of GPS
The latest vehicle, an Audi TT coupe, is nicknamed Shelley, after Michèle Mouton, the first woman driver to win the climb. Unlike its predecessors, which "read" their urroundings using radar, lidar, and cameras, Shelley will follow a Global Positioning System (GPS) trail.
The autonomous car uses a somewhat different GPS system than your car's satellite navigation, though. This one corrects for atmospheric interference, positioning the car on the surface of the planet to within about an inch.
The computer system that operates Shelley compares the positioning information to the car's speed and acceleration, plus inputs from gyroscopic sensors that provide equilibrium and directional data. Then it compares that to the map to figure out if the car is on course.
The Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Laboratory, or VAIL, is a partner in developing Shelley. The lab studies how new technologies can help human drivers react better to safety challenges. It also looks at whether autonomous features could reduce the load on drivers.
130 mph, no driver
Shelley has already achieved speeds of 130 miles per hour, but that was at the wide-open Bonneville Slat Flats, which are closed to traffic during speed runs. The roads up the Peak, on the other hand, are narrow, twisting, and has sheer drops at the edges.
"Our first goal is to go up Pikes Peak at speeds resembling race speeds, keep the car stable around the corners and have everything work the way we want it to," said Chris Gerdes, CARS program director. The team won't run its trial "until we can do it safely."
Just one remote control
If it succeeds, Shelley won't be the first autonomous vehicle to have made it up the hill. Others climbed the 12.4-mile paved and gravel track, with a 4,720-foot climb that includes 156 turns, but only at speeds of about 25 mph.
Shelley's creators are targeting speeds as high as 130 mph up the hill. And once the car sets off, they have only a single control at their disposal: a remote kill switch.