What It's Like to Ride in a Robot Car

Self-driving cars are the future, but don't expect to see them in the passing lane just yet.

Audi's autonomous A7. (National Journal)

It's a bit disconcerting the first time you see a steering wheel move on its own.

Traveling down the highway, with your life in the hands of a computer, it's hard not to wonder if a robot car is really as safe as advertised.

What if that semi drifts into our lane? Can we evade unexpected debris?

Those are all questions automakers will have to answer in time. On this day, Audi's computer-controlled A7 handled all the tests engineers — and Virginia's erratic drivers — threw at it.

This May, Audi offered to take me for a ride in their robot car down the highway in Fairfax County, Va. And after having written about the safety benefits of computer-controlled vehicles, I had no choice but to put myself at the mercy of the machine.

I spent the morning talking to engineers, discussing the technology and policy that will determine robot cars' entry into the marketplace. Then it was time to put their car to the test.

When you first climb into Audi's robot car, it's hard not to wonder — "is this it?" Unlike Google's robot ride, which features a roof-mounted spinning laser dome, Audi's foray into the driverless car scene is pretty much indistinguishable from a standard-model A7.

A few tiny sensors are subtly built into the front and rear bumpers. The car's brainpower, which a year ago took up the rear end of a station wagon, now slides into a side trunk panel with an iPad-thin profile.

The dashboard is also, disappointingly, normal. This car looks nothing like the machine of your sci-fi fantasies.

The A7 is designed to offer driverless mode when it's on the highway but traveling less than 40 mph — a feature Audi calls "traffic jam pilot." In this case, a police cruiser in front of us provided the sub-40 traffic speed. Another officer behind made sure oncoming traffic didn't come up behind us too quickly. While the police escort in this case was to enable a traffic-specific feature, driverless car testing laws vary widely; only a handful of states currently allow the vehicles on their roadways.

As we pulled onto the highway, the A7 recognized its surroundings, and a dashboard alert informed the our driver, Kaushik Raghu, that conditions allowed for a computer takeover.

Once we settled in behind the lead car, Raghu pressed the button on the steering wheel to activate automated driving. The feature requires the driver's go-ahead before it kicks in. A graphic changed on the car's dashboard, and Raghu took his hands off the wheel. The robot car took control.

The A7, as programmed, maintained pace with the car in front. When the police car sped up, it gradually closed the gap. As it slowed, the A7 followed suit to keep a safe distance. The steering wheel turned, unguided by anything but a computer, to navigate the highway's slight turns (the pedals remained motionless, much like a car in cruise control).

After a few minutes, the stable speed and gradual turns began to seem almost boring. Audi says that's by design. Boring, in fact, is the word engineers say will show their product is successful. After all, persuading people to put their lives in the hands of a robot will come a little easier if they're not on the edge of their seat the entire time.

Other robot-car pioneers, like Google, are testing cars that can handle more driving situations. Those are further from commercial readiness. For now, Audi's engineers are convinced the robot car revolution will start with cars that do simple things — and do them well.

In our first test, the car was even more boring than advertised. Failing to pick up the vehicle in front, it gradually reduced speed until Raghu retook control. After a couple of more unsuccessful attempts, we went back the the police station to reboot the computer.

The second attempt went off without a hitch. That is to say, not very exciting. No sharp turns, no lane changes, no rapid acceleration.

Then the test took an unexpected turn. One would expect, bracketed by a pair of police cruisers, sirens flashing, that dealing with outside traffic would be something of an afterthought. That would overestimate the awareness of Virginia drivers.

As we passed an entrance ramp, a rogue car squeezed in ahead of us, apparently oblivious to the fact it had joined a slow-moving police escort. The driver who cut us off also separated us from our pace-setting police car. It was the type of scenario that would send the average driver into road rage.

To his credit, Raghu did not grab for the wheel or instinctively pump the brakes when the rogue driver squeezed in ahead of us (any driver input immediately overrides automated control, much like hitting the gas or brakes turns off cruise control). And our robot car had no trouble lowering its speed to account for the new car in front of it.

After a while, the intruding car thought better of driving in the midst of a police convoy, and the Audi reacquired the police car as soon as it merged over.

Soon after, we exited, Raghu took over, and we circled back to the police station. The ride was only a few minutes.