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When Your Car Takes You For a Ride

On March 31, 2015, another ‘first’ was added to the history books.  A blue Audi SQ5 crossover drove into New York City or, more precisely drove itself into the city just in time for the opening of the New York International Auto Show, ending a journey begun nine days earlier on Treasure Island, located in San Francisco Bay near the mid-point of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in northern California.

The Audi headed south to Los Angeles on Day 1, and then turned east to cross the southern states for three days.  It turned north for the next five —from Mississippi to New York including a quick trip through Washington, DC.  The Audi – ‘Roadrunner’ – , so nick-named by its ‘hands-off’ engineering crew, packed with technology developed by Delphi Automotive PLC, covered 99 percent of the 3,400 mile/5,472 kilometer distance in fully automated mode making this the longest North American and first coast-to-coast automated drive.

Travelling six to eight hours per day—and never on its own at night—Roadrunner, said Delphi’s Chief Technology Officer Jeff Owens, “perform[ed] exceptionally well… navigat[ing] through mountains, heat, traffic jams, trucks, road construction, and even tumbleweed.”  Intervention by a ‘human operator’ occurred “once in a construction zone and once to avoid police stopped on the hard shoulder.”  And he said, while “improvements are needed in the way the car recognizes road markings of different types and qualities, …overall the project has been a huge success.”

Delphi Automotive PLC describes itself as “a leading global supplier of technologies …that make cars and trucks smarter and safer as well as more powerful and efficient.”  This record-setting trip, therefore, aside from the publicity benefits, was also a data-gathering exercise, producing nearly three terabytes, described as “about 30 percent of all of the printed material in the Library of Congress.”

Equipped with six long-range radars, four short-range radars, three vision-based cameras, six lidars (light detection and ranging devices), a localization system, intelligent software algorithms and a full suite of Advanced Drive Assistance Systems, Roadrunner was tasked on this trip with demonstrating its most advanced capabilities.  Said Delphi’s Jeff Owens “our vehicle performed remarkably well during this drive, exceeding our expectations.”

The vehicle demonstrated the ability to instantaneously make complex decisions, like stopping and proceeding at a four-way stop, timing a highway merge, calculating how to maneuver safely around a bicyclist on a city street, and warning the driver to resume control using both verbal and visual warnings.

While implementation of this technology for all motor vehicles may be still on the distant horizon the self-driving car concept has now been proven.  Wired Magazine noted that “What’s remarkable isn’t the fact Delphi completed this trip, but the fact several companies could have done it.  Google, Audi, or Mercedes would have had little trouble handling this level of autonomous highway driving.  The news here isn’t that this was possible, but that it was so easy.”

The same magazine article pointed out that “Google may be more advanced than anyone:  The tech giant says its self-driving cars are so far along, they can recognize and respond to hand signals from a police officer directing traffic.”

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