Last year, Volkswagen’s luxury marque Audi demonstrated its latest and greatest autonomous drive technology — known as Audi Piloted Drive — by sending a race-prepared Audi RS7 Piloted Drive prototype called ‘Bobby’ around the Hockenheimring race track in Germany at full race speeds without a driver.
The lap time it recorded of just over two minutes wasn’t far off the kind of times a human driving a similarly powerful Audi R8 could manage, proving in a very spectacular way the incredible potential that autonomous driving technology has to change the way we travel.
Then in January, Audi demonstrated its piloted driving technology in a completely different way, sending an Audi A7 Piloted Driving prototype called ‘Jack’ from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas on public roads ahead of the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Detroit.
Last weekend, Audi’s engineers trumped both of its previous demonstrations by sending its latest piloted driving prototype — an Audi RS7 called ‘Robby’ — around the Sonoma Raceway in Southern California, clocking a total lap time of two minutes and 1.01 seconds in the process.
Even the best drivers in a similarly powerful RS7 would struggle to get a better time — although Robby is some way off the track record of 1:20.683 — recorded in July 2000 by Brit Allan McNish in a race-prepared Audi R8.
At 2.5 miles in length and recognised as one of the more challenging race tracks in the world, the Sonoma Raceway has a total of twelve different turns and earns at least some of its notoriety thanks to its many hills and more than 160 feet of total elevation changes.
But fitted with the latest generation of Audi’s Piloted Drive system, Robby took it all in its stride, tackling the circuit with professionalism and poise.
Like Bobby — the car which tackled the Hockenheimring last year — Robby is a fully race-prepared Audi RS7, but is more than 880 pounds lighter than its predecessor, punching a total power output of 560 horsepower and tipping the scales at less than a production RS7, even with all that extra autonomous driving hardware on board.
Of course, Audi isn’t demonstrating its Piloted Driving technology on a race track as a way of suggesting that one day we’ll all be racing to the office one day in a fully-autonomous RS7. But like other automaker, Audi knows only too well that proving a car’s prowess on the track is a great way to drive interest in a road-legal version of that car on the dealer forecourt.
In this particular case, the car itself isn’t the important thing: the piloted drive technology which enables such an impressive lap time on one of the world’s most demanding race tracks is.
Given that Audi’s next-generation A8 luxury sedan will be the first production vehicle from Audi to offer piloted drive technology as standard, demonstrations like this are key to that car’s success. Indeed, high-speed demonstrations of autonomous driving technology will not only capture the imagination of the early adopters and tech-savvy car fans — but also prove to those who are more cautious of new technology that Audi’s Piloted Drive system is reliable, safe and ready for prime time.
The tough part? Convincing legislators and insurance companies of the same thing. And that will take more than a few impressive laps on some of the world’s most famous race tracks.
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