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A Driverless Road Trip

An Audi drives itself from California to Las Vegas.

By Jennifer Marino Walters

The car arrived at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Images courtesy Audi Media.

German carmaker Audi unveiled its A7 Sportback prototype (test model) at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Nevada this week. But unlike some of the other cars being introduced, the A7 used Audi’s new “piloted driving” technology to get itself to the show.

The car took off from Palo Alto, California, on January 4, 2015. A small group of journalists took turns sitting in the driver’s seat for 100-mile stretches on public highways. California law required that an experienced test driver sit in the passenger seat, ready to take over if necessary. The journey spanned a total distance of about 560 miles before arriving at CES in Las Vegas.

“The results of the test drive [highlight] our piloted-driving [capability],” says Audi’s Ulrich Hackenberg, who worked on the project.

DRIVERLESS TECHNOLOGY

The Audi A7 Sportback can drive on highways at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour without human intervention. It can change lanes, accelerate, and brake, as well as adapt to the speeds of surrounding vehicles. Various sensors, radar, 3-D cameras, and laser scanners give the car a 360-degree view of its surroundings and detect traffic and other objects around the vehicle.

The car does have its limitations, however. It cannot drive on city streets. When it nears a city, it warns the driver to take control.

Audi has been working for several years on its self-driving technology, which it developed jointly with German carmaker Volkswagen and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University in California. The company says most of the technology is ready for mass production. It could be incorporated into the next generation of Audi vehicles.

SAVING LIVES?

Audi isn’t the only company developing self-driving cars. Google unveiled its latest self-driving car last summer. German carmaker Mercedes-Benz also presented a self-driving car, called the F015 Luxury in Motion, at CES. And several other carmakers are incorporating self-driving technology into their newest models.

Experts predict self-driving cars could become common as early as 2020—and the benefits could be huge. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 30,000 people in the U.S. die each year in traffic collisions. The World Health Organization estimates that about 90 percent of all car accidents are caused by human error. Recent research predicts that if 90 percent of U.S. vehicles were self-driving, roughly 4.2 million accidents could be prevented and 21,700 lives could be saved each year.

“Audi has set out to . . . change the way we operate our cars,” the company wrote on its website. “We will live to see cars that drive automatically. That much is certain.”

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