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Audi puts driverless race car to the test – and it wins

Bobby, the unmanned Audi RS7 race car.

Audi

Two Audi RS7 performance sedans raced around a track in northern Germany. The car without a driver won this matchup by five seconds.

In its effort to bring autonomous-driving technology to the streets, Volkswagen AG's Audi is testing unmanned vehicles at speeds as fast as 305 km/h. In these experiments, the car decides for itself the best way to take the corners in its race against human drivers.

The map the car gets "just contains the left and right boundaries of the track," Peter Bergmiller, an Audi technician, said Tuesday during a test on a track in Oschersleben (193 kilometres west of Berlin) with a vehicle named Bobby. "The car starts to think about it and generates its optimal line."

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Auto makers from Mercedes-Benz to Tesla Motors Inc. are developing systems to ease the strain of driving by letting cars park themselves and even take over the wheel in stop-and-go traffic. By showing that computers are able to push cars to their limits on race tracks, Audi is aiming to convince regulators that the technology can be safe in the real world.

If authorities open the door to self-driving features, "the first systems for piloted driving could come to market in a few years," Audi development chief Ulrich Hackenberg said in a presentation of the brand's autonomous-driving technology.

There's a lot at stake in getting cars equipped with these features on the road. Technology for self-driving cars is forecast to become an $87 billion market by 2030, according to Boston-based Lux Research.

Daimler AG's Mercedes tested a self-driving S-Class sedan on a 100-kilometre drive on public roads in Germany last year. The brand, which outsold Audi last month to take the No. 2 spot in luxury-car sales, is already rolling out an optional Stop&Go Pilot on models like the C-Class sedan. The feature enables the car to steer itself while matching the speed of the vehicle in front of it, including coming to a complete stop.

Both Mercedes and Audi got approval last month to test self-driving vehicles on California roads, to get their German-engineered cars used to U.S.-specific situations including eight-lane highways and traffic lights on the far side of an intersection.

"Piloted driving is one of the most important development fields at Audi," Hackenberg said, speaking before showcasing a driverless RS7 this weekend at Germany's Hockenheimring race track. "It's key on the way toward accident-free driving."

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