Automatic Auto: A Car That Drives Itself

The World Health Organization projects traffic fatalities to be the third leading cause of mortality worldwide by 2020. And drivers themselves are responsible for 73 percent of these deaths. So automakers are looking at ways they could make cars safer by taking driving out of human hands. Self-driving cars could offer other benefits: TNO, an international research firm based in the Netherlands, says that they could reduce the time lost to traffic jams by up to 50 percent, and reduce CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by 5 percent.

The Pikes Peak run is a joint project of the Stanford University Dynamic Design Laboratory, the Electronics Research Lab (ERL) for the Volkswagen Group (which owns Audi), and software-maker Oracle Corp. The rough, part-gravel road to the top of Pikes Peak is the route of the annual International Hill Climb rally, an annual auto and motorcycle race. The TTS run will demonstrate whether the car can take curves as fast as a human driver—without driving off a cliff.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been testing autonomous vehicles for years, in particular through its November 2007 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge at the decommissioned George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif. During the contest, driverless cars needed to successfully navigate an urbanlike 96-kilometer course (complete with traffic merges and stop signs) in less than six hours. Only six of 11 teams were able to accomplish this, and another ERL vehicle, a Volkswagen Passat named "Junior", came in second.

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