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How Driverless Car Racing Works

        Auto | Motorsports

Driverless Car Races
The driverless "Boss" uses a combination a combination of lidar, radar, vision and mapping GPS systems to "see." It used only electronics to successfully drive itself through the DARPA 60-mile urban course in 2007.
The driverless "Boss" uses a combination a combination of lidar, radar, vision and mapping GPS systems to "see." It used only electronics to successfully drive itself through the DARPA 60-mile urban course in 2007.
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Has all this talk of driverless car racing got your inner geek ready for the green flag? Well, don't get too excited, because there are still some kinks to work out before the sport is ready for prime time.

Sure, engineers have been racing these vehicles for more than a decade, but it hasn't always been action-packed. Take the first official driverless car race, an off-road contest known as the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge (we mentioned it earlier but left you hanging about the outcome). Of the 15 teams that started, only six actually made it out of the starting chute without going bonkers. Those that made it out were able to travel between 1.2 and 7.4 miles (1.9 to 11.9 kilometers) before getting stuck on a rock, careening into a fence or meeting some other inglorious demise. Those results are even more cringe-worthy when you consider the course was 142 miles long [source: Hooper].

To be fair, the DARPA Grand Challenge is about encouraging technological advancement, and by that measure the 2005 race did not disappoint. Twenty-three vehicles entered this time, and four managed to make it down the 132-mile course within the 10-hour time limit. "Stanley," the car from Stanford University, finished first with a time of six hours, 53 minutes, and 58 seconds. It was an amazing technological accomplishment, but at an average speed of 19.1 miles per hour (30.7 kilometers per hour), it was hardly the heart-pounding action race fans are used to [source: Hanlon].

The final DARPA driverless car race was the Urban Challenge held in 2007. This time Carnegie Mellon's team beat out 10 other competitors to take home the $2 million first prize, completing the 60-mile course 20 minutes ahead of the next finisher. Again, speeds were slow: only 14 miles per hour (22.5 kilometers per hour) on average. Perhaps the biggest bummer for race fans, however, was that the cars were judged on how well they followed traffic rules. What kind of race is that? [source: Sofge]

Race enthusiasts will be glad to know that engineers are now working on driverless race cars that can go much, much faster. Stanford University's Audi TTS, nicknamed "Shelley," has gotten a lot of attention lately — and for good reason. In February 2015 it became the first driverless race car to beat a human race car driver, beating out amateur touring class champion David Vodden at California's Thunderhill Raceway Park by 0.4 seconds [source: Knapton].


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