Originally published on July 14, 2015 on autoTRADER.ca

Meet Bobby.

Bobby is an Audi RS7. With a brain. His brain is made from metal and circuits and wires, and he has camera eyes and GPS ears, and he can learn a track in two laps, and drive it faster than you or me could without years of training and laps and laps to learn the track.

Bobby is the latest in Audi’s Piloted Driving experiments, a car capable of lapping a racetrack on its own after only two ‘track walks’. For Bobby’s purposes, the ‘track walks’ are two laps driven by a human at each edge of the track, during which Bobby can map the track’s coordinates using extremely precise digital GPS sensors in concert with a static antenna trackside. How precise? Within 1-2 cm precise. Bobby’s digital GPS is the only extra sensor necessary beyond the Audi RS7’s standard suite of radar, camera and dynamic sensors. The rest is brains.

Bobby’s brain is in the trunk. It has metal boxes that algorithm and wires that amplitude and plastic boxes that gigahertz. If I had known I would need a technology degree for this event, I might have sent someone with an aerospace engineering degree. Or a teenager.

What I did get was this: See the big silver box? The engineers put a bunch of ones and zeros inside that. Those GPS sensors add some more ones and zeros, and out comes a line. The racing line. While driving around the track at the speed of an experienced track driver, if a rabbit goes haring across the track, Bobby has a pair of stereoscopic cameras to see it and another metal box that says, “Whoa!” and stops the car. That’s why Bobby can go out on the track on his own like a big boy.

Bobby has a brother called Robby. He only has the first box, so he can only go out if mommy or daddy are sitting in the driver’s seat, ready to grab the wheel and pounce on the brakes so we don’t run over any rabbits. Robby has a very specific skill set, which does not include dealing with the chaos and decision-making algorithms required to navigate even one block around a city street. Robby’s skill set (like Bobby) is to make full use of the RS7’s performance capabilities to drive as quickly as possible around a given route, making split-second adjustments to throttle, steering and brakes to lap the circuit quickly and safely.

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Robby has also been modified so that his weight, when carrying two occupants, will match a standard RS7 with one occupant (a driver). That weight reduction came by way of ripping out rear seats and removing some of Bobby’s redundant systems – a set of stereoscopic cameras, secondary brake booster controls, and some of its, well, brain, which is why it requires an ‘emergency human’ in the driver’s seat. We had the privilege of riding shotgun as Robby did a hot lap around northern California’s Sonoma Raceway with an Audi engineer in the driver’s seat ready to take over in the unlikely event of an anomaly, then driving a standard RS7 on our own to give us a sense of the difficulty level involved.

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