It’s all of the road trip and none of the driving — at least, not by a human. An autonomous car, developed by Michigan-based Delphi Automotive, will begin a 3,500-mile trip across the U.S. on March 22. Beginning in San Francisco, the car is expected to arrive in New York about a week later.
“We’re going to learn a lot out of this,” Jeff Owens, Delphi’s chief technology officer, told The Associated Press.
There will be a person behind the wheel at all times, but they are not expected to intervene at all unless the autonomous car gets into trouble.
On Saturday, Delphi is showing off several versions of the car — an Audi Q5 crossover outfitted with laser sensors, radar and multiple cameras — at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
The autonomous Audi prepared for the cross-country journey by racking up miles in Silicon Valley, where Delphi has an office, and by driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Delphi showed off the car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January where, Mashable took one for a spin.
Delphi executives say driving the car for six to eight hours per day on various roadways and in very different weather conditions will give them valuable data that can help improve the technology. Engineers will also be looking for ways to make drivers and passengers more comfortable with the idea of autonomous driving.
Although several companies are experimenting with self-driving cars, most experts say a true driverless vehicle is at least a decade away.
Delphi officials believe the upcoming road trip is the longest automated drive ever attempted in North America. In 2010, the Italian company VisLab took a driverless van on an 8,000-mile, three-month journey from Europe to Shanghai. Delphi’s autonomous vehicle looks like a regular car.
The car has six lidar sensors — which scan the surrounding area with lasers — in its front, rear and sides. And because lidar sensors don’t work well in heavy snow or rain, the car has six radar sensors that can also detect road obstacles. The car also has cameras throughout, including one that watches the driver.
Delphi says the vehicle is capable of making complex decisions, like stopping and then proceeding at a four-way stop, timing a merge onto the highway or maneuvering around a bicyclist or a trash can. When it wants the driver to resume control, it uses a verbal warning and flashes lights on the dashboard.
Owens won’t say how much its autonomous prototypes cost, but for now, this technology is prohibitively expensive. Lidar systems can cost upward of $70,000 apiece.
Even before driverless vehicles are a reality, the technology being developed for them can help to make the roads safer.Delphi sees autonomous features, like pedestrian detection or vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems, as a way to drastically cut the number of traffic deaths worldwide.
“This technology can make a serious impact on those statistics,” Owens said. “The car is not distracted, even if the driver is.”