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Monday, March 16, 2015

An Autonomous Car Is Going Cross-Country for the First Time

As reported by WiredLots of people decide, at one point or another, to drive across the US. College kids. Beat poets. Truckers. In American folklore, it doesn’t get much more romantic than cruising down the highway, learning about life (or, you know, hauling shipping pallets). Now that trip is being taken on by a new kind of driver, one that won’t appreciate natural beauty or the (temporary) joy that comes from a gas station chili dog: a robot.

On March 22, an autonomous car will set out from the Golden Gate Bridge toward New York for a 3,500-mile drive that, if all goes according to plan, will push robo-cars much closer to reality. Audi’s taken its self-driving car from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas, Google’s racked up more than 700,000 autonomous miles, and Volvo’s preparing to put regular people in its robot-controlled vehicles. But this will be one of the most ambitious tests yet for a technology that promises to change just about everything, and it’s being done not by Google or Audi or Nissan, but by a company many people have never heard of: Delphi.

“It’s time to put our vehicle to the ultimate test by broadening the range of driving conditions,” says Delphi CTO Jeff Owens.

Delphi doesn’t build cars; it builds the stuff that goes into cars. It’s a key supplier to the auto industry, and has been for almost as long as there’s been an auto industry. It’s got a solid record of innovation, too. It built the first electric starter in 1911, the first in-dash car radio in 1936, and the first integrated radio-navi system in 1994.

Now it’s built a self-driving car, based on a 2014 Audi SQ5 (chosen simply because it’s cool. No, really.). The car looks like any other SQ5 (but for the stickers), but it’s packed with sensors and computers Delphi developed to replace humans: A camera in the windshield looks for lane lines, road signs, and traffic lights. Delphi installed a midrange radar, with a range of about 80 meters, on each corner. There’s another at the front and a sixth on the rear. That’s in addition to the long-range radars on the front and back, which look 180 meters ahead and behind.

This isn’t Delphi’s bid to start selling vehicles directly to consumers. It’s in the business of developing things automakers don’t want to (or can’t) develop themselves, and the rise of autonomous driving is a fertile field of opportunities. This market, including active safety features (which do things like keep you in your lane, adjust your speed on the highway, and brake before you hit that cyclist you didn’t see) is growing 35 percent every year. It made Delphi $1.4 billion in 2014, a number the company wants to grow by 50 percent year over year.

Building your own autonomous car is a good way to develop the hardware (radar and LIDaR) and software (the algorithms that make driving decisions) automakers will need. “What we expect to do is be able to create better sensors and more sensors, and then the software algorithms as well, which the [automakers] will need as they take more steps along that journey to automated driving,” says Owens.

So why the road trip? It’s about collecting data. Delphi says it’s covered hundreds of miles in the past year or so around Silicon Valley and Las Vegas, both on the highway and on city streets. Going from California to New York provides terabytes of information on how the sensor suite detects the world around it, and how the car drives. With that data, it can continue to improve its technology, tweaking software and hardware alike to make the car’s driving more reliable.

Delphi plans to make the trip in eight days, driving at most eight hours a day. The leisurely pace will keep everyone fresh, Owens says. Besides, the car will not be breaking the speed limit—just because Google does it doesn’t make it okay to speed—so some extra time is necessary. Sticking to a southern route and driving while the sun is up means better weather and conditions for the car’s sensors. When it’s not on the highway, one of the humans inside will take the wheel.

As far as skill goes, Owens says, “virtually anything you would do on the highway, the car will be capable of doing as well.” That means maintaining a steady speed and safe distance from other cars, and passing slower vehicles. If it gets cut off or a couch falls off a pickup truck right into its path, the car will do the smart thing: brake like hell, and move to the left or right if it’s safe.

If all goes well, the rolling catalog of automotive expertise will arrive in the Big Apple on the eve of the New York auto show, showing the public, and automakers, what the future holds.