When I was a kid, self-driving cars were the sci-fi future. They were the stuff of Isaac Asimov’s Sally and the Johnny Cab from Total Recall. I didn’t actually think that they’d ever happen — the concept itself was a long way from reality, a lot more fi than sci. But smarter brains than mine, with the help of some surprisingly old-school tech, have built cars that can drive on everyday roads.
I took a short trip in one, and it was normal. Normal to the point of being bland — which is what you want from a self-driving car.
At CES this year, Nvidia had two cars running around its short course — one of them an Audi Q7 fitted with its current state of the art self-driving hardware, using a single forward-facing camera to interpret the road conditions in front of it, and the other its own BB-8. Both have various sensors fitted on the inside and outside that can read the road — everything from existing markings, to implied routes, to new and unexpected obstacles — as it appears.
Both cars use Nvidia’s DRIVE PX2 hardware, a custom-designed logic board and set of GPU-powered hardware that interprets the massive stream of data coming from various sensors — cameras and otherwise — around the car. That’s the current state of the art, consuming 250 watts to operate, but Nvidia has designs for a future custom device called Xavier, which can handle just as many operations but uses just 30 watts of energy. (There’s also a low-power PX 2 that uses 10 watts for less advanced applications.)
There was a ‘safety driver’ sitting in the front passenger seat, with control of a foot brake for any unexpected occurrences — be they malfunctioning self-driving hardware or computer algorithms, or something from the outside world entirely — but the actual driving in the video above was, from start to finish, achieved entirely through software.
And, for someone that’s sat in the highway and in traffic in a Tesla Model S and Volvo’s new, equally self-driving S90, it wasn’t intimidating. Of course, it helped that the course was very clearly laid out, so I knew where the car was going to go, and I’d seen it circle around the 50-metre course over and over in the few minutes beforehand.
When the self-driving Audi took off around the course, it felt normal, no different to sitting in the back of a car being driven by a taxi driver or an Uber operator. Except, y’know, there was no-one there in the driver’s. It might have been a bit surreal to watch the electric steering wheel spin around as the car navigated the course it had driven on and then learned the intricacies of over and over, but there was nothing technical about it.
For the two and a half minutes of the video — with the Germanically stoic and not exactly verbose Audi representative sitting in the seat in front of me for some human company — my first trip in a car that no-one was driving was dramatically boring. No crashes, no explosions, no software malfunctions.
Which is exactly what I would want every autonomous journey to be.