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Driver-less car hits the raceway in Glenn County
The sleek Audi TT-S coupe drives around Thunderhill Raceway like a race car.
But there is a twist. There is no driver behind the wheel.
Students and faculty from Stanford University's Engineering Department tested the car at the Willows track last week to get additional data on the autonomous-driving vehicle.
Their goal is to see how well the car performs, and to one day transfer data to improving the stability and traction of passenger cars, officials said.
Associate professor Chris Gerdes said the vehicle can be driven automatically by computer or by a human driver as needed.
Computer technology and GPS systems allow the car to navigate the Thunderhill Race track by telling it where the edges of the track are, Gerdes said Thursday as the demonstration wrapped up.
And while this is a race car, researchers ultimately want to use its technology for "anybody's car," he said. The information is hoped to help with anti-skid technology and other things.
"The goal is not to replace race drivers," Gerdes said, "but to use them as a model that will lead to safer cars."
That will work whether the car drives itself or is driven in cooperation with a human driver, Gerdes added.
Graduate students have provided most of the labor on the project, and the computer hardware is worth about $150,000, he said.
The project is sponsored by Volkswagen and Audi, and hopefully the technology will be available for other vehicles in a few more years, Gerdes said.
By understanding race car drivers, the researchers can get insight into how they operate a vehicle and transfer some of that knowledge to the car's computer system.
Thunderhill Executive David Vodden volunteered to drive the vehicle manually while being hooked up to wires and machines to measure his brain waves and responses.
Gerdes said the project has been under way four years.
The car is named "Shelley" in honor of French driver Michelle Mouton, who was the first woman to win the Pike's Peak Hill Race in Colorado back in 1985. She drove an Audi Quattro.
This vehicle also did that 12.5 mile course in 2010. It also has run at speeds up to 150 miles per hour autonomously on the Bonneville Salt Flats, he said.
The Thunderhill speed was around 120 miles per hour.