In September a driverless Audi TTS will speed to the top of Colorado's Pikes Peak at just under 100 kilometers per hour—that's right, no driver. It is an early step toward a robo-car that can drive itself, perhaps better than you can.

The World Health Organization projects traffic fatalities to be the third leading cause of mortality worldwide by 2020. And drivers themselves are responsible for 73 percent of these deaths. So automakers are looking at ways they could make cars safer by taking driving out of human hands. Self-driving cars could offer other benefits: TNO, an international research firm based in the Netherlands, says that they could reduce the time lost to traffic jams by up to 50 percent, and reduce CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by 5 percent.

The Pikes Peak run is a joint project of the Stanford University Dynamic Design Laboratory, the Electronics Research Lab (ERL) for the Volkswagen Group (which owns Audi), and software-maker Oracle Corp. The rough, part-gravel road to the top of Pikes Peak is the route of the annual International Hill Climb rally, an annual auto and motorcycle race. The TTS run will demonstrate whether the car can take curves as fast as a human driver—without driving off a cliff.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been testing autonomous vehicles for years, in particular through its November 2007 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge at the decommissioned George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif. During the contest, driverless cars needed to successfully navigate an urbanlike 96-kilometer course (complete with traffic merges and stop signs) in less than six hours. Only six of 11 teams were able to accomplish this, and another ERL vehicle, a Volkswagen Passat named "Junior", came in second.

"After the Urban Challenge, we started to discuss the next big challenge, which was autonomous driving up to the speed limits," says Burkhard Huhnke, ERL's executive director. Ideally, the vehicle will accomplish the kind of drifting, fast turns that race car drivers make.

The car's sporty hatchback houses two computers in its trunk, both using Oracle's Java Real-Time System to run algorithms that keep the car on the road and at the limits of its handling ability on the varying surfaces and conditions.

"It's a lane-keeping assistance system we developed with supporting regular drivers in mind, coupled with a robotic driver that's continually trying to push the car to the limits," says Chris Gerdes, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. The thinking is that a self-driving car would have to be as good as a professional race car driver for normal folks to accept it.

The car will be guided by a differential GPS system that corrects errors arising in global positioning satellite signals as they travel through the ionosphere and troposphere. It is exact enough to keep the car within 1.5 centimeters of its course. A similar technology is in the pilot stage for national deployment by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, although the crew is using an off-the-shelf radio transmitter to broadcast exact location data to be used for the corrections.

The autonomous vehicle
There are several components to what the auto industry calls autonomous driving. First, the car must be able to distinguish things in its environment, such as roads, buildings, intersections and other cars. Second, it needs to be able to avoid collisions. Beyond these basics, an intelligent vehicle would obey the rules of the road while getting to the destination as quickly and safely as possible. The Pikes Peak run will test the Audi's ability to meet this goal.

Some of these capabilities have already hit the street, and others have been demonstrated in tests. For example, in Europe Volkswagen Passats can park themselves, and collision warning is available in high-end models from most major manufacturers, including Toyota, Mercedes and Volvo.

The University of Oxford is working on an autonomous navigation system that takes in information from onboard sensors, radar, cameras, lasers and Internet servers. And GM envisions a system called the Mobility Internet that connects intelligent cars to each other and to remote servers in a vast, moving peer-to-peer network that would let them travel efficiently and in sync. Someday, autonomous driving could offer the ultimate in comfort, letting the driver chat on the phone, e-mail or watch TV on the way to work. How much control you want to turn over to the car may depend on your age and where you are going, according to Marcial Hernandez, senior engineer at ERL. "On vacation with the family, the driver may want to turn around and talk to the kids. People in their 30s may want to drive to San Francisco, stop in front of the bar, and tell the car to go park itself."

Says Huhnke, "Taking the fun out of the driving is not our main goal—we'd like to help people enjoy driving. But they should make the decision if they want to drive or press the autopilot button."