I am travelling along the busy Interstate 15 highway in Las Vegas. Unpredictable as ever, other vehicles zip in front and my car slows, stops and accelerates as the teeming traffic dictates.
But my hands are not on the steering wheel. In fact, I am doing nothing at all to control the car. And beside me, my only fellow traveller is equally hands-off.
For I am the first Briton to take a spin in an experimental new Audi A6, which automatically pilots itself through rush-hour traffic. And with no one at the controls, it’s a scary experience, I’ll admit.
‘We’ve already had a contest to see who can close their eyes the longest while driving,’ reveals fellow passenger Bjorn Giesler, a robotics engineer in the Audi team behind their latest driverless car experiment. ‘The longest anyone’s gone is 15 seconds. It’s really harrowing.’
Close my eyes?
With no one at the controls, I can’t help but watch the surrounding traffic with foreboding. Yet, after several kilometres amid drivers who little suspect our car is driving itself, we have had not so much as a near-miss.
This is the latest advance in the quest for the driverless car: a vehicle that will chauffeur you around, while you sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s the new frontier for car manufacturers, and the race is on.
Lexus last week also announced plans for a driverless car, while internet giant Google is licensed to test autopiloted cars in Nevada. Now Audi has also won the right to test driverless cars in Nevada, as well as in California and Florida.
Audi’s aim is to take the stress out of rush-hour journeys.
The system steers the car at a safe distance from other vehicles, at speeds up to 60km/h. A driver simply has to push the car’s ‘traffic jam assistant’ button - and then, in theory at least, just relax.
If a vehicle in front slows down, the Audi automatically reduces speed. It accelerates when traffic starts moving again.
The car is equipped with radar sensors monitoring up to 250 metres ahead, a wide-angle video camera that monitors lane markings, and eight ultrasonic sensors. It can even park itself, squeezing in to within 100mm of another car.
But the system is not without its drawbacks.
If you want to change lanes, you have to take the wheel, so the car wasn’t able to pilot a course from my hotel to the Consumer Electronics Show, where it was unveiled last week.
And if traffic speed goes above 40mph, the autopilot switches off - which could leave a weary commuter asleep at the wheel.
It’s a possibility Audi are well aware of.
“A camera analyses head movements, so the car can tell if you’re falling asleep and wakes you up,” Giesler reassures me.
Hmm. I won’t be nodding off on my way home just yet, all the same. - Mail On Sunday