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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Look, Ma, no hands and no feet in the BMW training car:

Our man Mark Vaughn drives a Bimmer with no hands on a racetrack.

Race-car drivers, you may soon be out of a job. Just as IBM built a computer that could beat humans at chess and even at Jeopardy, BMW has built a car that can beat your lap time. OK, the best drivers can still beat this car, but we can imagine a time when autonomous cars will handle all of our driving needs, even the competitive kind.

We know this because we just took three high-speed laps of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca sitting in the driver's seat--but not driving. Our BMW 330 was turning laps of just more than two minutes, and we weren't doing anything but sitting in it. Acceleration, braking and steering were all done by the car's enormous brain. We had our hands positioned near the steering wheel in case the machine's brain suddenly went nuts, but it hasn't yet done that in more than 12,000 miles of testing.

The car, which has been around for several years, uses GPS, on-board cameras, dead reckoning, ECU data about vehicle parameters and a precisely programmed navigation route to repeat lap after high-speed lap of a route that always follows the racing line.

The idea is to show student drivers the proper braking points, apexes and just when to get on the throttle. It was demonstrated for some members of the media this week.

The car also has circumnavigated Hockenheim and the notorious Nordschleife. It is limited only to tracks that have been programmed into it, and the racing line itself was plotted by a professional driver, but it is impressively quick. Our laps were run at about a 2:04 pace, but engineers said the car could probably lap in the mid-1:50s.

After our stint behind the wheel we got to follow in another 3-series. At first we thought we could easily overtake the autonomous robot wagen, until we realized we were by then in a much more powerful 335i instead of the robotic 330. It would be great fun to try and match lap times in identical cars, with the robo Bimmer cranked all the way up to full tilt. We think we could take him, or her, but you never know. Engineers say the best drivers can still beat their creation, but we think that'll change soon enough.

Future uses are left for the imagination, but we're thinking this would make a good science-fiction movie, at least for now. After that, man-versus-machine Saturday-night grudge matches at your local track.

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