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Delphi car driving itself across the country

Automotive Tier 1 supplier Delphi aims to test and prove its autonomous car technology by letting it drive from San Francisco to New York City.

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If there remains any doubt that autonomous cars are on their way, automotive-equipment maker Delphi intends to crush it by letting one of its self-driving research vehicles drive across the country, from San Francisco to New York City. The drive is part research and part publicity stunt, as Delphi will gather 2.3 terabytes of data from the trip, but will also arrive in the Big Apple just in time for the New York International Auto Show, where a gaggle of press is sure to greet it.

Before the car's departure on Sunday of this week, Delphi Lab director John Absmeier invited me down to his Mountain View, Calif. facility to talk about the drive and to check out the car. Starting with a production 2015 Audi SQ5, Delphi added a long-range radar unit to the front of the car and four short-range radar units, one at each corner. A camera mounted at the top of the windshield serves as a visual sensor, and six LIDAR sensors help map the environment. High-resolution GPS tells the car where it is in the world.

The car's "brain," a processing unit designed by Delphi and driving-algorithm partner Ottomatika, takes the data from these sensors and creates a virtual environment from which it can apply programmed driving behaviors.

Delphi autonomous car radar
A forward radar, mounted under the Audi logo, detects traffic and objects up to 200 meters (656 feet) ahead. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As a preview of the cross-country drive, Absmeier and a certified autonomous car driver from Delphi took one of the company's research vehicles on a jaunt around the suburban streets and freeway near the Delphi Lab. With waypoints programmed into the car's GPS, it traveled a loop beginning and ending at the Lab.

Along the way I monitored the virtual environment created by the car's sensor and brain. The different types of sensor input were represented by different graphical elements on a headrest display, as the sensors tracked cars, pedestrians and other objects in the immediate surroundings. The car's human driver sat in the driver's seat, ready to take over if anything went wrong, but that was ultimately unneeded for this excursion.

The car handled complex intersections by itself, pausing on a right turn as a pedestrian crossed. It chose lanes appropriately, performing medium-range planning for upcoming turns. In one interesting incident, it was about to move to the right lane of a road, but detected a car at the curb and quickly aborted the maneuver, then resumed when it was safe to move over. The display showed how its camera recognized traffic lights, accurately showing their state as red, yellow or green. Completing the loop, the car drove back into the parking lot of Delphi Labs of its own accord.

In truth, I had previously ridden in this car during CES 2015, negotiating a downtown urban area in Las Vegas successfully. My second time in the car, on a different set of streets, was just as impressive.

Delphi autonomous car sensor display
This display shows the input from all the car's sensors, the virtual environment in which it plays out driving behaviors. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Part of this test drive took place on the freeway, which is primarily what Delphi will be testing on its cross-country drive. Rather than program a location in Manhattan and letting the car take off, this drive will be much more limited in scope. Delphi will be testing what Absmeier referred to as "highway pilot," letting it self-drive from on-ramp to off-ramp during the cross-country journey.

A team of trained autonomous car drivers will take over driving in the cities and hotel stops along the route. As such, the research vehicle will only be using its radar and camera sensors, as the GPS and LIDAR won't be necessary. Once the driver gets the car on a freeway, he will push the autonomous mode button, and the car will handle speed and lane keeping. As a step beyond current adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistant features available in production cars, Delphi's research vehicle will actively change lanes if it gets behind slow traffic, in an effort to maintain the speed limit.

Although this test may not sound as interesting as a fully autonomous trek along highways and through cities, it will be a real-world demonstration of what is likely to come out as a new feature on production cars within the next few years. Just as Delphi's autonomous car drivers will be doing, cars of the near future will let us take our hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals for those long freeway stretches, greatly reducing driver fatigue.

For security reasons, Delphi did not reveal the route the car will take or precisely where it will end up. All Absmeier could say was the finish line will be a New York landmark. CNET expects to greet the car on its arrival as a prelude to our own coverage of the 2015 New York auto show.