The most famous of these is "Shelley," an Audi TTS that's been retrofitted for automatic control.
Its front grille hides a LIDAR sensor, and the roof bristles with antennas. The car uses GPS to determine within a few centimeters exactly where it is on its test track, the Thunderhill Raceway near Sacramento, and it tears around the raceway with nothing more than a computer in control.
"When the car is coming to a track, the algorithms that I create optimize the racing line to go as fast as possible around the track," said Paul Theodosis, one of the team that works on Shelley. The software has similarities with its Google cousins, calculating paths around obstacles and fine-tuning the trajectory for best performance in the conditions.
"For our research, we mainly consider safety as our primary goal, and we research that on the racetrack," he said. "If we can teach a car to race at the limits continually, that technology could someday be used in production systems on the road for when a car runs into an accident situation."
The car can already make it around the track in about two-and-a-half minutes -- a respectable time, but no record.
"We want to push the car until one day we beat a professional driver on the track," he said.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.