- May 26, 2011
We lap Laguna Seca in BMW's autonomous Track Trainer
BMW 330i Track Trainer at Laguna Seca – Click above for high-res image gallery
You know what's scary? Autonomous cars. What's scarier? An autonomous car that can lap Laguna Seca at eight-tenths and post sub-two minute lap times all day long. BMW's 330i Track Trainer can do just that. And we have the video to prove it.
You might remember the Track Trainer from a late-2007 episode of Top Gear, where Jeremy Clarkson sat idly by as the specially prepared Bimmer ran around the Test Track, squealing tires and befuddling an uncharacteristically speechless Jezza.
Fresh from a recent trip around the Nürburgring, BMW boxed up its rolling autonomous test lab and shipped it off to California for its first North American appearance.
While the 330i is a standard production model, the software running the show is anything but. Utilizing a combination of built-in GPS, a signal booster and accompanying repeater (increasing bandwidth and accuracy down to the centimeter), a custom map of the track and a trained driver to show it the optimum racing line, the Track Trainer learns the course and can show budding racers how to do it right. Over and over and over again.
In development since 2006, BMW began to show off this tech to the board and the press, finally bringing it to the Nordschleife in 2009 packing a new camera system that measured the exact width of the track and inputted the data into a reconfigured autonomous driving program. The result was a nine-minute lap and a scary ride (one exec told us "we won't do that again") for its two hapless passengers.
The underlying program uses a complex algorithm to determine theoretical grip, while wheel speed and spin sensors send data to the computers to interpret the exact amount of suspension load, power delivery and braking force necessary to keep it out of the weeds. A driver feedback display mounted on the center console shows drivers how close the car is to the optimal line while in control, but when Hal takes over, instructors or engineers can dial the speed up or down to suit conditions.
When we arrived at Laguna Seca for a few hot laps, a late-afternoon rain had coated the course. The system was able to detect the low grip situation and react accordingly. How'd it fair? Average lap times with the system set between 85- and 95-percent ran in the low two-minute range, but engineers we spoke to say they saw consistent one-minute, fifty-five second laps during the configuration process.
What's next? The engineers ruled out another run around the 'Ring, but they're actively pursuing a system that can record all the bumps, ruts and surface imperfections around a track to make the Track Trainer even more accurate.
Check out our two laps around Laguna Seca in the video above, along with an abbreviated Nürburgring video and a quick explanation of the Track Trainer's tech below.