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This Driverless Car Can Beat a Race Car Driver (Sometimes)

Driverless cars are all well and good, but surely they can't outdrive flesh-and-blood race car drivers, can they? Actually, it depends on the day.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Driverless cars are all well and good, but surely they can't outdrive flesh-and-blood race car drivers, can they? Actually, it depends on the day.

"The typical male response is, it'll never beat me," David Vodden, chief executive officer of Thunderhill Raceway Park near Willows, California, told NBC News. However, a driverless Audi TTS Coupe nicknamed Shelley has been known to best Vodden on occasion.

Vodden and Shelley don't actually face off on the track simultaneously, mano-a-machino. Instead, researchers at Stanford University compare the computerized profile of Shelley's performance with the routes taken by human race car drivers around Thunderhill's track.

They're even monitoring the drivers' brain waves, as measured by electroencephalograms, to get additional insights into how expert automobile operators process information.

"We really want to learn what they're doing, and one of the ways to do that is to try to do it with a machine," Chris Gerdes, director of the Revs Program at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, told NBC News.

The point is not to create Terminator-style robo-racers, but to translate road wisdom into more flexible algorithms for autonomous vehicles.

'Butt sense'

Shelley is designed to take maximum advantage of the road, right up to the lane's boundary line, at speeds beyond 120 mph. But after years of experience, Vodden and his fellow race drivers have built up an instinctive sense about when and how far to push their vehicles. "Shelley doesn't have what I call the 'butt sense' yet," Vodden said. "Once she does get that butt sense, I'll be enthralled."

Gerdes put it in slightly more scientific terms. He said the racetrack tests revealed that human drivers were more willing to drive outside the standard parameters than Shelley was. The driverless car plots a precise course in a computational way, while the humans are more willing to drive outside the box. "The human driver is very quick to say, 'Maybe I don't need to get right back on the path,'" he said.

That kind of judgment call comes into play on suburban streets as well, when human drivers have to decide when to drive over the yellow line to get around a slow-moving bicyclist or a parked car.

Gerdes showed off Shelley's moves on Thursday during a briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in San Jose. In a computerized comparison of Shelley's and Vodden's performance, the flesh-and-blood driver finessed some of the turns to pick up precious tenths of a second in a lap around the track. But Shelley was able to battle back, beating Vodden by four-tenths of a second.

"Now to be totally honest and open about this, I can start this competition at a different point on the track, and David wins by 0.4 seconds, so there is still not a clear victory here," Gerdes said. "But the point we wanted to make is that we've gotten fairly comparable to an expert driver in terms of our ability to drive around the track."

Although Vodden has enjoyed matching wits with Shelley, he's doubtful whether any driverless car would have what it takes for a real race. "A really motivated race car driver is willing to 'bet the car,'" he said. "I think Shelley is precise, whereas a race car driver will do whatever it takes, including betting the car. I don't know if Shelley is betting her life on her movements."

Even the EEG readings showed that human drivers have something special, Gerdes said. "Anecdotally, it looks as if the skilled race car drivers are able to control their cars with very little cognitive load."

Vodden put it in slightly less scientific terms. "If you're thinking," he said, "you're going too slow."