Google engineers will tell you that one day robot-controlled cars will be able to drive better and safer than humans. One year ago, in a stunt for Hot Wheels, driver Greg Tracy proved just how far off those robots really are.
We've heard a lot about driverless cars recently, from the UK clearing the way for testing the self-driving Nissan Leaf to the New York Times discussing how driverless cars will reshape cities as we know them - and even Audi having fun with an appearance from their autonomous TT-S in the hilarious Star Trek-inspired spot.
Last week, Hot Wheels released their behind the scenes documentary on last year's Double Loop Dare stunt at the X Games. In it, Hot Wheels VP Felix Holst narrates the story of how the stunt came to life. The math and engineering were certainly impressive - it took a team of 11 - including a NASA engineer, roller coaster designer and Navy pilot - to design and build the 6-story split loop.
When it came time for testing, the team had a custom-fabricated stripped-down Mitsubishi drone car that would be driven remotely to ensure that the stunt would work. After months of preparation, time and money - the team anxiously watched as the car got up to speed on the ramp, hit the loop, and crashed miserably.
It was a disheartening moment, but it proved that all of the science and engineering can't give driverless cars the one element that only a driver brings - the human element.
As someone who's tackled Pikes Peak in everything from a Ducati to an i-MiEV Evo Mistsubishi, and has been in over 400 commercials and countless films including The Bourne Ultimatum and the Fast and Furious franchise, Greg Tracy knew the risks involved in the Hot Wheels stunt. He also knew that the math was sound, the car was ready and there was nothing else left to do but drive.
"My dad was standing next to me," said Tracy in an interview this week, "saying, 'Ya know, maybe this isn't such a good idea.'"
After the initial reaction wore off, Tracy took a look at the ramp to figure out where the remote-controlled car went wrong. He saw the tire marks on the track where it looked like the car had rubbed against one of the side rails.
"From my experience in racing, when you rub up against one of the walls, it holds you there with the friction. You see it happen to NASCAR guys all the time."
He talked to the engineers and the Hot Wheels team, and decided he was ready to give it a try.
"They wanted to make sure it was 100% my decision," he said. "But I know that guy on the sidelines can't feel the sensations that I feel going through it. He doesn't feel the feedback of the wheel hitting against the bar."
So after watching the smashed drone car get hoisted up by a crane and all of the shattered pieces cleaned out of the loop, Tracy suited up, strapped in and fired up the engine.
Unlike the drone car, once Tracy hit the ramp, his instinct kicked in. It was no longer about calculations or science, but instead about using all of his knowledge as a driver to feel the car, react to the loop, and adjust as necessary to drive it all the way through.
"The first time I attempted it, the lower control arm broke and I had to countersteer through the entire thing." When asked how he knew to adjust, he said, "At that point, it was muscle memory. I didn't really have any recollection when I came out the other side. I thought I did it pretty straight - then I watched the film footage and was like, 'WHOA!'"
When asked what he thought about a future full of driverless cars, Tracy noted the differences between the experience of his oldest son, almost 16, and the experience he had when he first got a car.
"When I was growing up, first you got a skateboard, then it became a bicycle, then as soon as you could, you got a car," he recalled. "You wanted to get away from your parents' house to have experiences - mostly to get girls, and there were no girls happening at mom's house."
"Now," he added, "we keep getting more and more digital and separated from real experiences. People are so busy separated from the moment on their cell phones - they're already somewhere else. You don't need to get away."
Advances in technology don't always hurt the tactile experience. On his recent Pikes Peak climb in the all-electric Mitsubishi, Tracy said, "It was the most amazing car I've ever driven. The linear power was such a different experience - being able to hear the wind blow past you, hear the tires squeal before you even felt it."
So while Google, Nissan and Audi engineers continue to make advances in driverless technology, Tracy and other drivers continue to prove that until these robot cars learn how to feel - particularly for high-performance driving - there is no substitute for a human driver.
EDIT: Headline updated from "robot" to "drone" for clarification. The test car in the Hot Wheels stunt was radio-controlled.