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VW built a self-racing car, and we went for a hair-raising ride

When the conversation turns to self-driving cars, most people think of Google’s pod-like prototype or a high-end sedan quietly navigating itself through a dense traffic jam. What if I said a self-driving car can make your heart race while helping you become a better driver on the track?

That’s exactly the kind of technology that Volkswagen has developed, and I traveled to a proving ground nestled deep in the German countryside to try it out.

Called Race Trainer, the software is embedded into a regular-production 2016 Golf R. That means it uses a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 292 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at just 1,800 rpm. My tester was equipped with the optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

The hatchback looks fully stock if you remove the stickers on both sides and the conspicuous “RESEARCH” plates, though a close look reveals it’s fitted with an array of sensors on the roof. The story is different in the cabin, however. The heads-up display is much wider than stock, and even those not familiar with the Golf R will immediately notice the cluster of added switches in the center console. Out back, computers and an extra 12-volt battery take up nearly the entire cargo area.

The Race Trainer software does exactly what its name implies: it helps make motorists faster, safer, and more confident on any given track. There are two ways to generate the fastest racing line. First, engineers can program the track’s right and left boundaries and rely on an algorithm to calculate the best line to follow. Second, Race Trainer can simply record and replicate a line traced by a professional pilot.

Watching the wheel spin frantically on its own is a little unnerving at first, but I learned to trust the system a few turns into the course.

When the most basic level is engaged, the Race Trainer-equipped Golf R drives itself around the track with absolutely no input from the driver. Riding in an autonomous car while coasting down an open highway with wide lanes is relaxing; sitting in an autonomous car as it jolts you around and watching the steering wheel spin frantically on its own from side to side is a little unnerving at first, but I learned to trust the system a few turns into the course. The self-racing Golf R won’t beat a skilled pilot, but this basic level undeniably helps novice drivers become familiar with the track while showing them when to brake, when to turn, and when to gun it with razor-sharp precision.

The driver is given control of the car when level two is engaged. The turbo four’s output is limited for safety reasons, and there is still a perceptible amount of assistance from the Race Trainer software. Notably, Race Trainer brakes and steers the car on its own if the driver reacts too late, though the input can be overridden. The heads-up display’s screen needs to be wide because it shows video game-like augmented reality arrows that help the driver stay on the fastest line. The arrows turn blue when the driver needs to accelerate, and red when he or she needs to brake.

Levels three and four give the driver more freedom, and – importantly – more of the engine’s power. The heads-up display remains a central part of the system so it shows the best racing line regardless of which level is engaged.

Race Trainer records each lap and provides feedback on how to get faster via a menu in the infotainment system. It displays a map of the track that’s fragmented into different sections and intuitively compares the driver’s line with the fastest line on record. It also shows where the software stepped in to provide assistance.

Race Trainer helps pilots become faster, safer, and more confident on any given track.

Motorists are generally content with the way they drive; there’s really no reason to find a way to get to the grocery store two and a half seconds faster than the week before. In the racing world there’s always room for improvement, however. Volkswagen’s Race Trainer helps make drivers faster regardless of how experienced they are, especially when driving on a specific track for the first time. It might put a few racing instructors out of work, too.

It’s tough to say whether the next GTI or Golf R will be offered with Volkswagen’s Race Trainer tech. The engineers who were on-location during the demonstration told me it’s still an experimental software that’s not completely ready for production yet. If it reaches the general public, Race Trainer has the potential to make racing accessible to a much wider audience than it is today.