The modern day equivalent of the race to the moon is the race to full autonomy in cars - and Audi has landed the first blow. The company has showcased a world-first for production cars, with level 3 autonomous driving technology available in the all-new 2018 Audi A8.
Debuting in the Audi A8, the vehicle will launch with a new feature called Traffic Jam Pilot. The technology is capable of driving the vehicle autonomously, with no driver input.
A recent German study found that drivers collectively spend over 5 billion hours stuck in traffic jams, or around 60 hours per person, per year. So, what better time to catch up on breakfast, check your emails or watch some television.
The all-new A8 features a number of ultrasonic, radar and laser sensors, along with forward facing cameras that allow it to achieve this level of autonomy. Each sensor has strengths and weaknesses — for example the ultrasonic sensors work great for short distance detection, while the cameras struggle when moving between dark and light areas.
Each sensor acts as a redundancy for the other and aims to fill gaps in their respective functional ranges.
Audi has taken the title for the first production vehicle to debut level 3 autonomous technology. If you're unfamiliar with the autonomous driving hierarchy, there are five levels.
Levels 1 and 2 are limited to vehicles where there's never an expectation of full autonomy - that is, the driver always needs to be in control of the vehicle. Some of the systems that fall into these categories include radar cruise control, Tesla's current iteration of AutoPilot, semi-automatic parking technology and so on.
At level 3, the driver is able to let the vehicle fully control its operation when activated. The driver is able to take their eyes off the road and isn't expected to pay attention. The vehicle is able to dynamically take control of random situations thrown at it and the driver only becomes responsible again once the system alerts them to take over.
This is one step down from level 4 autonomy, where the car will be able to control the entire driving process from start to finish. An example of this is Google's Waymo test car, which drives entirely on its own.
Finally, level 5 autonomy is a vehicle that will drive itself, but doesn't feature a steering wheel or pedals.
The best part for consumers is that from level 3 onwards, the manufacturer is liable for anything that goes wrong.
Enable the system and crash into a wall or another car, and your vehicle's manufacturer will wear the responsibility for any damages. Fitting this technology to the A8 is a big move from Audi, given how conservative German manufacturers can sometimes be.
We flew to Germany for Audi to demonstrate the traffic jam pilot technology in the A8 both in a closed environment at an airport, along with out on the road with one of Audi's development engineers.
Before we set out to experience the A8 in a real traffic jam, Audi wanted to demonstrate what happens in the event of a medical emergency or a situation where the driver is no longer responsive while the car is moving.
To simulate this, we lined up behind a guide vehicle, activated traffic jam pilot and forced the car into a mode where it has detected the driver isn't responsive (courtesy of a camera that points at the driver to verify their activity). After several beeps, the car begins its emergency procedure.
It starts by lightly tugging at the seat belt before pulsing the brakes. If there's still no response, the seat belt tugging gets more violent and the brake pulsing gets harder. If there's still no response from the driver the car brakes hard, activates hazard lights and begins pulling the driver in, using the seat belt in quite an alarming fashion.
Once stopped, the vehicle unlocks, the infotainment system switches entertainment off and then begins dialling emergency services, relaying your exact GPS location, along with a message indicating that you're unresponsive.
It was fascinating to experience, especially given that I've had an experience with a family friend that had an epileptic seizure while driving. They crashed into a tree and only narrowly survived. This technology could have prevented that crash by detecting an unresponsive driver and taking action accordingly.
Following this test, we went on the hunt for a traffic jam. Given these A8s were still prototype vehicles and internal policy prevented non-employees driving, Audi's engineers hopped behind the wheel to demonstrate how it worked in real life.
Once in the traffic jam, the car begins checking its surroundings to ensure there is enough data for it to work successfully as a level 3 autonomous vehicle (remember, once active, Audi foots the bill for anything that goes wrong). It's checking for things like lines, other vehicles and guard rails.
With one push of the 'Audi AI' button, the Traffic Jam Pilot feature is active. It begins steering, accelerating and braking on its own. It also now allows the driver to watch television on the main screen, read emails or even read an online newspaper. The car is now fully in control of making sure it stays on track.
Working at up to 60km/h, the car will keep to the left of the lane at lower speeds to allow safe passage for emergency vehicles and motorbikes, while moving to the centre as the speeds increase. It also caters for pushy drivers that may try and squeeze in when traffic is moving slowly. It's capable of recognising this and slowing enough to let the car in.
At any point the driver is able to regain control of the vehicle by pushing the 'Audi AI' button, pressing the brake or grabbing the steering wheel.
This technology is amazing, but unfortunately it's still a while off. Audi is working with German lawmakers, along with global members of parliament responsible for automotive to legalise this technology. As it stands there are still archaic laws surrounding vehicle control that need to be changed for this to be legal.
Audi says that each new A8 will launch with this built-in, but it will need to be enabled in person by Audi once legislation changes make it legal for vehicles to operate autonomously.
As for the all-new Audi A8 — what an impressive machine. We had the brief chance to poke around the interior and play with the new haptic feedback controls and high-resolution displays that debut a new form of infotainment and thinking for the brand.
While the design isn't overly revolutionary, the technology certainly is. We can't wait to test this out when legislation finally gets across the line. Given the state of play in Australia, that could be some time away.