The new Audi A8 happily drives itself in German traffic. Picture: AUDI
The new Audi A8 happily drives itself in German traffic. Picture: AUDI

Load up the infotainment with movies and have the laptop at the ready so you can work while you drive because level 3 self-driving cars are about to land with Audi’s A8. Well, parts of them are, anyway.

Audi has made a huge marketing push around its next-generation A8 limousine being the first car to bring full level 3 autonomous driving into production. Level 3 means drivers no longer have to be in control of the car, allowing them to do almost anything else while the car negotiates traffic by itself.

After a good look in and around the tech in a pre-production version of the A8, we can confirm that Audi’s claims are true. Sort of. And not true, sort of, too.

Bear with us because this tale of Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot is about to get complicated. Given the difficulties in engineering self-driving cars, it’s probably as it should be.

Using the level 3 capability of the A8 will depend entirely on negotiations being conducted with a host of countries in Geneva, but not the most important two, China and the US. The world’s two biggest car markets are drafting their own, independent legal frameworks to allow self-driving cars, which are illegal today.

The A8 can deal with regular situations but the rules when it won’t work are rather long. Picture: AUDI
The A8 can deal with regular situations but the rules when it won’t work are rather long. Picture: AUDI

"We’re in a situation where we are a little bit caught between two stools," Audi’s development director Peter Mertens said earlier in 2017. "In the past, we’ve had the regulations in place before we start our engineering and then we supplied the certification of compliance afterwards, but now we are dealing with a moving target."

Audi is blazing a trail here, since nobody has gone to level 3 before and the legislative world simply isn’t ready for it, so it’s not rushing to put a timetable on when the world will be ready.

"We will probably seek an exemption (through Article 20 of EU Directive 2007/46) since things won’t be far enough along in Geneva," Audi physicist, engineer and global autonomous-driving law expert Thorsten Leonhardt said. "The jump is simply too great that one could reliably compare it to the length of time needed to introduce past innovations like ESC," he says.

Until then, though, the A8 will go on sale in SA in 2018 with most of its level 3 hardware, but with some key pieces left off, including the driver-facing camera in the instrument cluster to keep track of the driver’s readiness levels.

Audi doesn’t want to get itself in the situation where customers pay for hardware they can’t use, even if the argument exists that A8 customers would be happy to pay for it on the assumption that it gets reflashed to become full level 3 when the laws allow it to be.

We took a first drive and a first nondrive in the A8, but only up to 60km/h when Simon Ulbrich, a developer from Audi’s automated driving function department, pushed the car’s AI button on the centre console to put it into level 3 mode.

Simon Ulbrich, a developer from Audi's automated driving function department relaxes while the car does the driving. Picture: AUDI
Simon Ulbrich, a developer from Audi's automated driving function department relaxes while the car does the driving. Picture: AUDI

Now, let’s be clear about this: Audi’s level 3 setup is a safety-first project, like they don’t want to take any risks that might give themselves or autonomous driving a bad name.

A step up from the level 2 tech available in both the A8 itself and its rivals (like Mercedes-Benz’s facelifted S-Class), level 3 means you can let the car drive itself and get on with other things, like watching movies, reading a book or admonishing the underling in the back seat.

Level 2, on the other hand, means the driver is always responsible for what’s going on, which is why all of these cars with active cruise control and lane-keeping systems demand their steering wheels get felt up every 15 seconds or so, to make sure you’re paying attention.

Audi itself has only authorised a narrow set of circumstances under which it will allow level 3 autonomy. It reads like this: a proper divided road, with solid barriers protecting against oncoming traffic, below 60km/h.

The list of things that Audi has included that prevent drivers from locking in self-driving is far longer. No footpaths. No oncoming traffic. No merging traffic. No parallel traffic. No cross traffic. No roundabouts. No cars veering at you. And on it goes.

It’s not a surprise, then, that the first thing Audi wanted to show us with its level 3 A8 was the hand-back process. Critics and researchers have homed in on the hand-back as the critical part of the level 3 equation, suggesting that if people have switched their brains off from driving to concentrate on other things, they will take time to switch back on.

Audi has aimed for 10 seconds of hand-back time on the higher-speed prototypes we’ve also driven (or been driven in), but even bearing this in mind, the A8’s system is impressively overengineered to make sure people grab control back when it needs them to.

The AI (Audi Intelligence) button switches things to autonomous mode. Picture: AUDI
The AI (Audi Intelligence) button switches things to autonomous mode. Picture: AUDI

In simulated traffic behind another car, it took over easily at 55km/h, then when Ulbrich forced it to ask us to take control back, it beeped audibly, changed the colour of the digital instrument cluster and interrupted the movie on the central infotainment screen. As it got more impatient, seconds later, it tightened the seat belt, beeped again and fired up the hazard lights.

When that, too, was ignored, it stomped the brakes repeatedly until the car stopped completely and, if we’d left it unattended for another 15 seconds, would have automatically dialled up Audi’s emergency hotline, on which an operator would have checked on our physical condition, poised to send our location to the emergency services.

In our real-world test out in Germany’s heaviest traffic, it was even more impressive — when it worked. Not only did it take over all of the driving functions at low speed, but also it pulled to the left side of the left lane and stayed there, just in case an emergency service vehicle needed to force its way through the traffic. As speed built back up, it moved back to the centre of the lane until a truck eased up alongside us, when it moved slightly over in the lane again.

Its throttle applications were silky smooth, too, and there was no trace of lane bounce, the curse that afflicts lesser lane-keeping systems. It just took a line and maintained it, seemingly without effort.

It kept the distance nicely not just to the car in front, but to the car in front of that, because the laser system bounced beneath the first car and picked up the second one.

But the Traffic Jam Pilot also dropped out frequently, partly because it couldn’t figure out the complicated road system, which saw traffic moving in the same direction, but on the other side of a piece of armco. That’s also a good thing, Audi insists, because if the system has any doubts whatsoever, it always hands control back to the driver.

To be fair, the interior of the A8 is a pretty nice place to be, even with a lunatic of a developer like Ulbrich who sees traffic jams on autobahns and peels off to join the back of them for fun and data.

There are always smudges on the enormous touchscreens that dominate the dash layout, but the seats are incredibly comfortable and the car is stupendously quiet and calm.

There is more computing power just in the zFAS driver assistance computer on the A8 than there is in the outgoing A8 in total. That’s a crazy amount of byte-biting gristle for the electronic beast that is the focal processing point for all the traffic-sensing data coming in from all over the car. It’s processing live feeds from 12 ultrasonic sensors on the front, rear and sides, four 360° cameras on the front, the rear and the side mirrors, four mid-range radars (one at each corner), plus both a long-range radar and a laser scanner on the nose as well. On top of that, there is the feed from the driver-sensing camera in the dash.

The systems are also designed to cater for redundancy, in case something stops working after 10 or 15 years.

The trouble with delivering level 3 like this is that the technology far outstrips the laws of most countries so far (Germany recently changed its laws in June to accept it).

Audi has already said it will take full responsibility for any crashes that occur while its cars are in self-driving mode, but few countries have road rules that allow drivers to take advantage of it, even if their automotive design and homologation rules allow it. That’s changing, but it will be a long process, hampered by both the wording of the Vienna Convention and a UN committee on car rules that both China and the US (the world’s two largest car markets) have chosen not to be involved with.

Effectively, it means the computer will have to understand all of this and tap into its HERE digital mapping system to geofence where the car can and cannot use level 3. In SA, so far, it’s a big no-no and in the US, it will have to geofence it across state lines.

For now, Audi can provide a level 3 A8 through its Traffic Jam Pilot, but you won’t be allowed to use it anywhere but Germany the way it was engineered to be driven. Or self-driven.

The biggest hurdle in Europe and also here in SA is a clause buried in the UNECE Regulation 79, which insists that hands-free steering is only allowed at up to 10km/h (to allow for existing production parking assistant technology).

While it is expected that this will be updated before the end of the year, the update will only cover a single incident move begun by the driver, like indicating to change lanes. That’s defined as category C, while Audi needs category B, which hasn’t progressed all that far up the discussion pipeline.

Like Audi plans to do, Mercedes-Benz applied for and received an exemption for the Lane Change Assist system in its current E-Class, and the anticipated change to Rule 79 is just to catch up to that exemption, not to take it far enough to cover the A8.

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