Audi shows it's 'softly, softly, catchee autonomous monkey'

We are on the brink of Level 3 autonomy. The 2018 model of Audi’s A8 premium saloon will be the first commercially available car to boast Level 3 technology, theoretically ushering in a new era of human/machine interaction on the roads when it rolls out of the garage early next year.

This should be a thrilling development but the car-buying world hasn’t been set on fire by the news. One reason is that the new A8 will boast only several features of Level 3 functionality. The car’s Traffic Jam Pilot system will control acceleration, steering and braking on speeds up to around 35mph. Plus, there are limits and rules for this engagement; auto-drive will only kick on if there are at least two cars ahead of the vehicle and it can only function if the roadway it’s on is relatively free and clear of weather hazards (such as snow) and other obstacles.

Also a human backup will always be required because the new-generation A8 will require the presence of a flesh-and-blood person in the driving seat for its L3 functionality to work. Sensors inside the car will monitor the presence, plus the state of alertness, of the driver.

Since it’s built by an automaker with capable engineers, the autonomous features on the upcoming A8 will probably be robust and dependable. So, the company has every reason to tout them to the skies – after all, looked at a certain way Audi will be the cutting-edge auto manufacturer when the 2018 A8 starts piloting itself around.

Except that the company isn’t quite going the ‘wow, isn’t this wonderful!’ route. Although it’s clearly proud of Traffic Jam Pilot’s bells and whistles, Audi has sounded rather muted notes about advanced vehicle technology of late. In fact, one of its more recent communications about assisted/autonomous driving was headlined ‘Audi sees human control as important element in self-driving systems.’ In that report, the manufacturer took pains to stress that it “doesn’t want to take Audi drivers completely out of the equation when it comes to operating vehicles. Human control and responsibility will be an important element in any self-driving system”.

Audi is playing to the crowd. Although on the surface, many breathlessly await the dawn of even limited forms of jump-in-the-car-and-press-a-button autonomy, there is an undercurrent of worry and concern. It seems that many believe we are not truly ready to take our hands off the wheel so soon.

It’s little wonder. So far in the past year, there have been several accidents involving cars armed with assisted and autonomous technology. Most recently (and notoriously) was a horrific crash involving a Tesla Model S where an occupant was killed while apparently using the vehicle’s Autopilot feature, which is more a package of driver assistance features than a truly autonomous drive-thyself solution. According to Tesla, neither the driver nor the Autopilot system distinguished the side of a turning lorry against the clear sky. Thus, the car neither swerved nor braked to avoid impact. Instead, it barrelled into the lorry, producing the tragic result.

Around the same time, several other Autopilot-engaged crashes occurred – thankfully, none of these were fatal. Earlier last year one of the fleet of self-driving cars being tested by Google got into a fender-bender. Apparently, the vehicle was attempting to circumvent a set of sand bags when it was scraped by a passing bus. The car was operating in autonomous mode at the time; the company’s test driver was not controlling the vehicle.

Tesla’s Autopilot has been available as an add-on for over a year and Google began its self-driving programme back in 2010, before it was common to have the words ‘autonomous’ and ‘car’ in the same sentence. Collectively, Teslas loaded with Autopilot and Google cars have logged thousands of miles either as fully operational consumer vehicles, or products undergoing rigorous testing.

However, as with plane crashes, it’s the accidents that have grabbed the attention recently, not those many logged miles. This has made many sections of the driving public skittish about the technology. A recent University of Michigan study conducted by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle and cited by Business Insider, showed a mere 15% of the American consumers surveyed are willing to be passengers in an autonomous car. Further, the publication read, “…approximately two-thirds of the 618 respondents said they were either moderately or severely concerned about the safety of riding in fully autonomous vehicles… nearly half (46%) of the respondents preferred a car with no self-driving functions at all.”

So, with Audi’s new A8 soon to be available, the auto industry will take an important step up the autonomy ladder to Level 3 but early adopters must be prepared to do plenty of manual driving. The German company stresses that “overall, the approach taken by Audi has been to develop, test, and incrementally add new piloted driving capabilities or families of features”. Incremental seems to be the word of the day; the bright, autonomous future isn’t speeding towards us as quickly as some thought it might.


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