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Audi, Automotive News: 2018 A8 to have Level 3 ‘hands off the steering wheel’ partial autonomy

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As soon as regulators allow it, Audi will activate full Level 3 self-driving capabilities on 2018 Audi A8s carrying that option, Automotive News reported.

It’s the first production vehicle to claim to carry that level of autonomy, according to the newspaper.

Audi’s “traffic jam pilot” technology will work in traffic jams under 37.3 mph on “freeways and highways where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways,” the OEM wrote in a news release Tuesday. Granted, that’s not the most common set of conditions in the U.S., and it wouldn’t alleviate two of the most boring or annoying scenarios for drivers — long-distance freeway travel or bumper-to-bumper city gridlock (no barrier between the halves of the road).

However, the system is indeed a game-changer, to quote Audi, even if the technology is limited to those specific conditions. And it seems possible that Audi could continue to expand the system’s capabilities with updates as it refines the AI.

Tesla’s high-profile Autopilot, which is somewhere between the Society of Automotive Engineers autonomy Levels 2 and 3, carries the caveat that it’s still a test system and requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and be attentive at all times. But Audi said Tuesday the driver can actually remove their hands and focus on something else besides driving until the car alerts them it needs a human to take over.

That’s the definition of Society of Automotive Engineers Level 3 autonomy — a driver still must be available but the car really is in charge. Level 4 can self-drive itself completely in most conditions, and Level 5 is full autonomy anywhere.

“The traffic jam pilot manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking,” Audi wrote in a news release. “The driver no longer needs to monitor the car permanently. They can take their hands off the steering wheel permanently and, depending on the national laws, focus on a different activity that is supported by the car, such as watching the on-board TV. As soon as the system reaches its limits, it calls on the driver to take back control of the task of driving.

“From a technical perspective the traffic jam pilot is revolutionary. During piloted driving, a central driver assistance controller (zFAS) now permanently computes an image of the surroundings by merging the sensor data. As well as the radar sensors, a front camera and the ultrasonic sensors, Audi is the first car manufacturer also to use a laser scanner.”

Audi confirmed to Automotive News that it would assume liability when the car was driving itself, a stance similar to Volvo’s.

Automotive News Europe reported one method of handling this dynamic liability: A law in discussion in Audi’s native Germany, which will start selling the A8 this fall, “foresees a declaration from the manufacturer to the customer that spells out exactly the circumstances under which a driver can transfer control of the car, so there are no false expectations. Additionally a black box will record all handover protocols so crash investigators can know whether a human or a computer was in control of the vehicle at the time of a collision.”

That sounds pretty similar to what NHTSA looked for and relied upon in its high-profile Tesla Autopilot crash investigation (Tesla was exonerated), so it sounds like Audi would have a framework for these liability transfers.

Like later-model Teslas, which Tesla promises already have the hardware for full autonomy once the OEM figures how to write the software, the A8s will be sold with the technology for traffic jam pilot, Automotive News reported. Audi just won’t activate the technology until regulators allow it, and this will probably require a trip to the dealership, the newspaper wrote.

“The introduction of the Audi AI traffic jam pilot means the statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market, along with the country-specific definition of the application and testing of the system,” Audi wrote. “The brand’s high quality standards are equally applicable in the realm of highly automated driving. In addition, a range of approval procedures and their corresponding timescales will need to be observed worldwide. Audi will therefore be adopting a step-by-step approach to the introduction of the traffic jam pilot in production models.”

Following this activation, Audi will still geofence the technology, according to Automotive News. If you’re in a state that allows autonomous driving (and not just on a test basis), the A8 will enter traffic jam pilot mode, Automotive News reported. If you’re in a state that doesn’t, the car will refuse to do so, it reported.

Audi assuming liability raises the stakes for any shop repairing an A8, even though there’s not likely to be many of the sedan on the road. (It’ll start at about $103,578 in Europe.)

If the car does crash while in traffic jam pilot and the computer had control, Audi, Audi’s insurer, regulators and other interests are going to be looking hard to understand why the collision occurred. If a collision or mechanical repairer’s error compromised the capabilities of the A8’s AI, Audi’s not going to want to take all the blame for the crash — nor should it. Expect a level of scrutiny that wouldn’t come when a car operated by a human crashes.

If that weren’t enough future technology to sweat, the 2018 A8 also sports a “space frame” made out of carbon fiber, aluminum, ultra-high-strength steel and magnesium. Find out more about that here.

Other tech highlights of interest to collision repairers:

  • The car also can steer into a parking space “or garage,” and the driver “need not be sitting in the car.” (Automotive News reports this one also will need regulatory approval.)
  • Audi AI active suspension is “capable of raising or lowering each wheel separately with electric actuators.” This technology also hikes up the car “with lighting speed if there is an impending lateral collision, reducing the potential consequences of the accident for all occupants.”
  • “The extensive Audi connect range also includes traffic sign recognition and hazard information – innovative car-to-X services that draw on the swarm intelligence of the Audi fleet.”
  • The car sports “HD Matrix LED headlights with Audi laser lighting,” which sounds like this technology from Osram that Audi’s putting on the R8. It also has an “LED light strip combined with OLED technology rear lights. These produce unique light animations as the driver approaches and leaves the car.”
  • Dynamic steering can steer the back wheels in the same or opposite direction as the front wheels.

More information:

“Audi A8 adopts new level of autonomous driving”

Automotive News, July 11, 2017

“Audi’s A8 self-driving tech depends on regulatory changes”

Automotive News Europe, April 23, 2017

“Semi-autonomous Audi A8 will need to navigate varying U.S. laws”

Automotive News, July 11, 2017

Featured images: The 2018 Audi A8. (Provided by Audi)

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