Auto Tech

Why the 2019 Audi A8 won't get Level 3 partial automation in the US

This four-door flagship won't be available with Audi's Traffic Jam Pilot semi-automated tech, but it'll still feature gobs of next-level safety gear.

Audi

Pricing for the 2019 Audi A8 has just been announced ahead of its US launch, but when the German luxury brand's flagship sedan hits dealers this fall, an important piece of hotly awaited technology won't be available: Traffic Jam Pilot.

The automaker had been planning to sell its new full-size flagship in the United States with Traffic Jam Pilot, the auto industry's first production conditionally automated Level 3 hardware. However, Audi says that a quagmire of legal, infrastructural and consumer issues in the States are hampering the rollout of this technology.

Traffic Jam Pilot, which combines the passenger car industry's first production lidar scanner with next-generation sensor fusion and processing power (including key built-in redundancies in the event of component failures) would likely have been the most advanced partially automated-drive system on the market, besting systems like Cadillac's Super Cruise and Tesla's Autopilot.

As a Level 3 system, TJP provides a hands-off, eyes-off conditionally automated mode that allows the driver to focus on things other than driving under predefined circumstances, though the driver must be available to retake control when the vehicle deems it necessary. Instead of receiving TJP, which is able to negotiate traffic at speeds up to 37 mph hands-off in select situations, the A8 will receive a less-capable system.

Audi has always been clear that Traffic Jam Pilot would roll out in a market-by-market strategy as local conditions allowed, and right now, that means US-bound 2019 A8 models will ship without key hardware and software needed to achieve Level 3 functionality. However, even with such omissions, Audi's Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series rival will still feature heretofore unavailable driver assist safety technologies that should put its new sedan squarely in any conversation around the industry's most advanced automated-driving tech.

Despite not being a Level 3 system, US-bound A8 models will still offer industry-first lidar sensing, as well as the company's zFAS processor, the nerve center of the car's active safety capabilities. The full-size sedan will feature a hands-on, eyes-on Level 2 adaptive cruise control system with steering, acceleration and full braking support.

Indeed, like the development prototype I demo'd back in September, the A8's driver assist tech will include an escalating series of warnings if it detects an inattentive driver while the cruise control is activated. Those warning cues will include audible, visible and physical interventions (brake taps). If the driver fails to respond to all of these alerts, US-market cars will still interpret this non-response as a driver emergency, and will be able to slow to a complete stop in-lane with the hazard lights on, whereupon it will initiate an emergency call.

The 2019 Audi A8 bound for American dealerships will also feature an industry-first predictive active suspension system that detects imminent side impacts, instantaneously raising the chassis over 3 inches for improved crash compatibility with the sedan's frame rails. Intersection Assist, another new safety feature, will also be included. It curtails the likelihood of a driver inadvertently pulling into oncoming traffic when making a turn or leaving a parking space through the use of warnings and brake intervention.

America's new A8 will not feature Audi's hands-off Traffic Jam Pilot tech.

Audi

The aforementioned quagmire of factors that have led to Audi's decision to not bring Traffic Jam Pilot to the US includes foggy federal regulatory framework. Thus far, Congress has yet to enact legislative guidelines regarding autonomous driving technologies, and Audi says that a patchwork of existing (and sometimes conflicting) state-to-state regulations would make it difficult to sell a single-spec vehicle nationwide.

This legal situation has a variety of consequences, including "uncertainty to consumer deployment (insurance requirements, local laws on vehicle design and performance, reporting standards)," an Audi spokesperson said to Roadshow in an email.

In addition to potentially thorny legal issues, Audi says infrastructural differences are also playing a factor in TJP's deferred rollout. In the US, items like signage, lane markings and road configurations themselves can vary significantly from state to state and region to region. One of the most time- and resource-intensive investments in developing self-driving technology is programming a vehicle's various systems to be aware of, and account for, these sorts of roadscape variations.

(Cadillac went to the trouble of lidar-mapping over 130,000 miles of freeway to create ultra-high-resolution maps that are accurate to within 5 centimeters -- an effort that took years -- and their Super Cruise is geofenced to only function on roads where such mapping has been performed.)

Perhaps the biggest wildcard along the rollout to increasingly automated driving isn't an absence of clear legal framework or infrastructural differences -- it's limited consumer understanding of today's spectrum of self-driving technology. Social media and news reports have become increasingly rife with accounts of accidents and near misses because of the misuse of such systems. Simply put, the average motorist is often woefully uninformed of how to properly and safely operate today's advanced driver assist systems.

Whether it's drivers strapping soda cans to steering wheels to defeat torque-sensors so that they can go hands-free or simply inattentive motorists looking at their cell phones because they've been lulled into a false sense of security by a basic adaptive cruise control system with lane-keeping tech -- there's growing concern that these partial automation systems could actually have a negative impact on safety because of driver ignorance or deliberate misuse

While he acknowledges the legal question marks surrounding conditional vehicle automation, Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, tells Roadshow, "I think it [Audi's decision] is more a matter of looking at the market, looking at other OEMs, particularly Tesla." Tesla, of course, has been under increasing scrutiny stemming from a number of recent high-profile accidents that have occurred while its Autopilot system was engaged. Tesla's Autopilot is a more basic Level 2 system that does not include Lidar scanning.

Despite not having Traffic Jam Pilot, the US-market A8 will feature an industry-first lidar scanner.

Audi

Despite the proliferation of new automotive assistive safety technologies meant to ease driving stress and curb the amount of attention needed in select situations, the irony is that the growing popularity of partial automation systems means that more driver education is necessary, not less. It's an uncomfortable reality that Audi seems to acknowledge.

"Consumer understanding of automated vehicle technologies and driver responsibilities certainly also can be further informed," a company spokesperson told Roadshow. "[But] because our system is fundamentally different, we won't be adding to the storylines that have been pretty pervasive lately," he said.

When asked what Navigant's Abuelsamid thought about Audi's decision to delay the rollout of Traffic Jam Pilot in the US, he said, "I absolutely think it's a smart move right now. I think manufacturers really need to reconsider even Level 2 systems. I'm increasingly of the opinion that any system that potentially allows the driver to disengage is a bad idea… until you get to full automation -- a Level 4 system -- any intermediate system has potential increased risk, rather than reduced risk, for safety."

Some of the A8's built-in redundancies and monitors won't be making it to the US.

Audi

It's important to note that even with the inclusion of a lidar sensor and zFAS processor, 2019 model-year A8s will not be upgradable to Traffic Jam Pilot if and when the tech becomes available in the US. A simple over-the-air software update won't be able to activate dormant capabilities, because certain other key bits of hardware have been removed from the full system that is expected to be available in Germany or greater Europe later this year. Such hardware includes a driver-facing camera, capacitive-touch steering wheel and various important mechanical redundancies.

Why remove the hardware? Cost, for one. And as Abuelsamid notes, "Everything that you add to a vehicle is also a potential failure point, and could lead to increased warranty costs."

Audi is still hoping to make Traffic Jam Pilot available to US buyers, but a timeline is unclear. Given the challenging constellation of legal, infrastructural and consumer education factors in the mix, it's unlikely the technology will arrive on US-market A8 models until the 2020 model year at the very earliest.