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Audi A7 takes the wheel at CES 2014

Audi gave CNET a demonstration of its autonomous vehicle technology, which it calls Piloted Driving.

Audi Piloted Driving demonstration
Wayne Cunningham/CNET
Audi Piloted Driving demonstration
Audi loaded up this A7 with sensors and computing power so it can drive itself in moderately slow traffic. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- My first few times driving a car with adaptive cruise control, I nervously kept my foot hovering over the brake as I approached traffic ahead. Riding in Audi's A7, fitted with a test version of its Piloted Driving feature, was like that, but more so.

As Audi's autonomous driving technology is still under development, I wasn't in the driver's seat. I watched as a brave Audi staffer pushed a button, then took his hands off the wheel. The car used its forward-looking radars and laser to "see" traffic ahead, a windshield-mounted camera to monitor the lane lines, and rear radar to detect cars coming up on either side.

The technology, designed to give drivers a break when traffic is moving less than 40 mph, kept the A7 at a set distance from the car ahead and evenly between its two lane lines.

More exciting, this demonstration was in a live traffic situation. At one point, I held my breath as a car cut in front of us. The A7 handled it well, backing off its speed gently so as to open up the gap ahead.

With this car, Audi was giving me an early look at the first significant step toward autonomous vehicles. Audi won't say when its Piloted Driving feature will hit production, but when it does, the car will be able to handle heavy to moderate traffic, taking that burden off the driver.

In this initial conception, the car will use facial recognition cameras to tell if the driver isn't paying attention to the road or nodding off, then sound an alert.

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Audi Piloted Driving demonstration
Nevada issued Audi this autonomous vehicle license plate. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

To enable Piloted Driving, Audi fitted the car with front and rear radar, a forward-looking laser, and a windshield-mounted camera. The radars and laser monitored other cars around the A7, while the camera detected the lane lines. An LCD on the instrument cluster showed a representation of the traffic around the A7.

A computer discreetly mounted behind a panel in the cargo area analyzed this information, using it to control accelerator, brakes, and steering wheel.

Unlike Google's famous autonomous cars with their large, spinning detector arrays mounted on the roof, what Audi demonstrated with this A7 was near-production-ready technology, with sensors hidden neatly in the bodywork. At CES 2013, Audi showed off the computing and sensor modules it was developing. This year, the company was able to show a car integrating these components in a live test, on the road.

This pace of development is remarkable for an automaker, boding well for a more refined demonstration in the near future, and the eventual release of this technology into a production vehicle.