Audi gives details about driver automation features in upcoming A8

During a demo drive of Audi and Nvidia's driverless car technology in a Q7, Audi offered some details of how this technology will work in the upcoming A8 flagship sedan.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

Audi demonstrated its work toward driverless car technology with an autonomous trip between San Francisco and Las Vegas two years ago, and during this year's CES the company offered concrete details of how the technology will come to market. Audi will use the new generation of its A8 luxury sedan to introduce features such as automated highway and traffic jam driving.

During CES, Audi and Nvidia showed off how this self-driving car technology is currently working in a modified Q7 research vehicle.

Unlike many current implementations of driver assistance systems, which take a piecemeal approach by using different systems for adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and collision prevention, Audi and Nvidia developed a central computer to process sensor input and make driving decisions. For production implementation, Audi can enable useful features but keep the car from full self-driving capability, until legislation and technical development catches up.

Automakers, automotive equipment suppliers and big tech companies are all working on self-driving technology, which could minimize the tens of thousands of fatalities from accidents that occur on US roads every year. The technology also has the potential to reduce traffic, decreasing pollution, saving fuel and give drivers more time.

Audi gave this Q7 prototype technology it will use for limited self-driving in the upcoming A8 model.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

At CES 2017, Audi Vice President of Automated Driving Alejandro Vukotich said that the upcoming A8 model will feature a self-driving computer called zFAS, which combines chips from Nvidia and computer vision company Mobileye. Audi has showed off zFAS before in its development stage, and the A8 represents the first time the computer finds its way into a production vehicle. The A8 will also be fitted with camera, radar and lidar sensors to give it 360-degree awareness.

This hardware enables two driver assist features on the A8: the ability to self-drive on the highway and in traffic jams. Vukotich said the A8 will not be able to make lane changes by itself, but where traffic regulations permit, drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel and not touch the pedals during highway driving. Likewise, in stop-and-go traffic a driver will be able to let the car do the work.

Vukotich said that the car will give the driver a series of increasingly noticeable warnings in situations where it needs manual control. The car will begin with visible and audible alerts, followed by minor braking to get the driver's attention. If the driver still does not take over, the car will come to a stop. A system like that could save lives if a driver faints or has a heart attack and cannot take back control.

For the demonstration drive at CES, Audi and Nvidia showed how, using just a forward-facing camera, its Q7 could drive itself around a curving course, negotiating a dirt section of the path with no lane lines, and an unexpected obstacle, a highway construction sign on the path it previously took.

The car operated well, and at reasonable speeds. Even with just the forward-facing camera, it took a tight, traffic cone-lined curve without knocking any of the cones over. Vukotich said the zFAS computer in this development vehicle was programmed to be aware of the car's geometry and size, so could guide the front while being aware of how the bulk of the Q7 would follow.

Nvidia demonstrated similar driving capability in a Lincoln MKS sedan, which the company calls BB8, showing how its technology can be used by other automakers.

Vukotich said the self-driving technology going into the new A8 will find its way throughout the Audi lineup. The 2018 Audi A8 will become available this year.

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