Luxury cars

Hands on -- and off -- with the Audi A8's Level 3 self-driving system

Playing in traffic with Audi's range-topping sedan, which aims to be first to market with bona-fide Level 3 autonomous hardware.

Audi

It figures. You spend your whole life trying to avoid something ubiquitous, and when there's finally a reason to seek it out, it's nowhere to be found. 

That's the conundrum that engineer Daniel Lepczyk and I are facing as our 2019 Audi A8 prototype slips onto the motorway around the western German cities of Dusseldorf and Essen. We're hunting for traffic jams. The heavily populated region is famous for them, but on this overcast morning, traffic is thick, yet it moves freely. We're seeking out bottlenecks because the vehicle we're in is poised to become the world's first production car capable of Level 3 autonomy, and it needs gridlock to strut its stuff. 

In this case, the A8's "stuff" is Traffic Jam Pilot, a conditionally automated system that allows for completely hands-free driving in specific conditions. Necessary parameters for operation boil down to a divided highway with a center barrier (think: metal guardrails or concrete dividers), clear lane markings, no pedestrians or traffic lights, and speeds of under 60 kmh -- 37 mph to us Yanks. Like countless other cities around the world, such conditions are an everyday rush-hour occurrence in Germany, but since it's a Friday, traffic is a bit thinner than ideal.

The 2019 A8 aims to be the industry's first Level 3 self-driving automobile on sale.

Audi

It's an unusual mission, actively seeking out and driving towards a phenomenon that normal motorists intentionally flee. "In this way, we are like tornado hunters," says Lepczyk, an automated driving development engineer. Sadly, I'm not able to get behind the wheel and ferret out traffic jams for myself, as it's against local regulations (Lepczyk has a special license granting him permission to test this prototype on public roads). My time will come later, on a special closed course at an airfield.

Having some downtime as we cruise Germany's concrete arteries proves to be helpful, as it gives my host time to walk me through Traffic Jam Pilot's various attributes. One of 41 different assist systems in our full-size luxury bruiser, TJP makes use of a dizzying array of sensors to enable enough self-driving to blunt the drudgery and stress of bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. Not only does the system constantly monitor traffic maps and the vehicle's position through its 4G LTE connection, its hardware array includes no fewer than:

  • 12 ultrasonic parking sensors with 3 meters of range to detect immediately nearby objects
  • Four 360-degree cameras, one on each side
  • Four midrange radar sensors (70 meter distance)
  • One long-range radar (240 meters) offset in the front fascia
  • One forward-facing monovision camera mounted ahead of the rearview mirror
  • One 140-degree lidar sensor in the front bumper that scans 200 meters down the road.

That's right, the A8 is poised to become the first production car to incorporate laser radar. 

It wasn't more than a couple of years ago that lidar scanners cost tens of thousands of dollars and were orders of magnitude larger in size. In fact, most automakers are still testing their autonomous tech with cars that use those spinning rooftop paint cans. Audi's lidar sensor is so small and well integrated, you wouldn't even know where it was if you didn't think to look for it. It's even heated to curb ice build-up in cold weather.

And that's just on the outside. In the cabin, the A8's Traffic Jam Pilot also keeps tabs on the driver using a small camera integrated into the brow of the instrument cluster, a capacitive-touch membrane ringing the steering wheel, as well as the seatbelt buckle and in-seat weight sensor traditionally used for governing airbag deployment. 

Audi's new zFAS controller is the heart of the A8's self-driving capability. Normally, it's mounted discreetly under the driver's seat. In this case, it's in a lighted display.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

If you're getting the picture that this is a comprehensive system with a ton of data to process, you're right. It's so much input from such a large sensor array to fuse together into a three-dimensional map that Audi had to work with companies like Mobileye and Nvidia to create zFAS, a new central driver assistance controller capable of making sense of it all. The tablet-sized system also has built-in redundancies to manage conditions like power and brake-booster failures.

Audi is so confident in Traffic Jam Pilot's capabilities that the system is designed to enable certain driver "side tasks" like watching television on the A8's 10.1-inch center stack screen, or checking your email inbox using Audi's MMI infotainment interface. You can even watch YouTube when tethered using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Not only that, when Traffic Jam Pilot is active, Audi expects to take legal responsibility for the outcome of the car's driving, right down to accidents or driving citations. 

Although Lepczyk and I strike out on our morning hunt, a midafternoon excursion onto the A3 North quickly turns fruitful. As we slowdown approaching the growing tailback, my host notes the instrument cluster and head-up display's telltale "AI" logos indicate that Traffic Jam Assist is available. The "AI" button located ahead of the gearshift lever glows a soft white, Lepczyk pokes it and the car takes over instantly, its displays and lighting changing to green to indicate Traffic Jam Pilot is now in control. The MMI screen flicks to life, and a live television feed appears. 

Traffic Jam Pilot is activated, and your author is keeping his hands and feet to himself.

Audi

The A8 moves with surety, keeping up with traffic and braking progressively where necessary, staying centered in the lane as appropriate, all with zero drama. (In Germany, the car will even automatically favor one side of the lane when traffic is moving very slowly, in order to automatically make room for emergency vehicles that run down the center of the road.)

When traffic thins and inevitably speeds up beyond 37 mph and the car calls Lepczyk back to take over the controls, there are no buttons to push, he simply retakes manual control by putting both hands on the wheel. The TV switches to audio only, and the video feed doesn't return until the car is back under Traffic Jam Pilot's supervision or stopped. It all seems remarkably natural and drama-free. As Lepczyk puts it, "It's quite a comfortable way of traveling. It's not that aggressive or dynamic … it's a smooth way to go." 

While it's certainly a long way from the carefree, steering-wheel-free environment of Audi's Level 5 Long-Distance Lounge interior concept, it's likewise easy to see how having a car take over the mind-numbing drudgery of stop-and-go commuting could lower your blood pressure.

The industry's first production-intent lidar unit. Blink and you could miss it.

Audi

It's worth noting that Audi's approach to self-driving tech isn't without its detractors. A number of automakers, like Volvo, and tech companies like Google are working to push right past Level 3, concentrating instead on developing full-on Level 5 capabilities, where the car is capable of self-driving at all times. They believe that conditional autonomy, as observed in the A8, is too problematic to bring to market because of the danger inherent in handoff situations, where the car has to call the driver back to the controls.

To that end, Audi's A8 gives drivers a specific window of time to retake the controls after conditions have changed such that Traffic Jam Assist can no longer safely operate. In those handoff situations, the A8 engages in a series of steps to get the driver back to the wheel. The regimen progresses in its urgency, initially starting with red warning alerts in the gauge cluster, head-up display and the AI button itself, followed by a warning chime. The driver then has a 10-second window to react. 

If they still don't get with the program, a more insistent alert sounds and the content of the gauge cluster is greatly reduced to focus the driver's attention on the warning. Still no action? The A8 progressively tugs the driver's seatbelt with three quick pulses, the audible alert becomes piercing, and the car initiates a trio of split-second brake applications to jolt the driver back into awareness and compliance. 

That's the driver-facing camera subtly integrated into the upper instrument binnacle. 

Audi

If the driver still hasn't retaken control, the car essentially assumes he or she is having an emergency. The hazard lights come on to warn other motorists, full brakes are applied and the vehicle comes to a stop in-lane (Audi's system is not yet capable of executing lane changes, and cannot pull over to the shoulder). Traffic Jam Pilot then waits 15 seconds, activates the telematics to call for help, unlocks the doors, turns down the stereo, switches on the interior lights and relays your vehicle's GPS location and occupant information. If the driver fails to respond through all of this, emergency services will be dispatched.

The idea of a car intentionally coming to a dead stop in the middle of heavy traffic sounds, at the very least, distressing. But after personally experiencing the car's full "call back" protocol repeatedly on a closed course, it feels like it would be all but impossible for even a woefully inattentive driver to fail to retake control -- the rapidly escalating visual, audible and physical alerts are just too much to ignore. 

It's also worth noting that despite being a hands-free system, the A8 won't even let you doze off -- the aforementioned driver-facing camera in the instrument binnacle tracks head and eye movements to assure alertness, disabling TJP if it questions your fitness. The system's modest 37 mph threshold also feels reassuring, but lawmakers will have to decide their level of comfort with systems like this.

The A8's Traffic Jam Assist seems ready for the road, but its legality has yet to be decided.

Audi

Indeed, like many other aspects of the A8's Level 3 technology, what self-driving activities are possible will vary greatly based on local regulations. Just because the vehicle is capable of certain activities won't necessarily make them legal, so Audi will likely need to geofence the car's self-driving capabilities to only activate in permissible locations. 

In fact, federal legislators have not yet signed off on the salability of the car's technology. The automaker is presently in discussions with the US government, but at the moment, company officials don't know when -- or even if -- Traffic Jam Assist will be offered, let alone what the cost will be. It's possible that dormant hardware could be included on 2019 models that are sold, only to be activated through a system update as the technology is granted legal approval, but even that strategy hasn't been decided upon yet -- it may not be cost effective to do so.

At least at first blush, the new A8 offers a compelling, easy-to-use next step on the road to autonomy. Assuming it can be homologated, Traffic Jam Pilot could be a boon to well-heeled commuters in traffic-choked cities such as Los Angeles and Boston. It's not quite entertaining enough for me to want to go hunting for gridlock again, but it's closer than you might think. 

Editor's note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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