VW's autonomous development cars hit the streets of Hamburg

Its e-Golf fleet has been kitted out with the hardware to enable Level 4 automated driving.

It doesn't take much of a glance to realize this isn't your average e-Golf.

Volkswagen hasn't publicized its AV development and testing too much in the past, but when it comes to milestones, the automaker isn't afraid to give itself a pat on the back.

Volkswagen announced this week that it has commenced public testing of its Level 4 autonomous development vehicle. It's using a fleet of electric e-Golf models for this test, all of which are outfitted with an array of sensors, including 14 cameras, 11 lidar scanners and seven radar scanners. The computers required to crunch all this data live in the cargo area.

The tests are taking place in the city of Hamburg through 2020. VW is working with the city to upgrade a 9-kilometer (about 5.5-mile) collection of roads to act as a "digital testbed," complete with traffic lights and infrastructure that feature vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, which will help AVs understand the world around them and also allow cities to better gather traffic data for use in improving traffic flow.

As with many other AV development drives taking place around the world, Volkswagen isn't just sending a bunch of unmanned vehicles off into the mix. Instead, there's a trained safety driver behind the wheel of each vehicle, ready to take over at a moment's notice. They're still development cars, after all.

According to SAE International, Level 4 automated driving is the first of the SAE's five levels that doesn't require a human being to act as a failsafe. That doesn't mean it's completely untethered, though -- instead, Level 4 cars are limited to specific areas and conditions. Level 5 automated driving is the cream of the crop, where vehicles are able to go wherever and do whatever. Both levels are believed to still be years, if not upward of a decade away from actually making it to market.

The infotainment screen has been rejiggered to display what the AV's hardware "sees" on the road ahead.