Audi is on the frontlines when it comes to autonomous cars, having recently sent a hands-free A7 down the west coast from San Francisco to the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The company topped that by having an SQ5 cross the country under its own guidance 99 percent of the time, crossing 15 states and covering 3,400 miles.
If that wasn’t enough, the company is also lighting up race tracks—a TTS sports car took on both Pikes Peak and the Bonneville Salt Flats, and an RS7 Sportback reached 150 mph on the Hockenheim track.
The technology is moving fast, but Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, said in an interview at the New York International Auto Show that most people don’t quite understand the historical moment. “There’s a lot of chatter, and we need clarity,” he said. “The top line is that people expect to hop into the back of their car, tell the car where to go and then pull out their cellphone. Self-driving will be like a light switch they can turn on and off. But that’s not what Audi’s talking about right now. We call it ‘piloted’ driving, not autonomous driving.”
Keogh and other Audi executives say that self-driving tech will be phased in gradually; in fact, it’s already on current cars. “The innovations are one after another,” he said. “With driver and brake assistance packages, the car will slow you down and come to a full stop, and it will audibly and visually warn you before mashing on the brakes in an emergency.”
The new Audi Q7, available in January, offers traffic jam assist to complement its existing adaptive cruise control: At speeds under 41 mph, it will take over steering and keep you in your lane, as the cruise maintains a safe distance with the car ahead. Traffic Jam Pilot, coming in the new A8, ramps this up a bit by engaging 3D cameras, infrared sensors and radar to handle your highway driving up to about 50 mph. When conditions warrant, the car tells you that “piloted driving is available,” and you can choose to use it or not.
Driver engagement isn’t optional. Audi’s pilot uses two cameras to watch the driver’s eyes, and if the car detects sleep or merely not paying attention, it will set off chimes. If there’s no response, the Audi will come to a stop in its lane. “It’s real hands-off driving, completely automated,” Keogh said. “These are real tests in the real world.”
Audi’s approach provides selective autonomous driving, and it relieves drivers of the tedium inherent of inching forward in highway snarls. “It’s not climbing into the back of the car—the driver still needs to be present and attentive—but it is surrendering the steering wheel,” Keogh said.
As Keogh points out, Audi has swiftly reduced the size of the controller for self-driving cars from a trunkful of equipment to a zFAS unit about the size of a tablet computer. “It’s the central intelligence system, able to process a lot of data very quickly, and it will be on next-generation A8,” Keogh said. “It’s mounted in the trunk, and you’ll hardly notice that it’s there.”
If you want the technical details, Audi says the zFAS board has both the EyeQ3 mobile processor from MobilEye and the new Tegra K1 from NVidia.
Driver assistance technology is popular as an option. Keogh says that 60 to 70 percent of Audi customers in surveys say they would buy it for safety. “You can be driving for nine hours straight, and if you look away for even a nanosecond that’s when an accident can happen,” Keogh said. “What a price you’ll pay.”
Volvo has set a goal, albeit a distant one, of having cars no longer crash. That’s actually feasible once all the cars on the road can “see” each other with electronic aids. And at that point, really, drivers will be able to sit in the back with their entertainment. In the meantime, we have technology that’s great for specific situations, like creeping through the Lincoln Tunnel or getting backed up on a bridge.
There are still many hurdles to come for self-driving cars, including the federal regulations that will govern it. “The government has a lot of desire for piloted driving, because the safety advantages are clear,” Keogh said. But even if it’s expedited, those regs will take us well into the next decade.
You won't be able to buy a "fully autonomous car" next year, but chances are that the car you do buy will have plenty of self-driving features, from lane departure warning to parking assist. Life will be better, but you'll still be behind that steering wheel.