Meet the car that drives itself — almost
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DUSSELDORF, Sept 8 — It used to be that when someone showed off their new car, they often said: “This thing has so many new features, it’ll just about drive itself”.
In the case of the all-new Audi A8 that is set to appear in showrooms next year, this may well be true.
Ahead of the A8’s official launch, the carmaker showed what its flagship car could be capable of. Considering it will have to compete with the likes of a BMW 7 Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Audi A8’s ace up its proverbial sleeve is a function its maker dubs, Traffic Jam Pilot.
As you may surmise from its moniker, Traffic Jam Pilot is capable of autonomously driving in heavy traffic conditions on expressways.
To activate this function, all the driver has to do is press a button near the gear lever marked “Audi AI” and the system takes over the driving duties; automatically keeping a safe following distance from the vehicle in front and steering autonomously to follow the curves or the road or avoid potential obstacles.
For this to be possible, the A8 is fitted with an array of sensors and cameras that work in tandem to identify vehicles, objects and pedestrians.
The information gathered from these detectors that are embedded mainly in the front and rear bumpers is processed and interpreted through an electronic control unit that Audi calls Z-FAS.
The unit is about the size of your palm and resides under the driver’s seat. It is a marked difference in size from two years ago, when the prototype Z-FAS unit occupied half the boot of a saloon.
The Traffic Jam Pilot is capable of driving itself in low speed traffic situations at up to 60kmh without the driver needing to intervene at all.
Once the system is engaged, the driver can take his or her eyes off the road and watch a video on the centre console, or access emails or phone messages as long as it is done through the car’s built-in mobile interface. This is because these activities can be interrupted in emergency situations where the driver needs to resume control of the car.
We put Traffic Jam Pilot to the test during the evening rush hour in Dusseldorf. When the Audi AI button is pressed, the system does exactly what it says on the tin.
Predictably, there were some vehicles that cut into our car’s path. When that happened, the A8 graciously gave way.
While this might appear to delay the journey, Professor Michael Schreckenberg, who was the first German professor for Physics of Transport and Traffic, reasoned that switching lanes does not necessarily make for faster progress.
According to Prof Schreckenberg, when the next lane appears to be moving faster, it is natural for drivers to switch lanes. The problem is when too many drivers move from one lane to the next, the vehicles that cut in will inevitably cause those behind to brake in a chain reaction to form a phenomenon he calls a “jam wave”.
As more vehicles leave what is perceived to be the slower lane, the vehicles that do not switch will eventually move ahead and the process is repeated.
With the Traffic Jam Pilot on, the driver seemed to be in a more relaxed state because they are able to use their time more efficiently doing other things, such as reading their emails, catching up with the news or making phone calls via the hands-free system.
So having other vehicles cut into the lane was not distressing at all. In fact, some say drivers may enjoy their ride so much that they may look forward to being driven for a few minutes more.
Although the Traffic Jam Pilot allows to driver to take a break, falling asleep is still a no-no in the A8, which is classified as the world’s first Level 3 autonomous vehicle. This means that driverless operation can only be performed in selected applications.
Of course, a hands-off-the-wheel scenario can only occur with a Level 5 autonomous car, which is slated to be launched around 2025.
As it is, cars with adaptive cruise control options and Lane Keep Assist functions can help maintain a safe following distance and keep the car from drifting into the next lane, however, for legal reasons, the driver’s hands must be kept on the steering wheel at all times.
Try taking your hands off the wheel for more than 10 seconds or so and you will be prompted to put your hands back onto the steering wheel. This 10-second limit is mandated by the authorities to ensure that the driver is in control of the car at all times.
So although this Traffic Jam Pilot feature is production-ready, it will not be offered to customers for the time being.
The German carmaker is in advanced stages of negotiations with the authorities to revise the current regulations that allow autonomous steering systems to operate only at speeds of up to 10kmh. Audi and other carmakers are seeking is to have this limit raised to 130kmh, which would then pave the way for the next stages of autonomous driving. — TODAY