Audi says its new A8 will be the first vehicle to deliver Level 3 autonomy. That means the driver can take his or her hands off the steering wheel and stop paying attention, at least when a specific set of circumstances are met.
First, Audi's AI traffic jam pilot only works at speeds of up to 37.3 miles per hour. In other words, it's meant for those times where you're sitting in traffic. Audi believes that the first commercially available self-driving applications will be relied on for circumstances when a driver's time is better spent elsewhere, like when you're in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway.
Second, that freeway has to be a divided highway with a physical barrier from oncoming vehicles. A large swath of grass would work, as would a concrete wall. The new A8 uses radar, a front camera, ultrasonic sensors, and a laser scanner – the first in a production vehicle – to scan its surroundings. These various images are compiled by a central driver assistance controller that Audi calls zFAS. We'd have gone with Zaphod Beeblebrox, but nobody asked.
Third, Audi needs the approval and cooperation of the various governments and authorities in which it sells the A8. "The statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market, along with the country-specific definition of the application and testing of the system," says Audi. Where does that leave the US? Audi isn't yet sure, but discussions are apparently under way. We're not exactly holding our breath.
If all of those key circumstances are met, Audi's artificial intelligence system can be activated using the AI button on the center console. Audi will accept all legal responsibility when the car is driving itself. Starting, steering, acceleration, and braking are all taken over by the car, and the driver is free to perform other tasks. Theoretically, at least, because nobody outside of Audi has actually given the AI tech a spin.
"As soon as the system reaches its limits," says Audi, it will hand driving duties back off to the driver. And if there's no response after a predetermined amount of time, the A8 will slow down and eventually come to a stop in its lane. Emergency services will be notified that the driver isn't responding.
Level 3 autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers is a nebulous but important step forward in a self-driving future. Under the right circumstances, drivers can stop paying attention to the road ahead, but there's still a "fallback performance of dynamic driving tasks" to human control.
With its AI technology, Audi has promised to go further than rivals like BMW and Mercedes, while not hedging so far as to call its technology a beta test, like Tesla. For that, Audi deserves credit. Still, there is simply no denying that the dream of plugging in a destination and trusting the computers is still a ways off. Put simply, the future is still the future, we're just one day closer today than we were yesterday.