Audi A8 to launch with world-first Level 3 autonomy after German approval

13 July 2017

13 July 2017

Audi’s new fourth-generation A8 flagship is set to become the first Level 3 autonomous car on the world’s roads, after Germany passed a law last month allowing drivers to cede full control of their cars to Level 3 or 4 autonomous systems. 

Level 3 autonomy allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel while the car self-drives, but the driver must be ready to take back control at a moment’s notice. Level 4, meanwhile, is one step below full Level 5 autonomy and means the vehicle needs no driver intervention within the vehicle’s operational area (say, motorways in Bavaria). Level 4 is expected in the coming years, but Level 5 is perhaps more than a decade away. 

Germany has become the first country to pass such a law, seen as highly controversial even among carmakers. Some, including Ford and Jaguar Land Rover, argue that allowing drivers to take their eyes off the road for long period of time is fundamentally unsafe with current levels of technology, and will not offer high-level autonomy until systems become Level 4 capable. 

Others, including Audi, Nissan, Mercedes and BMW disagree, and plan to offer the latest incremental improvements in autonomy as they become available. Those that do are likely to have a fundamental technological advantage from being able to improve their technology on-the-fly from gathering vast amounts of autonomous usage data from their drivers – key to improving the technology. 

However, they also risk brand damage and loss of consumer trust in the event of high-profile accidents such as those that have befallen Tesla and Uber

Audi is taking the risk as it attempts to reclaim the technological edge over premium rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Drivers push an AI button on the centre console, which enables autonomous control in conditions of slow-moving one-way traffic at speeds of up to 60km per hour (37.3 miles per hour), in areas with no pedestrians or bicyclists. The maximum speed limit is likely to be in part limited by the maximum speed of the autonomous processing unit; otherwise the processor becomes too slow to react. Users can cede operation of the vehicle to the autonomous system, called Traffic Jam Pilot, so long as they are able to take back control within a specified timeframe in case of an incident, such as within 10 seconds. Audi says the system is designed to allow drivers to do other tasks while stuck in stop-and-go congestion on highways (hence the name). 

Critics argue that if an emergency occurs, the driver may only have seconds to react – and are unlikely to do so if they are, say, absorbed in a TV programme. 

The German law put in place provisions aimed at addressing some of these criticisms, improving safety and preventing reckless development. For example, they specify that drivers must be able to deactivate or manually override these systems in case something goes wrong, and that ′sufficient time’ is ensured before the vehicle operator (usually the driver) takes back control. In addition, the vehicle has to include a black box, like those in aeroplanes, that logs handovers (and requests for these) between the autonomous system and the driver controlling the car, as well as technical defects in the case of autonomous software-caused accidents. 

There are still legal hurdles for the A8 to overcome before it goes on sale in the Autumn, however. Crucially, the German autonomous law just passed only covers the legal permissions for the drivers. It does not approve Audi’s Level 3 autonomous system for sale – this still needs regulatory approval. 

Meanwhile, Audi rival Daimler is working with auto supplier giant Bosch to launch a ′robo taxi’ autonomous ride hailing service in 2020. Its other main rival BMW is instead focussing on its flagship iNext, forming an alliance with heavyweights Intel, Mobileye and Delphi to produce a ′fully autonomous’ vehicle by 2021. Audi’s A8 is also set to include the revolutionary 48-volt mild hybrid electric technology that is expected to accelerate the decline of pure combustion engine cars – and was a key component facilitating Volvo’s only-electric future from 2019

Safety is one of the core drivers of the development of autonomous systems, with road accidents responsible for more than a million deaths worldwide annually. Consultancy AlixPartners’ recent report estimates that $325 billion (€285 billion) will be saved accident avoidance, fuel saving, congestion savings and more efficiency in the US alone per year. Intel has estimated the global savings being $871 billion a year (€763 billion) annually. 

Ridesharing companies will also be able to massively expand their potential customer base by dramatically lowering prices by ultimately not needing a driver, or reducing the number of driver staff needed by operating from a control room

The core benefit to consumers meanwhile is the luxury of freeing up their driving commuting time to do other things. 

Audi CEO Rupert Stadler said during the A8 debut this week: ′Future premium means taking back control of your time, because time is one of the most valuable goods. Downtime: When you need a break and some entertainment. Productive time: When you want to get things done. And quality time spent with family and friends. Why shouldn’t a car allow all of this?’