I’ve finally done it. I’ve been driven in a car that assumed full responsibility for my safety, freeing me to watch TV on the center screen or do nearly anything that leaves my head facing mostly forward and my eyes open. The Audi A8 chauffeuring me featured Traffic Jam Pilot, billed as the world’s first true SAE Level 3 autonomous driving system. This inevitable technical milestone could mark a more impressive legal miracle.
First the nuts and bolts. Level 3 autonomy requires all safety-critical systems to have backup. The brake assist and stability control/ABS provide braking redundancy. Electric steering is backstopped by the selective left- or right-side braking used in many lane-departure systems. Forward environmental sensing enjoys quadruple redundancy. A new zFAS central controller fuses data coming in from a high-definition forward-looking camera, a radar unit, ultrasonic sensors in the bumper, and the market’s first production laser scanner. The latter is located down in the bumper and aims a stationary laser at a spinning carousel of flat mirrors, each of which directs the laser beam through its 145-degree field of view. The sensor data gets overlaid on detailed GPS maps, and if one sensing system goes down, the driver is asked to take over. Oh, and the computing power of that Nvidia-based zFAS brain exceeds that of all the computers in today’s A8.
Here’s how TJP works: When a nose-to-tail traffic jam slows you to below 37 mph on a multilane highway where opposing traffic is separated by guard rails or concrete, the cluster announces “Traffic Jam Pilot available.” Pressing the “Audi AI” button on the console then changes the edge lines on the instrument cluster from white to green, and you’re off duty. Steer or touch the pedals, and you’re back in control. You must remain ready to take over within 10 seconds, so the car monitors your head using an infrared camera. If it senses that you’re sleeping or nonresponsive—or if the end of the highway is approaching, or if a lane change becomes necessary (TJP doesn’t change lanes)—the system directs you to take over. First the cluster-edge lines change to red with a message, followed by a warning tone. The car then slows down, jabs the brakes, and tightens the seat belt. Finally it stops in the lane, engages the parking brake and hazard signals, unlocks the doors, and calls for help.
Sadly, you can’t buy a car with this system just yet. Audi and German authorities are working to amend UN Regulation No. 79 to raise the current limit for “automatically commanded steering function” from 10 to 130 km/h (6 to 81 mph). This amendment is expected any day, after which Audi should quickly obtain homologation for TJP in Germany, rolling it out to other countries later. Audi tech boss Peter Mertens says 81-mph Level 3 autonomy will follow in several years, with considerably more conditions and functions built in.
China and the U.S. have no autonomous-steering speed restrictions, but state laws—such as a 1971 New York statute that requires drivers keep one hand on the wheel at all times—pose problems. Audi’s director of U.S. government affairs, Brad Stertz, says TJP is compliant with current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. He notes that bipartisan House legislation now being reconciled in the Senate will grant NHTSA authority over all future autonomous vehicle standards. As for TJP, Stertz says Audi is still tailoring the system to our unique urban highways and fine-tuning liability hedges such as event-data recorders. All 2019 A8s will ship with zFAS and the laser scanner (both enhance Level 2 adaptive cruise) but perhaps not the driver-monitoring camera or capacitive steering wheel. Without these, the cars won’t be flash-upgradable to TJP.
The system works great, but because full autonomy will ultimately decimate whole populations of automobile critics, you’ll forgive me for curbing my enthusiasm.
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