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Level 3 autonomy by Audi and others… have the machines finally risen?

Level 3 autonomy means a vehicle can drive itself without human intervention… and Audi reckons its new A8 is the only car developed with Level 2 in mind. Should we care?

AUDI SAYS the new A8 (read our review HERE) is the world’s first car that’s ‘developed specially for Level 3 automated driving’. That means driving itself in certain situations, without any oversight from the person at the wheel. A huge claim.

In Audi’s words, “The Audi AI traffic jam pilot takes charge of driving in slow-moving traffic at up to 60 km/h  on freeways and highways where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways.” As driver, you’re allowed to take your hands and feet off, and watch a DVD on the built-in entertainment.

Not sure how useful this will be in practice. You need to be aware that at some point the traffic might speed up over 60km/h or the road might come down to single-carriageway.

Despite these limits of to its usefulness, Audi’s ‘level 3 automated driving’ claim is a bold one. But it’s not – not by any means – yet borne out in practice. Drill deeper and you find that Audi is still waiting for its this to become legally allowable on any public road anywhere in the world.

Oh and by the way, it’s not like Audi is fitting the hardware already and will simply enable the software when the law is ready. Net result: the A8 you buy now is no more advanced in driver-support than many others including Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, Volvo, Lexus and Infiniti. It’s called ‘level 2 automated driving’.

And of course Tesla hasn’t climbed above level 2. But in contrast with Audi’s cautious approach, Tesla has managed to give the world the impression its cars have been pretty much self-driving for ages.

They first had something called Autopilot in 2014, enabling advanced level 2 support: cruise control matching the speed of the vehicle in front, and assisted steering. Gradually other features were added, including an ability to change highway lanes when the driver does no more than activate the indicator – the car ‘looks’ around for a space in the adjacent lane, then moves out and adjusted speed.

Of course a Tesla still asks you don’t ever let your attention leave the driving. But it didn’t seem to mind when Autopilot was new and Tesla drivers did ignore the warnings and take videos of themselves in the back seat.

But then one ignored the warnings one time too many and got killed when his Tesla collided with a truck. Since then, Tesla has improved the sensor hardware in its cars, yet it has increased the warnings and made the whole system disengage if the driver doesn’t heed them.

The first generation of Autopilot used cameras only. Then in 2016 Tesla added a lot more hardware sensors, including radar, which improves the ability to operate in bad weather. The sensors and computers are now standard fit in all the firm’s cars.

Enhanced Autopilot (the software is a $6900 option) will follow a lane, adjust speed and even automatically change lanes without the driver asking, if the adjacent lane is faster. And its steering assist can operate on even quite twisty rural roads. Bit it’s still only level 2. You still have to have your hands on the wheel, just in case the car gets confused. As it does.

The major difference between Tesla and Audi is that Tesla says the hardware is all that’s needed for complete autonomy. Only software upgrades and changes in the law, says Tesla, will be needed to get to full self-driving. You can actually buy the software optionally now, for $4100. An extract from the company’s website:

“The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat. Your Tesla will figure out the optimal route, navigate urban streets (even without lane markings), manage complex intersections with traffic lights, stop signs and roundabouts, and handle densely packed freeways with cars moving at high speed. When you arrive at your destination, simply step out at the entrance and your car will enter park seek mode, automatically search for a spot and park itself. A tap on your phone summons it back to you.”

Indeed, Elon Musk, Tesla’s boss, has said that in early 2018 a Tesla (with prototype self-driving software) will travel across the mainland USA with no driver intervention. In Musk’s words, “go all the way from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York with no controls touched in the entire journey.”

Actually, he said in 2015 it would happen by the end of 2017, but that’s obviously slipped back. So Tesla not only reckons it knows what sensors and computers are needed for safe autonomous driving, it is already fitting them.

By extension it must be sure they will be legal to use. It just doesn’t know when. In its own words: “Self-Driving functionality is dependent upon extensive software validation and regulatory approval, which may vary widely by jurisdiction.”

Yet Audi says it’s not fitting the sensors yet, because the laws over the hardware aren’t yet final. Never mind the software.

We asked Audi to explain and got this. “Since the statutory requirements and approval regulations for piloted driving, especially from a hardware perspective, are still unclear, we are not offering the traffic jam pilot at the moment. For the same reason, we will not offer any ‘ready for’ solutions. Audi customers are not guinea pigs and it would not be responsible to install something without a definitive legal framework.”

So two car companies, with their dragoons of lawyers, can’t even agree about what hardware is legal. That’s before we even get to the software part, and the actual level 3 experience on real roads.

Sometimes the development and deployment of autonomous cars looks like the wild west. And that’s not a happy analogy.

* What is this Level 3 automated driving of which Audi speaks? It’s a scale defined by the international Society of Automotive Engineers. You’ll be hearing these terms a lot in the next few years, so let’s run over them.

Level 1 is ‘feet off’, effectively adaptive cruise control. Level 2 is ‘hands off’, adding steering support in some situations. That is actually as far as any car goes today. And no, to be clear, it doesn’t actually mean take your hands off the wheel. Just that the wheel is turning by itself.

Level 3 is ‘eyes off’, allowing you to take your hands fully off the wheel and look away from the road without a time limit – if conditions are right. Level 4 is ‘mind off’, in which you can just zone out and even sleep for most of the journey or even all of it if it’s normal well-mapped roads. Level 5 is ‘driver off’: a car can go anywhere on its own, even down unmapped tracks, with no-one designated as the driver.

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6 years ago

Should be mandatory for all Toyota drivers. The sooner they aren’t allowed to make decisions behind the wheel the safer we’ll all be.

Paul Horrell

Paul Horrell

Paul's working life has been paced out in cars. He began road-testing when the VW Golf was in its second generation. It's now in its eighth. He covers much more than the tyre-smoking part of the road-test landscape. He roots around in the financial machinations of the car corporations and the apparent voodoo of the technologies. Then he clarifies those complications so his general readers – too busy to lodge their heads up the industry's nether regions – get the fast track on what matters and what doesn't. A freelance writer living in London, he usually gets around the city by bicycle, which adds to his (sometimes justified) reputation as a bit green and a bit of a lefty. He's a member of Europe's Car of the Year jury.