Whether we like it or not, autonomous driving is happening and after experiencing a high speed Autobahn jaunt at the hands of a computer, we might reluctantly be a fan.
Written by: Damien Reid
As a car guy I love driving and there’s no way I was going to listen to the boffins at Audi tell me otherwise. That was until I ventured on to the A9 Autobahn and let it literally take the boring, mind-numbing kind of driving off my hands.
Until recently I thought I loved driving and I drove everywhere, seven days a week. To the office, to the mall, to the bank and I told myself this was what I enjoyed as I cursed at the jam, the traffic lights, the speed cameras, the idiot in front cutting me up and let’s not talk about hunting for a parking space.
What I’ve since found is that I like driving on the weekend in the country, down to the beach, to the café or park. That’s cool, the rest sucks and it was Audi’s test mule A7 code named “Jack” that enlightened me.
After merging with traffic on the A9 Autobahn in Germany driving Jack, I pushed two buttons simultaneously on the wheel which then retracted and took over the driving for me. At a constant 130kmh it looked ahead, overtook trucks, avoided road hazards and in general behaved as the most polite motorist on the motorway.
The handover was swift, silent and effortless and in an instant, a bank of computers took control as I literally became a passenger in the driver’s seat.
With no hands or feet on the controls, I turned to chat with Audi’s head of Driving Assistance Systems Pre-Development, Dr. Miklós Kiss in the back, occasionally keeping an eye on the road.
“We have two radars, one laser and one camera at the front plus four surround cameras and four short range radars which build a 360 degree picture of what’s happening around the car,” Dr. Kiss said.
“These identify the objects such as a moving truck, a static tree etc., and then it plans what to do next. The A7’s engine, steering and braking systems control the car so it’s not simply following the vehicle in front but trying to make informed decisions at 130kmh on whether to pass, accelerate, brake or change lanes,” he added.
The only difference from a regular A7 was a thin LED strip running across the dash under the windscreen, which was passive yet could not be missed. In piloted mode it glowed blue, faded to orange as a voice command asked me to take over and if I failed to react, it changed to red accompanied by more urgent warnings.
If I had fallen asleep, it would have gradually slowed down, indicated and safely merged to the hard shoulder and stopped.
“With Level Three autonomy, we open the door to piloted driving where the driver is allowed to hand over responsibility to the car and will give the driver 10 seconds to get back into the driving position,” Dr. Kiss said.
“The next is L4 which takes on the most demanding sight tasks including sleeping, so a driver is not needed at all under certain circumstances like a highway or finding a parking spot. L5 is a driverless car that takes you from point A to B no matter where it starts and ends.”