Rules put brakes on au­ton­o­mous tech

TECH­NOL­OGY/ Michael Taylor ex­pe­ri­enced the self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy of the new Audi A8, but the world is not ready for it, yet

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

Load up the in­fo­tain­ment with movies and have the lap­top at the ready so you can work while you drive be­cause level 3 self-driv­ing cars are about to land with Audi’s A8. Well, parts of them are, any­way.

Audi has made a huge mar­ket­ing push around its nextgen­er­a­tion A8 limou­sine be­ing the first car to bring full level 3 au­ton­o­mous driv­ing into pro­duc­tion. Level 3 means driv­ers no longer have to be in con­trol of the car, al­low­ing them to do al­most any­thing else while the car ne­go­ti­ates traf­fic by it­self.

Af­ter a good look in and around the tech in a pre-pro­duc­tion ver­sion of the A8, we can con­firm that Audi’s claims are true. Sort of. And not true, sort of, too.

Bear with us be­cause this tale of Audi’s Traf­fic Jam Pi­lot is about to get com­pli­cated. Given the dif­fi­cul­ties in en­gi­neer­ing self-driv­ing cars, it’s prob­a­bly as it should be.

Us­ing the level 3 ca­pa­bil­ity of the A8 will de­pend en­tirely on ne­go­ti­a­tions be­ing con­ducted with a host of coun­tries in Geneva, but not the most im­por­tant two, China and the US. The world’s two biggest car mar­kets are draft­ing their own, in­de­pen­dent le­gal frame­works to al­low self-driv­ing cars, which are il­le­gal to­day.

“We’re in a sit­u­a­tion where we are a lit­tle bit caught be­tween two stools,” Audi’s de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor Peter Mertens said ear­lier in 2017. “In the past, we’ve had the reg­u­la­tions in place be­fore we start our en­gi­neer­ing and then we supplied the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of com­pli­ance af­ter­wards, but now we are deal­ing with a mov­ing tar­get.”

Audi is blaz­ing a trail here, since no­body has gone to level 3 be­fore and the leg­isla­tive world sim­ply isn’t ready for it, so it’s not rush­ing to put a timetable on when the world will be ready.

“We will prob­a­bly seek an ex­emp­tion (through Ar­ti­cle 20 of EU Di­rec­tive 2007/46) since things won’t be far enough along in Geneva,” Audi physi­cist, en­gi­neer and global au­tonomous­driv­ing law ex­pert Thorsten Leon­hardt said. “The jump is sim­ply too great that one could re­li­ably com­pare it to the length of time needed to in­tro­duce past in­no­va­tions like ESC,” he says.

Un­til then, though, the A8 will go on sale in SA in 2018 with most of its level 3 hard­ware, but with some key pieces left off, in­clud­ing the driver-fac­ing camera in the in­stru­ment clus­ter to keep track of the driver’s readi­ness lev­els.

Audi doesn’t want to get it­self in the sit­u­a­tion where cus­tomers pay for hard­ware they can’t use, even if the ar­gu­ment ex­ists that A8 cus­tomers would be happy to pay for it on the as­sump­tion that it gets re­flashed to be­come full level 3 when the laws al­low it to be.

We took a first drive and a first non­drive in the A8, but only up to 60km/h when Si­mon Ul­brich, a devel­oper from Audi’s au­to­mated driv­ing func­tion de­part­ment, pushed the car’s AI but­ton on the cen­tre con­sole to put it into level 3 mode.

Now, let’s be clear about this: Audi’s level 3 setup is a safe­ty­first project, like they don’t want to take any risks that might give them­selves or au­ton­o­mous driv­ing a bad name.

LEVEL 3 MEANS YOU CAN LET THE CAR DRIVE IT­SELF AND GET ON WITH OTHER THINGS, LIKE WATCH­ING MOVIES

A step up from the level 2 tech avail­able in both the A8 it­self and its ri­vals (like Mercedes-Benz’s facelifted S-Class), level 3 means you can let the car drive it­self and get on with other things, like watch­ing movies, read­ing a book or ad­mon­ish­ing the un­der­ling in the back seat.

Level 2, on the other hand, means the driver is al­ways re­spon­si­ble for what’s go­ing on, which is why all of th­ese cars with ac­tive cruise con­trol and lane-keep­ing sys­tems de­mand their steer­ing wheels get felt up ev­ery 15 sec­onds or so, to make sure you’re pay­ing at­ten­tion.

Audi it­self has only au­tho­rised a nar­row set of cir­cum­stances un­der which it will al­low level 3 au­ton­omy. It reads like this: a proper di­vided road, with solid bar­ri­ers pro­tect­ing against on­com­ing traf­fic, be­low 60km/h.

The list of things that Audi has in­cluded that pre­vent driv­ers from lock­ing in self-driv­ing is far longer. No foot­paths. No on­com­ing traf­fic. No merg­ing traf­fic. No par­al­lel traf­fic. No cross traf­fic. No round­abouts. No cars veer­ing at you. And on it goes.

It’s not a sur­prise, then, that the first thing Audi wanted to show us with its level 3 A8 was the hand-back process. Crit­ics and re­searchers have homed in on the hand-back as the crit­i­cal part of the level 3 equa­tion, sug­gest­ing that if peo­ple have switched their brains off from driv­ing to con­cen­trate on other things, they will take time to switch back on.

Audi has aimed for 10 sec­onds of hand-back time on the higher-speed pro­to­types we’ve also driven (or been driven in), but even bear­ing this in mind, the A8’s sys­tem is im­pres­sively ov­erengi­neered to make sure peo­ple grab con­trol back when it needs them to.

THE TROU­BLE WITH DE­LIV­ER­ING LEVEL 3 LIKE THIS IS THAT THE TECH­NOL­OGY FAR OUTSTRIPS THE LAWS OF MOST COUN­TRIES

coun­tries have road rules that al­low driv­ers to take ad­van­tage of it, even if their au­to­mo­tive de­sign and ho­molo­ga­tion rules al­low it. That’s changing, but it will be a long process, ham­pered by both the word­ing of the Vi­enna Con­ven­tion and a UN com­mit­tee on car rules that both China and the US (the world’s two largest car mar­kets) have cho­sen not to be in­volved with.

Ef­fec­tively, it means the com­puter will have to un­der­stand all of this and tap into its HERE dig­i­tal map­ping sys­tem to ge­ofence where the car can and can­not use level 3. In SA, so far, it’s a big no-no and in the US, it will have to ge­ofence it across state lines.

For now, Audi can pro­vide a level 3 A8 through its Traf­fic Jam Pi­lot, but you won’t be al­lowed to use it any­where but Ger­many the way it was en­gi­neered to be driven. Or self-driven.

The biggest hur­dle in Europe and also here in SA is a clause buried in the UNECE Reg­u­la­tion 79, which in­sists that hands­free steer­ing is only al­lowed at up to 10km/h (to al­low for ex­ist­ing pro­duc­tion park­ing as­sis­tant tech­nol­ogy).

While it is ex­pected that this will be up­dated be­fore the end of the year, the up­date will only cover a sin­gle in­ci­dent move be­gun by the driver, like in­di­cat­ing to change lanes. That’s de­fined as cat­e­gory C, while Audi needs cat­e­gory B, which hasn’t pro­gressed all that far up the dis­cus­sion pipe­line.

Like Audi plans to do, Mercedes-Benz ap­plied for and re­ceived an ex­emp­tion for the Lane Change As­sist sys­tem in its cur­rent E-Class, and the an­tic­i­pated change to Rule 79 is just to catch up to that ex­emp­tion, not to take it far enough to cover the A8.

The new Audi A8 hap­pily drives it­self in Ger­man traf­fic. Left: Si­mon Ul­brich, a devel­oper from Audi's au­to­mated driv­ing func­tion de­part­ment re­laxes while the car does the driv­ing.

The A8 can deal with reg­u­lar sit­u­a­tions but the rules when it won’t work are rather long.

The AI (Audi In­tel­li­gence) but­ton switches things to au­ton­o­mous mode.

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