Audi’s au­ton­omy guru on why In­gol­stadt’s not asleep at the wheel

THE CRYS­TAL BALL that pro­vides an insight into the fu­ture of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing is a weird sphere of deeply di­vi­sive prop­er­ties. In fact, it would seem that clar­ity comes not from the ball it­self, but from the eyes of who­ever is gaz­ing into it.

Some ex­perts see noth­ing but a hazy point far into the fu­ture where hu­mans are al­ways go­ing to be re­quired be­hind the wheel. For oth­ers, the vi­sion sparkles with com­plete clar­ity, where driver­less taxis shut­tle you seam­lessly to your des­ti­na­tion, or where you nap in the driver’s seat of your car on the bor­ing, traf­fic-snarled com­mute home.

No surprise that Audi’s Head of Ad­vance De­vel­op­ment Au­to­mated Driv­ing, Mik­los Kiss, is very firmly in the lat­ter camp. He’s been a se­nior fig­ure in this area for nearly a decade, but as he and I set­tle into an Audi A8 for the three-hour drive from Syd­ney to Can­berra, my first line of ques­tion­ing gets right back to ba­sics: does the au­to­mo­tive world re­ally need full au­ton­omy? Are cus­tomers clam­our­ing for this tech­nol­ogy, or is it sim­ply a case of hav­ing to pur­sue it for fear of be­ing left be­hind?

“No ques­tion cus­tomers want it,” he says un­equiv­o­cally. “We see ev­i­dence of that each time we have in­tro­duced a fea­ture that takes some of the chore away from the driver, like radar cruise or lane-keep as­sist. Cus­tomers keep op­tion­ing these fea­tures, and our re­search says they want more. The fact is, a lot of driv­ing – long mo­tor­way journeys – is pretty mun­dane, and cus­tomers want to be able to use that time more pro­duc­tively.”

Okay, but how fea­si­ble is it re­ally? Plenty of well-placed

“We can’t rely on the driver when the car is at Level 3 au­ton­omy. His brain is off after a cou­ple min­utes”

in­dus­try se­nior heads, like Waymo’s John Kraf­cik, have pub­licly said that full au­ton­omy may never hap­pen; that it’s far harder to achieve than ev­ery­one orig­i­nally thought.

Kiss smiles, and says, “I love John, and we agree on plenty of things, in­clud­ing the fact that reach­ing Level 5 is prob­a­bly science fic­tion.

“But let’s be clear on what the lev­els re­ally mean: they re­fer to the driver’s task, and that’s it. Level 2 is where we are at cur­rently. The move to Level 3 is the largest step: the driver is able to hand over full con­trol to the car, but has to be ready and able to take back con­trol within eight to 10 sec­onds. Level 4 means that un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, the driver isn’t needed at all – for ex­am­ple, as you ar­rive at a multi-story carpark, the driver can get out and the car goes off by it­self and parks. And re­turns to pick you up. No driver is needed in the car.

“So Level 4 on a free­way, for ex­am­ple, you should be able to nap, or do things com­pletely un­re­lated to driv­ing. Off the free­way, yes, the driver will be needed in some sit­u­a­tions.”

Be­fore we dis­cuss time frames, Kiss ex­plains that in de­vel­op­ment terms, there are two quite dis­tinct projects in play: bring­ing Level 3 to mar­ket for pas­sen­ger cars, and the tar­get of Level 4 for driver­less com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles, so-called robo-taxis op­er­at­ing in a geo-fenced ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment.

“These cars can’t leave the city con­fines, but they would not re­quire wheel and ped­als; I see that as re­al­is­tic,” he says.

“There are two very dif­fer­ent games at play here. The ini­tial part is for the pri­vate car, rais­ing au­toma­tion bit by bit, then one day the robo-taxi thing will step in. We can’t say for sure what day that is, but per­haps within the decade.”

So when will we see Level 3 of­fered on pro­duc­tion cars? “Def­i­nitely within five years,” he replies.

Okay, but if the driver still has to re­tain a level of at­ten­tive­ness, is it re­ally go­ing to be worth the cost it will add to a pre­mium ve­hi­cle? Isn’t it a bit like hav­ing a per­sonal as­sis­tant in your of­fice, but you have to watch ev­ery email that’s typed, and lis­ten to ev­ery phone call?

Kiss tries hard not to scoff. “If you ex­pe­ri­ence Level 3 on a long trip, you will never ask this ques­tion,” he ad­vises firmly. “Mon­i­tor­ing speed and dis­tance, lane-keep­ing… the con­cen­tra­tion re­quired for this over a long jour­ney is sub­stan­tial. You re­move this, you ar­rive fresh.”

One of Kiss’s pri­mary ar­eas of ex­per­tise is in the way hu­mans in­ter­act with ma­chines, and so-called ma­chine learn­ing. He ex­plains that a huge amount of ef­fort is go­ing into mak­ing drivers com­pletely com­fort­able with hand­ing con­trol over to the car, and re­tak­ing con­trol when re­quired.

“We do test­ing with peo­ple in the driver’s seat where they don’t know the ex­pert in the pas­sen­ger seat can take back con­trol of the car. So we know that peo­ple trust the tech­nol­ogy very quickly; they can re­lax and rely com­pletely on the ve­hi­cle.”

But that raises a con­verse issue. “So we can’t rely on the driver in Level 3. His brain is off after a cou­ple min­utes. We must make sure there is no sud­den han­dover; it has to be a com­fort­able han­dover of con­trol when the car re­quires it. The av­er­age time needed for a driver to fully re-en­gage with his sur­round­ings and the sit­u­a­tion is around five to eight sec­onds. So we are aim­ing for worst-case han­dover of con­trol of no less than 10 sec­onds.”

What about the ques­tion of emer­gency? Who does the car choose to pro­tect in the case of an in­evitable ac­ci­dent? “That’s a dis­cus­sion for the next two hours,” he says with a smile.

“First up, an al­go­rithm will never be able to pre­dict the ex­act out­come of an ac­ci­dent.” I push fur­ther, pos­ing the sce­nario of a con­ven­tional car sud­denly com­ing head-on to a car un­der Level 3 au­ton­omy, but where swerv­ing would cause its own cat­a­strophic ac­ci­dent. I don’t get a clear an­swer.

In­stead, Kiss shifts to the net safety ben­e­fit he sees in the fu­ture when au­ton­omy is main­stream. “The ma­chine never gets in a hurry, never gets tired or dis­tracted. Plus the leap in ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy [where the car ahead can alert oth­ers be­hind of an emer­gency or un­fore­seen con­di­tions] will help this a lot. I see a huge net ben­e­fit in safety.”

So which car com­pa­nies would he sug­gest are cur­rently lead­ing the race to au­ton­omy? Does he have deep knowl­edge as to how Audi is pro­gress­ing com­pared to the other pre­mium Ger­man brands, or Ford, GM, or the Ja­panese? “No ques­tion it will be a head-to-head race. Each of the pre­mium brands has cer­tain strengths. Let’s see who will be first,” he says.

So is he un­der im­mense pres­sure to not be among the late ar­rivals to de­liver the tech­nol­ogy?

“Pre­vi­ously there was pres­sure, yes, but over the last year or so the pres­sure has been re­duced. The board re­alises the full depth of re­spon­si­bil­ity it is tak­ing with a sign-off of this tech­nol­ogy for pro­duc­tion.

“From the ve­hi­cle de­vel­op­ment side, we can im­ple­ment a Level 3 sys­tem that can fol­low a car in front very safely, stay mainly in the slow lane, drive quite con­ser­va­tively. But the prob­lem we have is from the mar­ket­ing de­part­ment. ‘Oh, no-one wants that,’ they say. We may ex­plain that cur­rently, our sen­sors can’t see a mo­tor­cy­clist ap­proach­ing from be­hind at 300km/h and be able to sup­ply in­for­ma­tion fast enough for the car to avoid a lane change. Mar­ket­ing says, ‘But no-one should be trav­el­ling that fast!’ Then the le­gal de­part­ment steps in; they are cru­cial to avoid­ing any­thing that could go wrong and dam­age the brand. These are the sort of co­nun­drums we face.”

Ul­ti­mately, though, vic­tory in the race to au­ton­omy may turn out to be won not just by the bat­tle for tech­ni­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity, but by nav­i­gat­ing a global le­gal mine­field.

“For sure, the le­gal side presents per­haps the big­gest hur­dle,” Kiss con­cedes. “Most im­por­tant for us is to have a ho­moge­nous le­gal frame­work; if we have state-by-state or coun­try-spe­cific laws, we’re not go­ing to be able to roll out these sys­tems that will work on roads world­wide. In Europe, for ex­am­ple, we have Ger­many and Bel­gium mov­ing quickly, they are the only two coun­tries where Level 3 driv­ing is al­lowed. The rest are tak­ing more time than ex­pected.”

So a uni­fied global po­si­tion is re­quired, yes?

“We’re work­ing on that very hard,” he says.

But ex­actly how that stands to play out, well, not even Kiss’s crys­tal ball can pro­vide that an­swer.

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