The lat­est “hands-free” co-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy may treat the ex­pe­ri­enced driver like a be­gin­ner, but it’s help­ful – we try it out in Ja­pan and Ger­many.

Torque (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

WI was an in­ex­pe­ri­enced 20-year-old learner driver back in 1993, my driv­ing in­struc­tor seated be­side me would, oc­ca­sion­ally, use his right hand to ad­just the steer­ing an­gle and keep the car in the cen­tre of the lane. And when I was in­structed to merge into the next lane, he would keep a look­out for sur­round­ing traf­fic and guide me ac­cord­ingly while his hand hov­ered near the steer­ing wheel rim.

Over two decades later, I’m be­hind the wheel of a car in Yoko­hama, Ja­pan that can keep it­self in the cen­tre of the lane and even change lane au­to­mat­i­cally. No driv­ing in­struc­tor needed.

It’s the Lexus LS500h, a 3.5-litre hy­brid V6 lux­ury sa­loon, equipped with “Lexus Safety Sys­tem + A”. The ad­vanced ac­tive-safety pack­age is de­signed for flag­ship mod­els such as the lat­est LS limo.

In­cluded in the pack­age is Lexus CoDrive, which bun­dles Dy­namic Radar Cruise Con­trol (DRCC) with Lane Trac­ing As­sist (LTA) and Lane Change As­sist (LCA). Lexus’ DRCC and LTA are not the first fea­tures of their kind to be ap­proved for road use in Ja­pan. Nis­san’s sim­i­lar tech­nol­ogy, ProPilot, has been of­fered as an op­tion on the Ser­ena MPV since Au­gust 2016 and on the X-Trail SUV since June last year. But the Lexus LCA is a new devel­op­ment which is, at this time, only road-le­gal in Ja­pan.

I try it on a 12-kilo­me­tre route be­tween the Paci­fico Yoko­hama con­ven­tion cen­tre and the Daikoku Park­ing Area, via the metropoli­tan high­way.

Ac­ti­vat­ing the LCA is easy enough. It works in con­cert with the LTA func­tion.

There’s a lit­tle lane-change icon dis­played be­side the fuel level in­di­ca­tor. The icon changes colour from white to green when the LCA is on standby for ac­ti­va­tion. Then, I push the in­di­ca­tor stalk up (to merge to­wards the left) or down (to merge to­wards the right) and hold it there for a few sec­onds.

If the LCA’s front and rear cor­ner-radars de­ter­mine that it’s safe for the Lexus to merge into the next lane, there’ll be a beep be­fore the sys­tem per­forms the ma­noeu­vre smoothly.

A spe­cific in-dash graphic is shown at the same time, along with a text re­minder, “Please look around, di­rectly”.

I do ex­actly that, of course, since I don’t fully trust the sys­tem just yet.

Af­ter a few tries, I’m con­fi­dent enough in the sys­tem to let the LCA ex­e­cute the lane change with­out me touch­ing the steer­ing wheel.

An ex­ec­u­tive in the pub­lic af­fairs depart­ment of Toyota



Mo­tor Asia Pa­cific tells me: “To pre­vent over­con­fi­dence, we do not re­fer to this tech­nol­ogy as ‘au­to­mated driv­ing’. The driver has the re­spon­si­bil­ity for driv­ing.”

Okay, I agree that the driver is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for the driv­ing, even with these ad­vanced driv­ing aids. Which is the rea­son why my hands would in­stinc­tively hover near the wheel of the LS500h, ready to take over. And the LTA sys­tem is ready to hand over con­trol of the steer­ing back to the driver when­ever nec­es­sary, such as on a nar­row exit ramp that curves sharply. Ob­vi­ous warn­ing beeps and var­i­ous pop-up mes­sages (“LTA Hold Steer­ing Wheel”, “LTA Steer­ing As­sist Un­avail­able” and “LTA Driver At­ten­tion Re­quired”) would prompt the driver to take the wheel.

I can do, and drive, with­out these gad­gets. Af­ter all, if I need tech­no­log­i­cal as­sis­tance to keep the car within its road lane and to change lane safely on the high­way, I prob­a­bly still need a driv­ing in­struc­tor seated be­side me.

What I re­ally need is re­lief from the te­dium of traf­fic jams. And Audi has just the sys­tem to pro­vide said re­lief.

In Sin­ga­pore, I try to beat the rush hour on the high­way by leav­ing a lit­tle ear­lier. But here I am in Ger­many’s Essen-Mul­heim Air­port, wait­ing to leave a lit­tle later so that an Audi A8 could take me into rush hour on the high­way nearby.

Be­cause grid­lock is nec­es­sary for Audi’s demon­stra­tion of AI traf­fic jam pi­lot, the first sys­tem of its kind (con­di­tional au­to­ma­tion of the driv­ing task) to hit the road.

Cur­rently, only the lat­est A8 limou­sine can be equipped with this new­fan­gled fea­ture, which is un­der­go­ing type ap­proval in Ger­many (at time of writ­ing) for roll­out in 2018. The new A8 is said to be the first pro­duc­tion car de­vel­oped from the start for highly au­to­mated driv­ing. The break­through tech­nol­ogy in­cludes two au­to­mo­tive world firsts: a laser scan­ner (mounted in­side the front bumper) and a cen­tral con­trol unit (about the size of a tablet com­puter) that man­ages all the soft­ware and hard­ware (such as ul­tra­sonic sen­sors, radar de­vices and dig­i­tal cam­eras) re­quired for pi­loted driv­ing.

Audi’s AI traf­fic jam pi­lot ap­pears to be ahead of its time, and also ahead of to­day’s tech­ni­cal reg­u­la­tions and le­gal frame­works.

For in­stance, the United Na­tions Vi­enna Con­ven­tion on road traf­fic states that “Ev­ery driver shall at all times be able to con­trol his ve­hi­cle”.

But this rule doesn’t pre­clude the hands-free driv­ing made pos­si­ble by the new A8’s AI traf­fic jam pi­lot.

It only works on a dual car­riage­way with a phys­i­cal di­vid­ing bar­rier in be­tween, no traf­fic lights in sight, and in slow­mov­ing traf­fic at up to 60km/h.

Any faster and it wouldn’t be a traf­fic jam any­more, ac­cord­ing to Audi’s stud­ies on road traf­fic con­ges­tion. When the con­di­tions are met and the sys­tem is ready for ac­ti­va­tion, the dig­i­tal in­stru­ment clus­ter shows pul­sat­ing white light strips on ei­ther side, the text “traf­fic jam pi­lot avail­able” and a dis­tinct white icon. The “Audi AI” but­ton on the cen­tre con­sole is also il­lu­mi­nated in white to in­di­cate the sys­tem’s avail­abil­ity.

Af­ter the sys­tem is ac­ti­vated, the in-dash dis­play adopts a stylised graphic of the A8’s rear.

The driver can then take his hands off the steer­ing wheel and let the A8’s traf­fic jam pi­lot han­dle the te­dious task of tack­ling a traf­fic jam.

“The sys­tem is driv­ing for the driver,” says Ste­fan Ri­et­dorf, a mem­ber of the devel­op­ment team present at this tech event. Ri­et­dorf then adds, “Hands off and mind off!”.

Well, not ex­actly. The sys­tem still re­quires the driver to gaze in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of travel. So, play­ing a silly game on your smart­phone is prob­a­bly out of the ques­tion, although watch­ing a movie on the car’s in­fo­tain­ment screen may be pos­si­ble.

In­deed, the driver can re­lax be­hind the wheel while the traf­fic jam pi­lot is co-driv­ing.

But if he is chill­ing out to the point of zon­ing out, or even fall­ing asleep/un­con­scious, the sys­tem would prompt the driver to re­gain con­trol of the car. The sys­tem de­ter­mines when to do so by us­ing a cam­era nes­tled at the 12 o’clock po­si­tion of the in­stru­ment panel to mon­i­tor the po­si­tion and move­ment of the driver’s head and eyes. It works even if the driver is wear­ing sun­glasses There are two stages of prompt­ing be­fore the sys­tem in­ter­venes by turn­ing on the hazard lights, bring­ing the car to a com­plete stop within the lane and send­ing an SOS to emer­gency ser­vices. Such an even­tu­al­ity would prob­a­bly worsen the traf­fic con­ges­tion. But in nor­mal cir­cum­stances, the Audi A8’s AI traf­fic jam pi­lot would make bumper-to-bumper traf­fic less of a drag for the driver.

The Audi A8 and Lexus LS (above) could co-drive for a change, but the driver/ chauf­feur re­mains in charge of the limo on the move.

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