Audi launches most advanced self-driving car

JULY 11, 2017 by Patrick McGee in Frankfurt and Peter Campbell in London, FINANCIAL TIMES —

Audi has launched the most advanced self-driving car available on the roads, in spite of warnings from across the industry that a system that allows owners to take their eyes off the road for prolonged periods of time is fundamentally unsafe.

The Volkswagen-owned brand unveiled its new flagship A8 saloon on Tuesday, a vehicle that will spearhead the company’s attempts to reclaim the technological lead over arch rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

The most eye-catching feature of the car that allows drivers to sit back and watch television while the vehicle drives itself at speeds of up to 60km per hour in heavy traffic is highly controversial.

The car industry is fiercely divided over the approach to take to driverless vehicles, which are intended to save human lives by cutting the number of road accidents.

Some carmakers, such as Audi, Nissan and Mercedes, favour a system that incrementally increases the amount of autonomy on a vehicle, handing back control to drivers in the event of an emergency.

Competitors such as Ford and Jaguar Land Rover have deemed this approach unsafe, and said they will only fit their vehicles with autonomous technology when it is capable of driving in all situations.

Audi said that its system is dependent on laws coming into force that allow motorists to take their hands off the wheel.

“The driver no longer needs to monitor the car permanently,” the company said. “They can take their hands off the steering wheel permanently and, depending on the national laws, focus on a different activity that is supported by the car, such as watching the on-board TV.”

The luxury carmaker, part of the Volkswagen Group, said the A8 will go on sale next year and be the first production car “developed specially for highly automated driving”.

Its AI software, activated by the click of a button, is designed for slow-moving traffic at up to 60km per hour.

The car will hand back control to the driver in the event of an emergency.

Levels of autonomy in cars are measured on a scale of zero to five, where zero has no automation and five can handle all situations and all terrain, allowing steering wheels and pedals to be removed entirely.

Audi said its new A8 flagship saloon is the first example of so-called level three technology that will be available to drive on the roads.

Bernhard Weidemann, a spokesman at Daimler, said Audi was not unique in having level three hardware, but he said there was a big difference between having the capability and having the permission.

“A level three system is not allowed on the streets,” he said. “Technically you can do it, but to convince a regulatory body that our customers can do this is a different question.”

Audi, in a press release, only alluded to this problem for customers, saying “the statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market.”

The programme is powered by hardware including radar, camera and ultrasonic sensors, and Audi said it is also the first carmaker to use laser scanners. The car can also read traffic signs, gather information on hazards and “draw on the swarm intelligence of the Audi fleet” to learn further.

In an attempt to purvey the “premium experience” of the technology, Audi chief executive Rupert Stadler uses the term “the 25th hour” to describe “the free time you will spend in your self-driving car”.

Audi’s German rival Daimler, the parent of Mercedes, is working with Bosch, the world’s largest parts supplier, to produce “robo taxis” as early as 2020. BMW, meanwhile, has teamed up with Intel, Mobileye and Delphi to produce a “fully autonomous” vehicle by 2021.

The biggest software groups, chipmakers and carmakers are racing against each other, often in rival partnerships, to develop self-driving technology. The many partnerships include Fiat with Waymo, General Motors has invested in Lyft, and Toyota has partnered with Nvidia.

In the US, the consultancy AlixPartners has estimated that $325bn could be saved each year from accident avoidance, fuel savings, congestion savings and more efficiency. Intel has estimated that the cost of crashes globally is $871bn a year.