There are a few times in your life when you get a police escort: if you’re elected President and when the funeral procession takes your corpse to the cemetery. Beyond that, you’re pretty much left to fend for yourself, slogging through traffic like everyone else.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Audi gave me a police escort in Las Vegas. OK, I personally didn’t get the police escort, Audi’s A7 did. I was just in the passenger seat as the car drove itself.
Before we hit the strip, let’s talk about Audi’s leap into self-driving cars. At CES 2013, Audi had another piloted car: an A6 Avant. The computers controlling it took up the entire rear end and, as Audi’s engineers admitted, “every time we thought we figured everything out, we’d find another gap in the programming.”
This year, Audi came to CES with a slate grey A7. And to my surprise, when I lifted the rear hatch, I found nothing. Amazingly, Audi’s engineers squeezed all the computerized self-driving bits into a unit roughly half the size of a shoebox and cleverly tucked it away into a side storage compartment.
Hitting the road
The idea of self-driving cars is upsetting to me. I love driving, and I hate at my core the idea of automakers taking that away from me. So to say I was skeptical as I climbed into the cabin of the piloted Audi A7 would be an understatement.
“Are you ready?” He asks, his thin-rimmed glasses slowly sliding down his nose.
As I drop down into the passenger seat, I’m greeted by a grinning, grey-suited German by the name of Dr. Bjorn Giesler. I learn that my shockingly chipper host is the Audi Project Leader of Development of Piloted Driving.
“Any questions before we set off?” Giesler beams from the driver seat.
“Not yet.” I mumble, almost taken aback by his eagerness.
“Let’s go then!”
Suddenly a radio crackles behind me and a man I hadn’t noticed before, seated directly behind me, radios that we’re ready to leave the hotel parking structure.
Seeing my surprise, Giesler explains that the backseat Audi engineer is there to monitor the piloted system, in case of a glitch … and to work the radio with the police. Then Giesler punches the throttle and we roar up the darkened parking structure ramp into the harsh Vegas sunlight.
Suddenly, two Las Vegas Police cars rip past us, followed by a convoy of other Audi vehicles. The police cruisers hit their lights and sirens, and the sea of pedestrians blocking our path to the Vegas strip immediately part. All eyes turn to my Audi and suddenly my skepticism turned into elation. I feel like a rock star.
On the strip
We sail past hundreds of cars, as our escort parts the heavy Vegas traffic with characteristically Audi-like precision. At what feels like full throttle, we race down the Vegas strip toward the highway.
“OK so right now we are just driving normally. Once we get to the highway, we will demonstrate the piloted driving. It’s accessed here,” Giesler says pointing to a button on the steering wheel.
As he speaks, the wheel jitters and shakes as it makes micro adjustments in the lane.
We enter the highway and Giesler looks at me seriously for a moment. “Are you ready?” He asks, his thin-rimmed glasses slowly sliding down his nose.
The radio in the back seat crackles again and the show starts. The police cars spread out across all four lanes of traffic and the Audis we had been following in convoy begin dipping and diving through the Vegas freeway traffic, as it slows from around 65 mph to around 42.
Gielser punches the button on the steering wheel and the entirely digital instrument cluster immediately changes. Suddenly there are ghostly apparitions of cars in the center, with the transmission gear number in large font on the left and our speed on the right.
“You see, those are the cars and the lane markers that the car sees,” Giesler explains. “The car has a digital camera, a laser scanner, and also radar. We’ve found that there is nothing on the roadway that one of these systems can’t detect.”
Gielser’s hands are off the wheel and gesturing as he speaks; the wheel jitters and shakes as it makes micro adjustments in the lane.
“We wanted to show how the system works in traffic. That’s why the police are here. We needed to replicate traffic, and the highway here at this time of day moves too smoothly. The Las Vegas Police have been very nice to help us.”
As one car enters our lane, we slow down and give it safe following room. As soon as it goes into another lane, we speed back up to the other car ahead of us.
Let me pause here and answer any questions you might have. Yes, the piloted driving system on the A7 does sound like adaptive cruise control with autonomous steering. That’s essentially what it is. It does get trickier, though. And Giesler was about to show me how.
“I’m going to close my eyes, OK?” Giesler says, reverting back to his very serious German tone.
“Please watch the road for me, OK?”
“Uh OK,” I say with a nervous chuckle.
Giesler closes his eyes and folds his hands in his lap. And nothing happens.
Suddenly it begins chiming. It chimes for ten seconds, trying to get Giesler’s attention. When he doesn’t react, the car begins to brake. It slows softly for a second then progressively gets onto the brakes. Within what felt like six or so seconds, we’ve come to a complete stop on the freeway.
Giesler opens his eyes, taps the gas and the car comes to life again, taking control and roaring back to highway speed.
“We have a camera here in the A-pillar and here beneath the rearview mirror. It’s always watching to see if I’m falling asleep or not. If it sees your eyes are closed, it will give you 10 seconds to let it know you’re awake. You can do that by touching the steering wheel or any of the pedals. If you don’t, as we just did, it will bring itself to a stop in the lane and alert the authorities.”
I glance up at the rearview mirror. Aside from a bit of extra mirrored glass beneath the bezel, I wouldn’t have ever known a camera was there.
“Have you seen enough?” Giesler asks.
“Yeah sure,” I said, still a bit in shock over what just happened.
The radio from the back crackles and Giesler punches the throttle again. The police lights go off and traffic resumes its regular flow.
Putting it into perspective
Audi has designed this piloted driving system not to remove people from the act of driving, as I had feared, but rather to ease the stresses of traffic and make roads safer.
I worried that the Germans felt they knew better, that they believed they could create a car that’s better than humans.
“It turns, out people are amazingly aware and adaptive,” Giesler explains to me, as we make our way back to the hotel. “And trying to replicate that has been very challenging … We don’t see the car replacing the driver completely. We want it to simply enhance the comfort of the driving experience. Anything we can do to make the driver safer and more comfortable, we will do that.”
This admission was music to my ears.
No longer alone
I sat back in the plush seat of the A7 and looked out onto the bright desert outside. For the first time, I could see self-driving cars not as a threat but as the next logical step in driving technology.
Just like the police escort ahead of us, the piloted A7 got us through traffic comfortably and safely. With the quick demonstration, Audi proved to me that vehicle automation doesn’t take away from the driving experience. It adds to it. With the car helping you through painful rush-hour traffic, you won’t be left alone to slog through traffic yourself.
Audi says it could implement the system into a production car immediately. But until legislation is in place limiting automaker liability, it can’t begin. Audi hopes that will only take a few years.
At this rate, my Vegas police escort might be the only one I’ll ever get, because my next car might do the navigating for me.