Braving traffic in a self-driving Audi A8 so sophisticated it’s not legal yet

“Let’s look for the perfect jam.”

No, this wasn’t a band audition. Audi’s Christian Hartmann, innovation and technology spokesman for the company, was talking about traffic jams. A cheeky grin crossed his face. Were we really going to go out in a car and sit in traffic for the morning? Yes. And it was going to be very exciting indeed.

We were being introduced to Audi Traffic Jam Pilot, new technology fitted to the 2018 Audi A8 parked outside, waiting for us to try. The A8 is a great car: We named its brother, the Audi R8, 2017 Car of the Year, and the A8 is among the best compact cars on the road, held back by one shortcoming — technology. Enter Traffic Jam Pilot, the product of almost a decade of research and development by Audi’s version of storm chasers, who rather than going out into the eye of a tornado, head out onto the highway in search of another thing we all actively avoid: The traffic jam.

Avoiding traffic jams isn’t always possible, and once we’re stuck in a stop-start queue, endlessly pumping the clutch, time stands still as we stare ahead. The Traffic Jam Pilot’s aim is to give that time back, so we can relax and spend time in traffic more pleasurably. While that sounds great, it’s the technology underneath that’s the real breakthrough, and what makes the feature so exciting.

Traffic Jam Pilot is the world’s first piece of level three autonomous driving technology. Existing traffic jam and other automated driving assistants fall into level two, and are exactly that: Assistants. The driver must stay in control, and take responsibility for the car. For level three, the system is clever enough to know its limits, and doesn’t need the driver to watch over it. With Traffic Jam Pilot activated, you sit back, watch television on the car’s screen, check messages, and pretty much do whatever you like (legally) while the car gets on with navigating through the traffic. You don’t touch the steering wheel, press the pedals, or even need to look ahead.

Jamming in the A8

It was time to look for traffic jams. Our Audi A8, complete with “Audi Intelligence” branding, was driven by Christopher Demiral, who has worked on the underlying algorithms that form the basis of Traffic Jam Pilot since 2008. Out on the open highway in Germany, only registered test drivers can drive the car and use the feature, due to it not being legal for public use yet. Rush hour was coming to an end as we drove down the autobahn, scanning the navigation screen for telltale red lines, telling us we’d find traffic. We didn’t have to wait long.

As a passenger, it’s something of an anti-climax, which speaks to its effectiveness.

Closing in on three lanes of slow moving cars, the digital display in front of the driver glows white around the edges, subtly indicating the Traffic Jam Pilot is available. It only operates below 60km/h, or 37.3mph, on the highway, and in nose-to-tail traffic. It doesn’t work in towns, on non-highway roads, or in open traffic. In the centre panel by the gearstick is a button marked Audi AI. Press that, take your hands from the wheel, and the system comes alive. The screen changes to show a digital A8 riding along in traffic, with a handy green bar below it showing the speed and how close you are to having to retake control.

As a passenger, it’s something of an anti-climax, which speaks to the effectiveness of the system. Traffic Jam Pilot perfectly stops, starts, accelerates, brakes, steers, and keeps you from crashing into the barrier and passing cars, or weaving out of lane. While Demiral had his hands in his lap, and his feet off the pedals, the car was reacting as if he was still driving. There was no drama, and no apprehensive feelings about the car being in control. The traffic started to thin out and speed up. The A8 warned Demiral to retake control with a beep, he grasped the wheel, and we were off in search of another queue.

Testing out Traffic Jam Pilot

A mass of cameras and sensors are built into the A8 to make this possible, and all are controlled by a new ECU called the zFAS. To give an idea of its complexity and ability, it alone has more processing power than all the computers in the 2016 Audi A8 combined. In the earliest test vehicles, three full size computers in the trunk performed the same tasks as the zFAS, which is about the same size as a normal car ECU. Laser scanners, radar sensors, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors give the A8 a complete view of the road ahead and all around it. There’s also a camera that looks directly at the driver. It needs to see your eyes for safety, so no sleeping or hiding behind a newspaper.

Audi A8 traffic drama shot
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Rush hour was ending, and we drove the A8 to a private airfield, where we would be allowed to try the system in a controlled environment, away from the public. To do this, we needed a jam, which would be simulated by us following a slow moving Audi Q7. While everything felt shockingly normal as a passenger, it was very different as the driver. We followed the Q7, watched for the Traffic Jam Pilot activation lights, and tapped the button. Taking your hands off the wheel, and purposefully looking at the TV screen rather than the back of the Q7 took a Herculean effort. It just goes against everything we know about driving.

It goes against everything we know about driving.

While we settled down and tried not to look straight ahead, Demiral took the car out of auto and into manual mode, tripping Traffic Jam Pilot’s emergency sensors and prompting us to retake control. The idea was to show how the car would attract our attention when it needed to. Let’s put it this way. Unless you’ve sadly shuffled off your mortal coil, you won’t miss it. First, it beeps at you. It’s forceful enough that unless you’re really far away, it’s all that will be needed. If it doesn’t detect your hands at quarter-to-three on the wheel, it jabs the brake to bring you out of your daze.

Ignore it again, and it gets angry. The seat belt suddenly tightens and pulls you hard into the seat, which is accompanied by repeated jabs of the brake, literally shaking you awake. It’s terrifying the first time it happens, and if nothing else, you’ll grab the wheel just to steady your nerves. It’s impossible to deny its effectiveness. If something terrible has happened, and no amount of shaking or pulling would wake you up, the car comes to a safe halt with the hazard lights flashing, and makes a call to the emergency services. If the car suddenly and unexpectedly detects pedestrians in the road while in Traffic Jam Assist mode, it will stop automatically and tell you to retake control.

We had another, and another try on the airfield. Each time using Traffic Jam Pilot became more natural, you begin to learn the sequence of events needed to set it in motion — for example don’t touch the steering wheel after pressing the button, otherwise it thinks you want to drive again — and trust in the system quickly grows. Understanding how you won’t miss its warning signals was a big help, and we asked Audi if this demonstration would be given to future A8 owners with the feature enabled; but it may depend on the dealer and location.

Autonomous driving that doesn’t ruin driving

At various points during our time in the Audi A8, we laughed at the ridiculousness of driving around looking for traffic jams to sit in. But sitting in traffic while driving back from the airport later on, in a car not blessed with such technology, the attraction of Traffic Jam Pilot and other forms of level three or conditional autonomous driving modes was definitely hammered home.

“The added value of an autonomous car isn’t the fact that it drives itself; it’s what you can do while it drives itself,” Peter Mertens, Audi’s board member for technical development, told us in July.

Driving is fun, and being a passenger is much less fun, which is why there is some apprehension about cars that drive themselves. Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot strikes a great balance. We had blasted down a piece of unrestricted autobahn and enjoyed the A8’s lusty performance, and then enjoyed its technical prowess when there was no driving enjoyment to be had. That’s a desirable combination.

If you’re already on the phone to your Audi dealer wanting to put in an order for the 2018 A8, you can do so; but Traffic Jam Pilot won’t be installed. The technology is almost 100 percent ready. However the laws and regulations aren’t. Audi sells its cars globally, and laws everywhere need to enable the use of Traffic Jam Pilot, and at the moment they don’t. Audi has to work with regulatory bodies individually, all around the world, to change autonomous driving laws to enable the use of Traffic Jam Pilot.

It’s a long and drawn out process, but the company is confident Traffic Jam Pilot will be available in the Audi A8 in the form we tried, in the future. When it is, we think you’ll go out looking for traffic jams just for fun too, and once the novelty wears off, you’ll wonder what you did without it.