Audi’s 2018 A8 will drive itself on freeways, but total autopilot is decades away

At this year’s Frankfurt Auto Show opening night gala, Volkswagen predicted a car that will drop you off at the entrance to any parking garage, go find its own parking space, and come back for you when you’re ready to go. Audi took all this a step further and announced that its newest cars will offer a substantial level of autonomous control starting in 2018. Audi calls this technology “Piloted Driving.”

“Audi works on a philosophy that driving is fun, but there are certain situations where driving is not fun. Parking is one, and another is traffic jams. Those are the situations we want to solve,” says Christian Feist, Development Engineer for Piloted Driving at Audi.

“Audi works on a philosophy that driving is fun, but there are certain situations where driving is not fun.”

Cars of many brands have been parallel parking themselves for years, and several brands offer lane-keeping assist that will gently nudge the car back to the center of the lane if you drift. Many cars can now recognize a pedestrian or bicyclist in front of you and stop themselves if you fail to brake. You can also easily find adaptive cruise control that will maintain following distance to the car in front of you right down to a complete stop.

Taken individually, those are nice features. But it takes a quantum leap to roll them all together and produce a real self-driving car that can instantly respond to changing conditions. Modern cars that offer limited autonomous features are arrayed with cameras, laser radar (technically known as LIDAR), and sonar equipment. To keep your car in its lane, parallel park, or stop for a pedestrian, the car has to analyze the data provided by its sensors and respond to what it sees.

“That’s all calculated by the brain of the car. This is where all the sensors are plugged in and you have enough hardware capacity to do these very complicated calculations. That turns all this into a software problem, and we’re working on very profound algorithms to solve these problems,” Feist says.

2015 Audi zFAS
2015 Audi zFAS

Audi calls its car’s driving brain the zFAS, which stands for zentrales-Fahrerassistenz Steuergerät. In English, that means Central Driver Assistant Controller. The zFAS creates a coherent picture of the situation around the car that is sophisticated enough that the 2018 Audi A8 will drive itself in a freeway environment at speeds up to 40 mph. Even with all these systems talking to each other and controlled by a complex digital brain, the person behind the wheel remains in charge.

“There’s always going to be some kind of human interaction. For example, you want to tell the car that you’re on the lookout for some kind of parking spot. We have to teach the car what a parking space is, and then it has to take all its sensors into account to decide if it will fit into the spot, and how it has to maneuver to get into the spot,” Feist says. “The A8 will deal with low-speed, but will ask the driver to take over again when traffic starts moving. The problem with faster driving is that you have to get into a safe state if something goes wrong. The faster you go, the more complicated it becomes,” he continues.

Audi will also offer limited autonomous capabilities on the 2016 A4 and Q7 models, which will coordinate adaptive cruise control and lane keeping functions. Mercedes-Benz also offers this technology on the S-class and E-class models.

The self-driving car is no longer a science-fiction concept.

Looking to the future, Audi expects that by the beginning of the next decade, its cars will drive themselves up to 70 mph under freeway conditions, including managing lane changes, passing, and responding to unexpected developments. However, Audi estimates that truly self-driving cars that can manage non-freeway driving are about 20 to 30 years away.

When you consider the scale of the problem, that length of time seems barely enough. Driving is an intensely complex and different task depending on where you live. The scooter-clogged cities of China are different from the rough roads of Africa and India, or the narrow streets of Europe. If you have ever experienced driving in Boston, you know what Feist is up against.

The long-term implications of this technology are deep. On our roads today, over 90% of traffic accidents involve some form of human error. That can be dramatically improved when your car talks to the cars around it, and knows what they’re doing. The ability to simply state a destination and get there without assistance will be life-changing for millions of elderly and disabled people. The whole concept of a driver’s license is likely to change.

The self-driving car is no longer a science-fiction concept relying on some vague sufficiently advanced technology to provide the magic. Engineers like Feist know how they’re going to solve the problems, they just need a little time to work out the kinks. And of course, lawmakers and insurers will get their chance to weigh in, too.

“The self-driving car is the vision. We want to get there,” Feist says. “With the 2018 A8, we are solving for scenarios that are possible with today’s technology, but also what is allowed by law. Whether you will be allowed to read a book or watch a movie while you drive is up to legislators. From a technology standpoint we will get there.”

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