Audi has launched its groundbreaking new A8 and has promised total hands-off autonomy up to 37mph (60kph), which has caused quite a stir.
“The driver no longer needs to monitor the car permanently,” said a company spokesperson. “They can take their hands off the wheel permanently and, depending on the national laws, focus on a different activity. They can watch TV, for instance.”
Now we have to take this with a pinch of salt, as Tesla was forced to dial back its system and reinforce Autopilot’s role as a driver assist function.
A bold statement from Audi
Audi’s bold declaration that the car is ready to take over is encouraging, but the Ingolstadt-marque will have to get through a mountain of red tape before it can release this system on US soil.
Expect Tesla-style safeguards
The A8 will go on sale next year, but it will almost certainly have to rely on its own safeguards, which include Driver Ability Detection.
This can monitor how attentive you are, issue warnings and then pull the car to the side of the road if you’ve nodded off.
Still, it’s a positive step forward for the German manufacturer, which has teased us with a lot of concepts and now finally has self-driving technology in its flagship.
Is this really autonomy?
The full hands-off highway mode is basically limited to 37mph (60kph), so this is a tentative launch for self-driving system.
There are more caveats, too. It requires a central barrier and really this is only for the congested highway stretch on your daily commute.
Audi still clearly states that the driver is responsible for the car, too, and must be ready to take control if the system fails.
That is the crux of the issue for the likes of Ford and Volvo. Both manufacturers have criticized this halfway house and argued that drivers become too dependent on unfinished systems and this can put them in danger.
Should we wait for Level 4 autonomy?
Both marques have publicly said they cannot put autonomous cars on the road until we are truly ready for Level 4 control.
Elon Musk countered this by arguing that Autopilot is saving lives right now and that he simply could not, in good conscience, hold the system back.
Now Audi has taken it a step further with a car that will make sure you’re paying attention and will ask for help if an upcoming hazard confuses its computer brain.
Driver-handoff is a serious issue
That’s an intriguing proposition on its own and one we’re going to hear more of in the coming year.
The cars and the vast AI systems up in the Cloud will, eventually, train each and every car to the point that it shouldn’t need human intervention.
But there will be times between now and then when a car simply cannot read the road ahead and needs to rely on your judgement.
The driver hand-off is a crucial part of the self-driving experience that we haven’t truly encountered yet. Simply put, the transition between car and driver has to be near seamless and exceptionally rare.
If Audi can achieve this with the A8, then this low-volume limousine could turn out to be its most important launch for a long time.