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June 24, 2016

Audi piloted driving: A real-world glimpse into the future of self-driving cars

by John_A

We’re sat behind the wheel of “Jack” – a modified Audi A7 concept, adapted for the full Audi piloted driving experience (the company’s fancy name for self-driving cars, essentially) – zipping down the Autobahn in Germany at 130kmph.

Although we’re not too fussed about the origins of his name at this point in time, because our hands are off the wheel and feet fully off the pedals. We might well be behind the wheel, but the car – sorry, Jack – is the one actually driving us down the highway.

It all starts with the satnav route set on Jack’s main 8.3-inch dash display, with both our driver’s cockpit display and the dedicated central status indicator window beneath begin the distance countdown to when piloted driving will become available. Right now it’s only available on highways/motorways/autobahn because the parameters for such road conditions are more limited and therefore controllable. Road lines are abundant and clear, as are road signs, lights and so forth.

The countdown reaches zero and a voice alerts us that piloted driving is available. So we press-and-hold the two glowing steering-wheel icon buttons on the wheel itself and set things into motion. A sweeping light, tucked under the base of the windscreen, illuminates turquoise and slides from left to right, filling the full distance of the screen; the steering wheel automatically retracts itself away from our body.

Some would say it’s frightening. Others incredible. Perhaps both. We’re in the second camp, as we never felt remotely out of touch with the car. Piloted driving is a very smooth experience; there’s no jolting about or risky manoeuvres – the likes of which we would probably make ourselves. That’s the crux of it: Jack speeds up (never exceeding the limit), slows down if cars are in front, merges lanes, pulls in when someone approaches us from behind at 200kmph, and is every bit the gentleman chauffeur.

Audi piloted driving: When will it be available?

There’s been so much talk about self-driving cars that the idea of it seems far-fetched; like an imaginary concept of silly-looking Google cars and computer-generated Apple illustrations. But that’s what is actually further from reality: indeed, from what Audi has shown us with piloted driving, full autonomy is already highly functional – it’s just a case of assembling the many stepping-stone features and safety tests on its path to completion. Well, ignoring the many and variable legal standpoints for the time being.


Such stepping-stones are already well in the pipeline. Many of Audi’s imminent “Assist” features – autonomous safety and control elements, such as braking in traffic jams and self-parking – will be in the new Audi A8, due out in 2017. That will then progress with motorway pilot (self-explanatory), parking garage pilot (you guessed it: the car will park itself in the garage, you needn’t even be behind the wheel if space is tight) and city pilot (which will take on board the huge number of variables in busy city road situations) in the years that follow to full piloted driving.

This supposed far-fetched futurism must be why Audi has softened its typically Germanic numbering convention of its cars with actual names, such as Jack here. It’s humanising, the basis of trust. He is not the first, though, as Klaus Verweyen, head of pre-development piloted driving, explains: when working on a car that is learning and adapting it’s hard to always think about it like a machine; the names, the first one was Shelly, are based on famous racing drivers, keeping in check with the company’s automotive agenda.

Not that you’ll be going into the store to buy “Dave” or “Sheila”. The piloted driving experience will be an optional extra, and potentially cost a fair packet too. After all, it uses five cameras, two lidar (laser) and six radar sensors to gauge the car’s surroundings. Many of these sensors, however, are already integrated and available for other Audi Assist features in the here and now, such as lane detect and surround cameras for 3D parking assist, so the company is well set to adapt their presence for future concepts delivery.


Audi piloted driving: Is it safe?

What’s particularly neat about Audi’s implementation is how consumer-ready it all feels. If the system detects something it’s not sure about – on our trip there was a side-parked highway vehicle with temporary speed reduction sign – it will hand control back. But not suddenly: it alerts us, vocally, the windscreen light morphing through orange to red to indicate imminent control takeover is required. The steering wheel comes forward, we’re back at the wheel proper, now in full control. The lights, words and visuals all tell us this.

Audi is keen to make the point that the driver is always the failsafe in the piloted driving experience, though. Full control can be taken immediately if it’s required too: for test purposes we interrupt the system with a touch of the brakes and we’re immediately back at the controls (using the wheel does the very same).


Audi piloted driving: What about other autonomous driving plans?

Now, it’s not the first time we’ve seen a so-called driverless car in action. Toyota took us on a trip down a Japanese highway in 2015, in its adapted Mobility Teammate Concept Lexus GS 450h. And, of course, there’s Tesla Autopilot too, which is available in its cars right now – but it’s not quite as heavyweight in terms of actually driving the car, it’s more hyper cruise control.

READ: Driverless cars are reality: Toyota’s autonomous car takes us for a drive

It’s the delivery that’s particularly standout in the Audi. It’s not fussy: it doesn’t dwell on telling you where the car is in relation to others, it just drives smoothly and lets you sit back. This is Jack in control. And while that may sound a bit “2001” in 2016, we’re totally on board and excited by how this technology can and will revolutionise road safety, economy and comfort in the future.

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