Two years ago I had the first opportunity to experience one of Audi’s autonomous concept cars on the race track. But driving some fast pre-defined laps on a race track is one thing; driving autonomously on one of the busiest highways in Europe is certainly another. Today I had a chance to try Audi’s ‘Autobahn Pilot’ first hand in the Audi A7 Piloted Driving Concept Car.
Autonomous driving is currently one of the mega trends that are changing the automotive industry. For decades manufacturers and drivers have dreamt of automatizing parts of the driver’s duties and this is becoming more and more a reality now.
In general there are five levels considered when it comes to autonomous driving:
Levels of Autonomous Driving Explained
- Level 1 is assisted, this level was reached decades ago already and includes basic assistance systems like cruise control.
- Level 2 is partly-automated, this is where most cars are now and includes automatic lights, adaptive cruise control and lane assist – important to note is that the driver should remain aware and responsible of the situation at all times as these systems assume the driver will take control immediately when they encounter a difficult or unknown situation. Tesla’s Autopilot is also a level 2 system.
- Level 3 is highly-automated, the next step from where we stand today and includes highly automated systems like a highway pilot where the driver can legally look away from the road as long as the system is activated. When the system deactivates it gives the driver 10-15 seconds to retake control.
- Level 4 is fully automated – here the car can take full control in all situations but the driver still has to be present.
- Level 5 is fully autonomous – here the car can drive on its own, even without a driver.
The Audi A7 Piloted Driving concept car I will be driving has a so called ‘level 3’ autonomous system on board. This Autobahn Pilot can be engaged by the driver when on the autobahn. The system is limited to autobahn use only and is considered the next major step on the way to fully autonomous cars.
The location of choice for my autobahn test drive is the A9 autobahn that leads from Munich to Berlin. A particular stretch of this highway between Munich and Nürnberg is appointed as dedicated autonomous driving test location by the German government. Autonomous cars can also be tested on other roads in Europe but this particular stretch has new infrastructure and technology that is actively tested to aid autonomous driving including Car2Infrastructure communication.
From the outside the A7 Piloted Driving Concept looks very much like a normal A7. Apart from the special wrap two small black laser sensors at the lower half of the front grill and the rear bumper that give away this special concept. Inside the changes are also very small – a small set of test switches where normally the ashtray is, a small new display between the air vents, an LED strip along around the dashboard and two new buttons on the steering wheel. The biggest change is in the boot; instead of luggage it is filled with computers, switches and cables. This is still an improvement over the large computer racks placed on the rear seat of the previous prototypes I drove but in the end Audi aims to reduce the entire hardware needed to control the highway pilot and more to a single unit the size of a small laptop weighing no more than a few hundred grams.
Behind the wheel of this unique A7 concept it is business as usual. A tap on the start button and the engine comes to life, pull the gear lever to D and we are good to go. The route is about 30 kilometers down the A9 and after the route is calculated I notice some new info on the display: it displays how much of my route I can probably drive autonomous. In this case around 10 minutes. It also displays part of the route where it expects the highway pilot to be available in a different color and by the time this system will be available for customers it should even be possible to select routes based on the percentage of the journey you can drive autonomously so as to maximize the time you can work or relax during the journey.
I merge onto the highway myself and immediately I see a circle display the loading status of the autobahn pilot. It takes a few hundred meters and then the icon on the driver display and the LED strip around the dash indicate it is ready to use. I just have to press the two buttons on the bottom of the steering wheel at the same time and the system takes over. The transition is flawless and apart from the steering wheel automatically moving away from me to make more space and the change of color along the LED strip I do not notice any major difference in driving behavior.
This particular stretch of autobahn is interesting for this test not only due to the sheer traffic volume with a lot of trucks but also because it is largely unlimited – as in speed-limit free. This means there are huge speed differences between trucks doing 80 km/h on the right lane to some cars passing by at over 200 km/h on the left lane. This requires quite a bit of awareness for a normal driver and this also goes for this system.
To make the car aware of its surroundings and behave the way it should it combines input from the available hardware – a front camera, front- and rear radar sensors, front- and rear laser scanners, front ultra sound sensors and two additional front radars that cover the front left and right. This is fed to the central driver assistance module and is combined together with navigation data (and in the future other external info from other cars or infrastructure) to create awareness of where the car is, what surrounds it and where it is headed. For now the system only works when a destination is set in the navigation.
The stretch of autobahn I’m driving at might be unrestricted, but the Audi A7 nicknamed Jack sticks rigid to a 130 km/h maximum speed. In front of us a few trucks force us to slow down, but as soon as the middle lane is clear I can see Jack wants to make a move. This is indicated by an overtaking icon on the small display in the center console. Jack indicates and before I know it we are accelerating back to 130 km/h past the trucks.
Audi worked hard to make Jack behave as much as possible like a social human being would, so if he notices a car driving onto the onramp he will move to the middle lane when possible to make space for the other car and he will also postpone an overtaking manoeuvre when he sees a faster car approaching from behind. Thanks to the additional laser scanners he knows where other vehicles with cm precision and also see where are they are headed so he can predict their next move.
Jack changes lane back and forth, clearing the fast and middle lane when the right lane is free. I feel very comfortable and take the time to read some emails and chat with the Audi expert and photographer on the back seat. A good kilometer or so before the exit Jack moves back to the right lane so he doesn’t miss the exit. Now it also starts a countdown of 15 seconds to make me aware I have to take control again. A gentle squeeze of the steering wheel or a tap on one of the two highway pilot buttons suffice to regain control. Almost annoyed the car doesn’t continue to its final destination I grab the steering wheel again and drive the last few hundred meters to our stop.
At first the feeling that the car is driving itself, judging the situation by itself and making its moves by itself is quite sensational but before you know it it feels normal and very comfortable. The way Audi presented it with the visual input and navigation integration feels very close to series production but sadly we have to wait another 7 to 8 years before this system can be ordered with a new car.
The reason for that long delay is three-fold; first it still requires more testing and development to prepare it for as many situations as possible, secondly the legal framework is looking good in a certain States and countries but there are still some questions to be answered and last but not least a level of public acceptance has to be established.
I would love to have it on my car rather today than tomorrow to turn boring motorway drives into productive working time – per example to write this article. But on the other hand for many people it is probably a good thing when they can get used to (part) autonomous driving step-by-step.
Last but not least I also had the chance to experience two other autonomous concept cars from Audi today – the fully autonomous red carpet A8 and the autonomous race track monster RS7 dubbed Bobby.
The red carpet A8 pulled up in front of the Audi Experience Center to take me around the block to the autonomous RS7. It is quite funny when a huge W12 limousine pulls up without a driver. I open the door – no driver to do it, I see a flaw in Uber’s plans! – and get in the rear seat. Close the door, buckle up and the car slowly goes from P to D and sets off. It doesn’t quite race off but it’s called ‘the red carpet A8’ for a reason. Around the corner I pass a few people who first stare and then whip out their phones to take a photo. Arriving at the destination there I open the door and get into the next autonomous car as if it’s business as usual.
Bobby is the next stage of the Audi RS7 Piloted Driving race car I drove at the Oschersleben race track in Germany two years ago. The computers are gone from the back seat and the software has been improved big time. It adapts its driving style automatically to road conditions, tire wear and weather. It also feels smoother through the corners which makes the experience on the passenger seat more natural. I jokingly ask the engineer when we can expect the first autonomous car racing series – only to be answered it is already there. Formula Student Driverless is one of the events where driverless cars compete on track for the trophy. But not to worry; Audi did not develop Bobby to put racing drivers out of a job but to develop and test technologies for their road cars.
I love driving but there are circumstances where I simply prefer not to – like in a traffic jam or on a busy highway. Developments like the autobahn pilot from Audi are a great way to relieve the daily stress and suffering from millions of drivers around the globe and turn lost driving time into productive working- or social time. I’m excited about the future of autonomous driving and can’t wait to experience the next step!