The 2018 Audi A8, just unveiled in Barcelona, counts as the world’s first production car to offer Level 3 autonomy.
Level 3 means the driver needn’t supervise things at all, so long as the car stays within guidelines. Here that involves driving no faster than 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph), which is why Audi calls the feature AI Traffic Jam Pilot.
Go ahead, Audi’s saying, read your newspaper or just zone out while traffic creeps along. Take a look at the company’s promotional video. Beginning around the 3:55 mark you’ll see an indulgent father who ends up horsing around with his kid in the back seat. When the car up ahead stops, the A8’s AI hits the brakes in time to avoid rear-ending it.
Other cars now on the market may physically allow the driver to zone out, too, but not without squawking a lot. “Put your hand on the wheel within five seconds, Buster, or I’m pulling over to the side of the road,” they’ll say, in so many words.
Mercedes-Benz sounds an alarm if you take your hand off the wheel. Tesla makes you hit the turn signal to show you want to change lanes. The new Cadillac CT6 goes so far as to monitor your eye movements with infrared cameras to make sure you’re paying attention to the road. That’s an emphatic statement of the car’s status: Level 2.
To be sure, the A8 also monitors the driver, even while the traffic jam persists, and continues to do so as the speed edges up over the limit. If the driver falls asleep, it’ll wake him up; if it can’t get his attention, it will stop the car.
There’s no one feature that seems to be behind the company’s decision to go up to Level 3, but there are certainly a lot of new technologies. There are computers from Nvidia and other firms, an image processor from Mobileye, and a really huge array of sensors: 12 ultrasound sensors, five cameras, five radars, one infrared camera for night vision. Most notable of all, there’s lidar—the first ever offered on a production car. The unit, a forward-looking one, comes from Valeo.
Besides allowing for Level 3 autonomy, the panoply of devices also makes for a smoother ride. For instance, when the sensors see a pothole coming up they prime the active suspension so that it can handle the challenge more easily. Oh, and the car is also a mild hybrid, with a plug-in version in the works.
Electric-drive is suddenly catching on—just last week Volvo announced that all its 2019 cars would have at least some degree of electric drive in them. Nowhere has the change in attitude been more extraordinary than in the family of VW, Audi’s parent company, which had based its emissions policy on what it called clean diesel. VW had to give it up last year, when it was shown to have cheated on diesel emissions tests.
If you want to buy the new A8, you’ll have to check whether your jurisdiction will accept it as a Level 3 car. Audi said in a statement that it will follow “a step-by-step approach” to introducing the traffic jam pilot. It plans to sell the base model in Europe this fall for €90,600, or about US $103,000, and to enter the United States market shortly afterwards. A model having a longer wheelbase will cost a few percent more.
What’s next? A Level 4 car, naturally. Back in January, Audi and Nvidia said they’d have one on the roads by 2020.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.