22nd February 2018
Audi’s world-changing A8: all tech-ed up and nowhere to go until legislation catches up
Driverless vehicles were heaped with attention by Chancellor Philip Hammond during his Autumn Budget 20171, in which he clearly outlined a determination for the UK to welcome autonomy on its roads as soon as 2021.
Artificial intelligence (AI) in the automotive context also received a £75m boost and Mr Hammond expressed the conviction that his bold reforms enabling driverless vehicles on our roads within four years would see the UK leading the way in this rapidly-developing area of technology2.
Despite the huge strides that have already been made by the likes of Tesla, Google, GM and Waymo, transport commentator and author Christian Wolmar believes that the ensuing months and years will see autonomous vehicles confined to limited uses in specific environments.
In a Guardian interview3 he said: “the notion that there will ever be a dominance of driverless cars in the centre of London is a fantasy that goes with jetpacks and rockets to Sydney. Politicians are in great danger of swallowing this idea. It’s not going to happen.”
The majority of UK motorists would likely share the sentiments of Charlie Henderson from PA Consulting who comments: “Manufacturers are designing AVs on the assumption that roads are in good condition with clear lane markings, unobscured signs and signals, and good quality surfaces. But we all know that’s not the reality.”
Vehicle autonomy is grouped into six levels and although Tesla’s Autopilot5 technology might seem awesome, it’s effectively classed as Level 2.5. Level 2 autonomy is where a car can carry out certain functions like steering, braking and accelerating, but the driver must keep their hands on the wheel and remain ready to resume control at all times. Last month, Car magazine stated that ‘Level 2 is currently becoming mainstream’, which may sound bizarre to drivers of slightly older or humbler cars6.
Level 4 denotes fully driverless vehicles which likely won’t even have steering wheels, pedals and the like in many cases, but they will only be legally usable in specified areas – primarily cities – monitored by geo-fencing technology.
We jumped from Level 2 to 4 intentionally, reflecting what car manufacturers such as Volvo seem to be doing. With Level 3 no longer requiring a human to show any alertness and hence being free to work, read, sleep or enjoy the view, OEMs including Ford and Honda have already opted to skip Level 3, too, perceiving it as too risky due to legislative and insurance frameworks not yet being in place7.
One manufacturer proud as punch at being the first to bring Level 3 autonomy to everyday customers is Audi, though. The Artificial Intelligence driver assistance package for its new LIDAR-equipped A8 saloon enables remote controlled parking using a smartphone app, while the Traffic Jam Pilot system allows ‘conditional automated driving’. This means that the driver can take their hands off the wheel and do whatever they please at speeds of up to 37mph where opposing lanes of traffic are separated by a physical barrier8. “The new A8 is the first production automobile to have been developed specially for highly automated driving”, read Audi’s press release9.
The marque’s understandable excitement has been somewhat rained on, though, at least as far as the UK is concerned. While the A8’s smartphone remote parking functionality can be used legally here, its main Traffic Jam Pilot system currently can’t, with Audi viewing 2019 as the earliest likely breakthrough.
“It sounds like the Government has only just started ramping up discussions about autonomous cars but it isn’t just about infrastructure and road conditions. Liability has not been decided yet. The technology is there. It’s just waiting on legislation”, A8 product manager Dan Marsh explained to FleetNews10.
Frustratingly for Audi, keen to see its industry-first capabilities shine in as many markets as possible, Regulation 104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 is holding its new A8 back, as the law prevents hands-off use of vehicles. The DfT’s Centre of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles has tried to get Regulation 104 amended but to no avail and hints that enjoyment of the new A8’s revolutionary technology may be delayed by up to three years here.
Driving legislations vary wildly in America with Level 3 legal in California but not in neighbouring Nevada, for example, and it’s the same across Europe. “In some markets, or even a lot of markets, we won’t be able to sell a full autonomous driving option”, Audi’s Dietmar Voggenreiter admitted to Auto Express11.
Cap-doffing has to go to the German government, then, as in June 2017 they at least effectively legalised self-driving cars. However, systems like Traffic Jam Pilot are still to be type-approved for market there. Unbeknown to many, the United Nations plays a key role in vehicle legislation and will hopefully speed things up, Audi hoping that its remarkable piloted driving systems will finally be unleashed on customers’ cars by the end of 2018 in Germany at least. As ardent car and technology enthusiasts in the automotive sector, we certainly hope so, too.
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- Read our PaceNotes blog post on Gov.uk