Say hello to Jack. ‘He’ is an 82,000km-old pre-facelift Audi A7, equipped with a version of Audi’s Piloted Driving system that lets it blat along the Autobahn quite happily at 80mph with no problems whatsoever. It’s an incredibly odd experience, but before we get into what it’s actually like to, erm, ‘drive’, some explaining is required…
Assist systems on the market today are just that – driving assists that still require the driver to pay due care and attention to what’s going on ahead of them, so they can intervene to prevent the car from having an accident. These are ‘level two’ systems, according to recognised SAE guidelines.
Jack is one step up from that, and shows us a ‘Motorway Pilot’-type system we’ll see on production cars for the first time a few years from now (or much, much sooner than that, if Elon Musk is to be believed). Other systems Audi’s working on, beyond the motorway-only one fitted to Jack, include Parking Garage Pilot (for self-driving and autonomous parking in multi storeys, for example), as well as Intersection Assist, Manoeuvre Assist and Intersection Assistant.
Jack represents level three autonomy, which means once you’ve given it the go ahead to relieve control from your fleshy human hands, you can take your eyes off the road and read a book, watch a film or spin around in your seat and have a proper conversation with your passengers, legislation permitting.
Rather than relinquishing control to the human behind the wheel immediately if something is amiss, a level three car gives you a ten-second buffer. This means a greater level of technical redundancy is required to cover that gap.
Audi’s head of pre-development for piloted systems Dr Miklos Kiss tells us next year’s new-gen A8 will be the first car on the market with a level three system – albeit one that operates at a lower speed than the system fitted to Jack. In theory it can work at much more German motorway speeds, but here and now is limited to an entirely adequate 130km/h, or around 80mph. A level four system does not require any human inputs, but is limited to certain scenarios like parking a car or motorway cruising, whereas level five is complete autonomy 100 per cent of the time. A car that can tackle literally anything thrown its way.
It’s level five autonomy that Tesla’s going for with the new hardware it’s just announced for the Models S, X and 3. Audi reckons level five isn’t on the cards for decades, and that it’ll be 2035 before we see level four autonomy in complex towns and cities.
Dr Kiss tells us that “if this happens earlier, cities will have to change. And it’s not easy to change cities.” We didn’t get the chance to properly grill Audi’s experts on Tesla’s latest announcement, so it remains to be seen just how effective ‘Enhanced Autopilot’ and ‘Full Self-Driving Capability’ will be when Tesla remotely activates them.
Onto the car. At first glance, Jack is a normal A7. If Audi had forfeited the graphics, you’d be none the wiser. Inside things are a bit different. There’s a screen between the central air vents, under the main MMI display, that tells you what the system’s up to (like when it’s going to change lane,s and how much longer you’ve got to go before your exit, when it hands control back to the driver) and freeing up the main display for watching TV.
There are two extra buttons, one on each of the two bottom spokes of the four-spoke steering wheel. You’ve got to hit both simultaneously to activate the system, which is when the LED band around the base of the windscreen goes green, signalling all systems are go (or otherwise, it goes yellow or orange). It’s all very well integrated into the A7’s cabin and feels, dare we say it, almost production-ready.
On normal roads Jack operates like a regular A7 – one with steering so light, a well-aimed sneeze would be enough to dial in a quarter turn of lock. When you merge onto the Autobahn, the sat-nav signals that piloted driving is available. Hit both of those steering wheel buttons at once, and the wheel itself motors back into the dashboard to give you more room, and you’re free to while away the time as you please. That is, once you’ve got used to the fact you really don’t need to look where you’re going.
I choose to spend the time talking to my rear-seat passenger, Dr Kiss. He tells us Audi’s been running customer studies for a decade, and that in the early days it used “Wizard of Oz” cars to trick the public into thinking they were riding in a driverless car. “We did not have public-road-ready piloted cars then, but we did have cars with a driver in the boot, where we just told the test persons that we would drive automatically, and they believed it,” he says. “We told them they didn’t want to look in the back because it was full of sensors and cables. We fooled everyone.”
I can verify that there is nobody in Jack’s boot, just many computers required not for the actual business of piloted driving, but monitoring and analysis. In all, its driving is miles more human-like than you’d expect. It’s rooted to the middle of its lane, whichever one it’s in, although its position isn’t fixed so, if you’re passing a truck, it’ll nudge over to one side.
Steering (including lane changes), acceleration and deceleration are all handled smoothly – Jack doesn’t race up to the back of slower moving cars, but moves out a lane or coasts up to a few car-lengths out while it waits for a gap to slot into. It’ll even slow to allow another car to merge ahead of it. As you approach your exit, Jack moves right (we tested it out in Germany), and then eventually prompts the driver to retake control.
And yes, they could fit the same system to an R8, although Dr Kiss admits it wouldn’t be his first choice for a partially autonomous car. They do have a fast one, though, in the form of a track-only RS7 called ‘Robby’. It gave us a ride around Audi’s Neuburg test track, and we can confirm it’s especially rapid.
It brakes hard enough into corners to make the brake lights strobe, turns in and accelerates just as fiercely out of them and makes all kinds of excellent noises while it’s doing it. The exhaust is most definitely non-standard.
The RS7 is no doubt impressive, though its development is more or less over (Dr Kiss tells us Robby will live on as a development car, because it’s far better at pumping in consistent lap times than a piddly human).
And as good as Jack is, Audi still has a massive amount of testing to do to get proper piloted systems ready for the mass market. The early signs are good, though…