One of the more exciting things we did at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was ride in the back seat of an Audi A6 Avant—and the experience wasn’t just cool because it was an A6 wagon, which we don’t get here in the U.S. The experience also was cool because the particular car we rode in was semi-autonomous, and it chauffeured us on public roads in Las Vegas. (Among the other exciting stuff: witnessing an A7 drive to and park in a space all by itself, with no driver.)
The idea was to provide insight into how the automaker’s “traffic-jam assist” function will work when it goes on sale within the next decade. Audi announced the low-speed autonomous functionality at its press conference at CES, and even though it seems super high-tech, in reality the system is a fairly tame extension of the company’s adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist features.
Let us first address the legality of cruising Interstate 15 in a self-driving Audi by noting that the German automaker was the first OEM to gain a license to test autonomous vehicles on the streets of Nevada. The A6 wore a special autonomous-vehicle license plate, which, according to Audi, arrived by happenstance bearing the digits “007.” Despite the fancy-sounding autonomous license, Audi is quick to point out that this special A6 is a “Piloted Driving” car. This bit of hyperbole is designed to draw attention to the fact that the traffic-jam assist feature previewed on this particular car doesn’t exactly amount to fully autonomous functionality, and Audi believes the buck stops at the driver (pilot), and not a computer chip. The system only works in sub-40-mph situations on highways—if the system senses that traffic is moving along quicker than about 40 mph or isn’t very dense, it automatically cuts out.
Traffic-jam assist combines the sensory information from Audi’s existing radar-based adaptive cruise control system and the car’s lane-keeping assist camera (which monitors lane markers) with a compact, bumper-mounted LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) laser. Audi is particularly proud of this LIDAR unit, not the least because it packs all of the sensory ability of the giant, roof-mounted LIDAR towers seen on Lexus’s autonomous LS, Google’s fleet of self-driving Priuses, and the Pikes Peak autonomous Audi TT into a brick-sized piece of hardware. Software allows the system to steer the car; if any significant torque is applied to the steering wheel, control is relinquished back to the driver.
In prototype form, traffic-jam assist functions as follows: If the car determines you are driving in a traffic-jam-capable scenario (sub-40-mph, dense highway traffic), a prompt appears in the A6′s digital gauge cluster alerting the driver that traffic-jam assist can be activated if he or she so chooses. The system can then be activated with the push of a button on the steering wheel, at which point the vehicle takes over. If traffic disperses, the system alerts the driver to take retake control. To sample the system, Audi took us out in a three-car road train consisting of a lead RS5 coupe, the semi-autonomous A6 Avant (which we rode in), and a Lincoln MKS (we assume this was rented). The RS5 and MKS were brought along to serve as a rolling traffic jam so that the system could be demonstrated on the non-congested I-15 running through Vegas.
Two things occurred on the ride-along: First, we didn’t hit anything, and second, the system appeared to work seamlessly. Riding in the car while the traffic-jam assist function was active wasn’t as weird as one might expect; it felt pretty much like any other Audi with lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise activated. There are, of course, some fail-safes built in. Chief among them is a rear-seat-mounted joystick that can be used to pilot the A6 test mule in case all other systems fail; such a redundant system is in fact mandated by the state of Nevada for all registered autonomous test cars. The German Audi engineers who demonstrated traffic-jam assist to us were quick to point out that even though they’ve fooled around with piloting the A6 with the joystick, it isn’t as fun as it sounds and is in fact quite challenging.
Even though this particular A6 Avant featured a rear-seat laptop (which displays a ton of intriguing info, like what the various lasers, radar emitters, and cameras are “seeing”) and a trunk full of computers, the production system will be far less bulky. The bumper-mounted LIDAR unit will stay, but the cargo area’s worth of computers will be condensed to a roughly iPad Mini–sized circuit board for production.
More interesting than the hardware, perhaps, is the opportunities various Audi representatives, including the brand’s head of research and development, Wolfgang Dürheimer, seem to think traffic-jam assist affords drivers. Hint: few if any of their ideas seemed to include actually driving or paying attention to the road. Dürheimer summed up traffic-jam assist and the self-parking feature Audi is working on as taking care of boring driving, leaving enthusiasts to enjoy their Audis’ driving dynamics when freed from the chains of traffic and parking garages. This point sort of makes sense, but somewhat disconcertingly, the company seems hard at work at several in-car distractions to fill the empty time afforded by the self-driving functionality.
During our ride down I-15, Audi’s team demonstrated that, when traffic-jam assist was activated, the driver could do things like watch a movie on the car’s central display, or even video conference. This was deemed acceptable because as soon as the system deemed driver control necessary, the video screen cut out and the video conference automatically switched to a regular voice-only call. Removing the distraction when the driver re-takes control is all well and good, but doesn’t really illuminate the key problem with introducing such distractions in the first place. If, as Audi says, the driver is the pilot and the final decision-maker, why actively draw their attention from the road at all?
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Furthermore, although defaulting control back to the driver when traffic lifts or when the system cannot understand the car’s surroundings accurately enough to maintain control seems logical, how effective is such a move if the driver hasn’t been paying attention to the situation as it develops? Imagine you’re watching a movie when all of a sudden, the screen goes black, a beeping alert sounds, and suddenly you have control of a 4000-pound object traveling at nearly 40 mph entering an “atypical” traffic scenario—how long do you give yourself before you’ve come to grips with your surroundings? A few seconds? Ten?
Audi’s engineers counter this idea by explaining that if the driver doesn’t respond to the “take back control” warning from the car, after five seconds the car taps the brakes to catch his or her attention. If that doesn’t do the trick, the car begins to gradually brake to a stop within the next ten seconds and activates the blinkers. That’s great, but now your car is stationary in an active lane on the highway—far from ideal, but at least the car won’t continue to sail down the highway on its own.
Audi says the key barrier to traffic-jam assist’s introduction to consumers is legislation. Many governments (specifically in Europe) simply don’t have laws on the books for how to regulate self-driving cars, even if they aren’t fully autonomous. While the technology enabling such systems might, as many automakers say, already exist, after actually riding in a self-driving car and and talking to the engineers about the myriad non-typical scenarios that might present themselves on any road in any country, we’re starting to see why even semi-autonomous tech like traffic-jam assist could be as much as a decade away from reaching consumers. The stuff is slick, but at the same time a pretty heady discussion regarding its effect on driver distraction and safety will need to take place before it hits the road. And there’s no doubt the debate will continue on even beyond that.
Source: FULL ARTICLE at Car & Driver