Will Kiwi attitude allow A8 to run free?

New Zealand might be one of the first places where the latest uber Audi can demonstrate its world-first autonomous functions.

COULD New Zealand be destined to be one of the first places where an Audi flagship can demonstrate its unprecedented autonomous driving capability in everyday traffic?

It seems so. Certainly, strong belief in this being realised is held by Audi New Zealand general manager Dean Sheed.

He is confident the latest fourth-generation A8 upper-large sedan, which he recently drove in Europe, will become a breakthrough car for level three hands-free tech (a full explanation of the five levels of autonomy are explained at the end of this story) immediately on arrival here in the third part of 2018.

This thought entirely depend on the big four-door being allowed to operate locally with a world-first laser scanning hardware that enables the car to chart its own course. The tech is marketed by Audi as Traffic Jam Pilot.

“Our aim is to bring in a level three-capable car next year,” Sheed said.

“We will spend the next 12 months working with the legislative authorities – being the Ministry of Transport - to ensure the car is legal in this country and can abide by the normal rules.

“Personally, I don’t see an issue with this.”

Traffic Jam Pilot is ultimately set to spread to many other Audi products – cited so far are the A1, Q3, A6, A7 and E-tron electric SUV, also due to enter production in 2018.

It’s super smart but not wholly infallible. Forget about using it on secondary roads or even regular open highway, in fact.

The system is designed specifically to operate in a specific circumstance, on divided freeways below 60kmh – in our case, Shead concedes, that’s a scenario realised on multi-lane highway, mainly in Auckland and Wellington.

However, even that limited operation has caused controversy.

When Audi Germany unveiled the A8 two months ago it acknowledged that although the model is engineered for level three autonomous driving, production examples would not be initially be fitted with those smarts because global legislation around driverless cars has not matched its own advances.

However, there’s thought New Zealand can steer around that legislative red tape – simply because, ironically enough, our traffic rules were drawn up decades ago, when the concept of autonomy was a pure fantasy, and have never been revised.

The lack of hurdles effectively allows carte blanche for hands-free operation; a point recognised by the previous Transport Minister, Simon Bridges, two years ago when he unsuccessfully invited Google to test their driverless tech here.

Sheed has to convince Audi head office in Ingolstadt that NZ is the right place to allow Traffic Jam Pilot to operate in a public space. The factory has to effectively unlock the technology to allow it to become active.

“The factory will release the A1 competency of each car, depending on the market it goes into.

“In this market, we will bring the car in with that level … and, over time, they may release more systems that enable the car to do more, these being updates we can do on line. But for the start, we want to have the car here with level three, from day one.”

Audi says it knew it was taking a gamble in designing the A8 with a higher level of autonomy that is accepted in most parts of the world, but said the time it takes to engineer a vehicle with it was a gamble it was willing to take.

“We designed the A8 for automated functionality, so we introduced all of the technologies that are required for this,” Audi head of vehicle properties, function and innovation Mirko Reuter said last month.

“I would say that our prediction on how things (legislation) were going to change were a little different in the past and now we’re a little bit, how do you say, ‘braked’ on how we can handle that.”

Reuter has outlined the requisites for allowing the tech to be unlocked, as Audi sees them.

“Three challenges need to be met. First of all, you need a legal framework for (autonomous driving) and that’s only starting to happen in certain countries right now. Second of all, you need a special homologation process for automated driving and that’s also just starting right now.

“And then in every market you bring this technology to you need to make very deep validation and testing so that the system can handle every situation in the market. And therefore when all of these three factors are met we will bring the Traffic Jam Pilot (to market).”

Even though NZ could well be among the earliest international adopters, the very first country to allow Traffic Jam Pilot will very probably be Germany.

Audi has said it would follow Volvo and accept liability for a collision if the A8 was driving autonomously and was found at-fault.

“Basically, if it’s clear that we’ve taking over the driving situation, the car is responsible for the driving and therefore also we as Audi are responsible for the functions misbehaving,” Reuter said.

Meantime, Sheed’s broader thoughts about autonomy were recently aired in a white paper presented to the not-for-profit electric vehicle proponent group, Drive Electric.

In this, Sheed – a member of the Drive Electric board and a contributor to the paper - proposed that the technology is progressing quickly.

Many brands have developed cars that already feature Level 2 “partial automation” where steering and speed can be controlled by one or more driver assistance systems, he cited.

The technology is only set to improve in the next few years, with an eventual push towards full automation in the 2020s.

“Eventually, autonomous vehicles won’t have a steering wheel or pedals,” says Sheed.

And it is inevitable that autonomous vehicles will be fully electric.

“There’s no need for an autonomously driven car to be electric, but there’s a deep connection. From a manufacturer’s point of view, most of the R and D expenditure is going into electric drives and autonomous vehicles.

“These things will merge, and the cars that they’re designing today for market launch in three years’ time will likely be electric to some degree, and have elements of autonomous drive.”

Another key enabler will be the vehicle’s ability to communicate with each other and infrastructure and to take action based on that communication, he says.

The five levels of autonomy.

Level 0: This one is pretty basic. The driver (human) controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power. It's what you've been doing all along.

Level 1: This driver-assistance level means that most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car.

Level 2: In level 2, at least one driver assistance system of “both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment” is automated, like cruise control and lane-centring. It means that the “driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time,” according to regulators. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however.

Level 3: Drivers are still necessary in level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift "safety-critical functions" to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. It means that the driver is still present and will intervene if necessary, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for the previous levels.

Level 4: This is what is meant by “fully autonomous.” Level 4 vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” However, it's important to note that this is limited to the “operational design domain (ODD)” of the vehicle—meaning it does not cover every driving scenario.

Level 5: This refers to a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle's performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario—including extreme environments like dirt and gravel roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future.