We were escorted out of the Cosmopolitan Hotel garage in Las Vegas by two Nevada state troopers, who followed our Audi A6 Avant all the way to Interstate 15. Traffic was moving pretty well, which is why we needed the troopers, because we were about to make our own traffic jam at CES to show what Audi’s new Piloted Driving technology can do. It’s only a prototype now, but if the system hits the market as planned within the next three to five years, the frustration and dangers many commuters suffer in stop-and-go traffic may come to a satisfying end.
Piloted Driving is a next step on the road to autonomous driving and a big step up from adaptive cruise control. When the car is going under 40mph, the driver has the option to press a button on the wheel and the car takes over. This prototype (it’s got 50,000 miles on it) makes use of a handful of sensors elegantly hidden in the front grill. There’s a laser scanner, radar and front-facing cameras all tied back to a central computer, also hidden in the left wall of the trunk. Audi showed off the technology a year ago at CES, when the concept car’s trunk was entirely filled with circuit boards and computing gear. The Germans shrunk it down to a single board in a year’s time, and it handles the surround-view cameras as well as the ultrasound for parking control. There’s no telltale spinning rader gizmo on the roof like you see in Google’s autonomous cars.
When Piloted Driving is on, the car maintains a distance from the car in front set to half the length of the car’s speed in meters per hour. The sensors are constantly watching the car in front, sensing the lane markings on the road and reacting to the columns of cars in the surrounding lanes, as well as reading the speed limit signs moving by. As you can see midway through the video, Bjorn, the engineer from Audi AG takes his hand off the wheel in traffic (and his foot off the pedal) and starts scratching his chin as we’re moving along at 25 and 30mph. As soon as the driver takes the wheel, the Piloted assist stops and manual control resumes. Audi built in redundant systems for braking, communications and power supply to ensure that the system doesn’t fail over while out of the driver’s control.
Another experimental feature inside the car, never shown to the public before, uses two cameras on the driver to detect when he has his eyes closed for more than ten seconds. We tried it twice and each time the car started beeping loudly after ten seconds of Bjorn closing his eyes, after which the car comes to a complete stop and the hazard lights come on.
While Audi is a partner with Google on the Open Automotive Alliance, the German carmaker has a slightly different vision for autonomous driving than Google, which has typically been associated with the idea of cars driving themselves everywhere, picking up your kids from soccer and bringing them back home. Audi knows that driving can be fun. People buy their cars because they’re a pleasure to drive. It sees autonomous technology such as Piloted Driving as the real future, incremental assists to relieve the tedium of being in stop-and-go traffic and having to park in tight spots. It showed off its self-parking technology in the middle of last year.
Unless Audi and its fellow automakers can manage to get the laws changes, federal and state regulations will still forbid the use of cell phones while in Piloted mode. And there is still work to do to get regulators to approve autonomous control. But Audi has been showing some infotainment apps that could be in use during Piloted mode. And the motor vehicle departments that Audi has spoken to behind the scenes are eager to see this work because of all the accidents already being caused by commuters spacing out in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords on this one.