Semi-autonomous Audi A8 will need to navigate varying U.S. laws

on Jul13

BARCELONA, Spain — Audi’s redesigned A8 flagship luxury sedan will feature Level 3 autonomous driving capability for urban traffic jams.

Or it will, eventually, if laws in specific regions are changed to allow it.

In a case of technology outstripping humans’ ability to keep up with it, Audi says the redesigned A8 will launch this year with all of the technologies and sensor arrays necessary to enable the car to fully pilot itself in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But those features won’t be turned on by Audi until laws are passed in each jurisdiction to enable the technology to operate legally.

That could be a specific problem in the United States, where such laws would be passed at the state level, says Mirko Reuter, Audi’s head of autonomous driving functions.

“In the U.S., all these legal requirements are made on the state level. We’re not talking about whole U.S., talking about every different state, and every different state will have legal challenges,” Reuter said.

He said some states are ahead of others in terms of developing a legal framework for Level 3 autonomous driving — where the car assumes complete control under specified conditions — but that legal homologation will be necessary. The company said it will use geofencing to make sure the A8’s Traffic Jam Pilot is only available to drivers traveling in jurisdictions where it is legal. For example, if a driver in Florida, where such a system is legal, travels to another state where it is not, Traffic Jam Pilot will not activate.

“We have everything on board for the technologies, so the A8 is equipped with everything that it needs, but the problem is that the legal challenges have not really been solved,” Reuter explained.

Photo credit: REUTERS

Once the legal issues are resolved in a jurisdiction, the A8’s Traffic Jam Pilot functions will be available only under a specific set of circumstances. For example, the car must be on a multilane road with well-marked lanes and with a physical separation, such as a guardrail, between the car and oncoming traffic. The road also must have dedicated exit and entrance lanes, Reuter explained.

The automated driving system — which will allow the driver to do other tasks, “like watching videos,” while in stop-and-go traffic, Reuter said — will be available only when the car is traveling under 37 mph.

The latest A8’s autonomous systems include several redundancies. For example, cameras, radar and lidar sensors are all used to monitor the car’s surroundings, while an onboard 48-volt electrical system is used to power a redundant braking system.

“One important thing about automation in driving is, because you’re now responsible for the driving task, you need to have a backup. If one of the components fails, everything safety-related must be backed up,” Reuter explained.

As automakers progress further and further with the development of autonomous vehicles, questions of financial responsibility will arise. Reuter said that as Audi offers its first Level 3 car, it will mean accepting responsibility for the car’s actions.

“If you’re offering Level 3, we are in charge of the driving part. That means, of course, if we have driven, then we are responsible. That’s true,” Reuter said.

In some ways, managing customer expectations about what the new A8 can do — eventually — will be a challenging task, one that all automakers will struggle with regarding their own vehicles.

“People get carried away by their imaginations when they hear about automated driving” Reuter said. “This is just one first step that we are focusing on.”

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