At the start of this year, Audi demonstrated how advanced its piloted driving autonomous vehicle program had become by sending an Audi A7 Sportback Piloted Driving prototype from Palo Alto to Las Vegas without a human physically driving the car.
Timed to coincide with the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the automaker not only proved its technology was ready for the real world, but used the show week to debut its cute envisioning of what that self-driving technology could one day do.
Now Audi’s technology Boss Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg says that it’s ready to bring autonomous drive technology to the market, promising the first Audi production models to have basic autonomous driving functionality will launch at the end of next year.
In an interview with Automotive News (subscription required), Hackenberg said that Audi intends to include autonomous driving functionality — which it calls ‘Piloted Driving’ in its next-generation A8 sedan. While Audi has been promising the A8 would include autonomous drive features for several months now, this latest estimate promises the piloted-drive enabled A8 will launch at the end of next year, presumably as a 2017 model-year car. That puts it a full year ahead of previous reports which cited the next-generation A8 would launch in 2017 as a 2018 model-year car.
“By the end of next year, Piloted Driving will be available on the next-generation A8. [It will drive the car] at speeds up to 60kph (37 mph) on highways and major roadways. From there, we will progressively expand the system’s range of usability, which is mainly a software matter,” said Hackenberg.
Despite the promised autonomous drive features of the next-generation A8 however, Hackenberg says fully autonomous cars — ones where no interaction between occupants and car is required beyond setting a destination — will be around ten years away.
“It depends on your definition of autonomous driving. A vehicle capable of driving itself with no need for any interaction from the driver, even in critical situations, is probably 10 years away,” he said. “If you mean what we call “piloted driving,” which is a car that can drive itself but still calls on the driver to intervene in critical situations, the technology is already here.”
Demonstrated last year in spectacular style by sending an Audi RS7 autonomous drive prototype around the Hockenheim race circuit at speed without anyone inside the car, the piloted-drive technology used by Audi usually relies on standard-definition maps to help the car know its position in the real world. For the high-speed test in Germany, where speeds hit 240kph (124 mph), Audi used high-definition digital maps.
For everyday use, the standard definition maps are adequate and the technology is already ready. In fact, Hackenberg said, the majority of Audi’s Piloted Drive technical challenges have been met. The delay is legislative.
“Nowhere in the world are there laws that permit cars to autonomous drive on public roads,” he said. “Even in California and Nevada, where Audi was among the first automakers to get a permit to test autonomous driving, the law requires that a test driver always is at the wheel, ready to intervene if needed.”
As anyone familiar with the legislative process will tell you, the length of time that it takes Audi and other automakers to successfully lobby for a change in law to allow fully autonomous, unattended (or even unmonitored) vehicles on the road is a tough thing to predict. As more states and countries begin to examine the legal and insurance ramifications of granting total control of a moving car to an artificial intelligence, we’re likely to see more half-way measures become law to allow semi-autonomous or auto-pilot features creep onto the books in the coming few years and months.
But like Hackenberg, we’re predicting it’s going to be a while before you won’t need a driving license to let a car take you somewhere on its own.
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