While everybody at all recent auto shows has been conferencing and carrying on about vehicle autonomy, the new Audi A8 with Traffic Jam Pilot is poised to become the world’s first production car developed to provide full-on SAE Level 3 autonomy—at speeds up to 37 mph, as soon as it’s legal somewhere, likely first in Germany. We sat down with Peter Mertens, the member of the Audi AG board of management responsible for technical development, to talk about the technical, legal, and regulatory challenges presented by this pioneering technology.
If and when European regulators raise the maximum allowable speed for autonomous steering to 130 km/h (81 mph), do you envision extending Level 3 autonomy to that speed?
Yes, absolutely. The next step will be to increase the speed from 60 [km/h] to something around 130, still at Level 3. Yes. I always say that it’s not something where at some point in time you see a quantum leap in functionality and all of a sudden autonomous driving is there in all its beauty and everywhere is Level 4 and 5. It’s more step by step by step. And that’s why I think we limit ourselves to 60 km/h right now.
How do you respond to companies that have asserted that nothing but full Level 5 autonomy can be sufficiently safe at highway speeds?
The discussion about levels is first of all confusing and second of all misleading. The most important difference between levels 2 and 3 is that the car takes over responsibility. It’s not a shared responsibility. I’ve always said during my whole career, when we started talking about autonomous driving, there is no shared responsibility. It’s impossible. It’s either the car is responsible, or the driver is responsible. When we allow the car to take over, it takes over responsibility in that case.
Are you at all worried about the distance covered during the transfer of responsibility at higher speeds?
At that speed you can only allow to the car to drive fully autonomously when you have an open shoulder where you can safely slow down and park the car. You also have to have automatic lane change capability, so that, along with an available shoulder, the car is able to park itself safely. But again, the thing is that our vision of Level 3 is that at speeds of up to 60 km/h or in the future speeds up to 130, you don’t have to jump to the steering to take over. The car warns you early enough so that you have due time to take over. If you don’t respond, the car takes over and parks itself safely.
Are there any more conditions required to accomplish 130-km/h Level 3 autonomy other than access to a shoulder and lane-change authority?
No, those are the main differences. It gets tougher, obviously. You need to have faster calculation, sensor fusion. Decision making becomes more critical, and having a shoulder as a last way out is important.
But the hardware is currently capable of handling those higher speeds?
Yes, this step from Level 2 to Level 3 is the really big step [bigger than from 60 to 130 km/h].
Might other Audi products introduce the next steps in autonomy, such as Level 4?
No, absolutely not. The A8 is our flagship technology leader, and it will take some significant time to go from Level 3 to Level 4. Right now, all over the world there is all sorts of legislation—right now in the U.S. there is a very welcome attempt to bring one legislation to all states—but it will take some time. We are the first automaker ever to do a homologation of a Level 3 car. In Germany right now we’re in the midst of the process. This is uncharted territory, frankly, and with the German authorities we’re working to make this happen. It’s hopefully going to happen sometime next year, then we’ll roll it out further. We are obviously waiting for stable legal conditions to launch the car.
What sort of resistance has the Audi or VW Group legal counsel offered as Traffic Jam Pilot has worked its way through the R&D process?
Actually we had very good cooperation with our legal department. As you know, we are laying the foundation for the industry right now because we are the first ones. We have been consulting our legal partners for advice, but we are also working very closely with the authorities. It’s been about teamwork, actually, and not us trying to develop something and throw it over the fence and let the authorities go and deal with it. Over the next few weeks we are using the TÜV [German product certification experts] to help us prepare for homologation before we start the formal joint process with the German equivalent of NHTSA. I think that’s the important part also. Why do we think nobody can really follow us quickly to have a Level 3 car? Because the A8 has redundancies built in already for steering, for brakes, for throttle, and all of that. And if you have to do all of that during the life cycle of a vehicle, you’ve redeveloped half of the car, and that’s a super big challenge. So we decided from the start that this car is going to be the first car that actually is prepared for Level 3. It’s not just technology-wise breaking ground. Homologation is also breaking ground. Customer feedback, acceptance, all of that—breaking ground.
Are you also working closely with U.S. regulatory authorities?
I don’t know yet. We haven’t really started yet with the U.S. And as I said, we’re going to go step by step by step and not too much in parallel. We’re going to launch it in Germany. We’re going to take the car and get the first experience and feedback, etc. And then we’re going to do the next step and the next step. Since we have the basis now, it’s an evolutionary process. It goes from where we are right now and goes further and further, and we can update features and functions over the air. So we can provide those types of technologies as they come.
Can you elaborate on your approach to over-the-air updates?
It is very important to us. It has two very different purposes or advantages. One, you can always handle field updates that way, but the more important thing is that we can create what we call functional demand. The car is prepared for different functions, and you can pick and choose depending on whatever situation you are in right now. You can have a periodical or short-term usage of certain functions or just an upgrade of “now I want to have a different connectivity,” or “I would like to have different functionality of my headlights,” for example, or of my autonomous-driven vehicle. So can I do more if, say, I bought the car a year ago and now I would like to upgrade it? There is actually a lot of potential technically, but we think there is also a business to be explored and opened for us.