I could use some relief from the tedium of traffic jams. And Audi has just the system to provide the relief I require.
In Singapore, I try to beat the rush hour on the highway by leaving a little earlier. But here I am in Germany’s Essen-Mulheim Airport, waiting to leave a little later so that an Audi A8 could take me into rush hour on the highway nearby.
Because gridlock is necessary for Audi’s demonstration of AI traffic jam pilot, the first system of its kind (conditional automation of the driving task) to hit the road.
Currently, only the latest A8 limousine can be equipped with this newfangled feature, which is undergoing type approval in Germany (at time of writing) for rollout in 2018. The new A8 is said to be the first production car developed from the start for highly automated driving.
The breakthrough technology includes two automotive world firsts – a laser scanner (mounted inside the front bumper) and a central control unit (about the size of a tablet computer) that manages all the software and hardware (such as ultrasonic sensors, radar devices and digital cameras) required for piloted driving.
Audi’s AI traffic jam pilot appears to be ahead of its time, and also ahead of today’s technical regulations and legal frameworks.
For instance, the United Nations Vienna Convention on road traffic states that “Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle”. But this rule doesn’t preclude the hands-free driving made possible by the new A8’s AI traffic jam pilot.
It only works on a dual carriageway with a physical dividing barrier in between, no traffic lights in sight, and in slow-moving traffic at up to 60km/h. Any faster and it wouldn’t be a traffic jam anymore, according to Audi’s studies on road traffic congestion.
When the conditions are met and the system is ready for activation, the digital instrument cluster shows pulsating white light strips on either side, the text “traffic jam pilot available” and a distinct white icon. The “Audi AI” button on the centre console is also illuminated in white to indicate the system’s availability.
After the system is activated, the in-dash display adopts a stylised graphic of the A8 from the rear. The driver can then take his hands off the steering wheel and let the A8’s traffic jam pilot handle the tedious task of tackling a traffic jam.
“The system is driving for the driver,” said Stefan Rietdorf, a member of the development team present at this tech event, who added, “Hands off and mind off!”.
Well, not exactly. The system still requires the driver to gaze in the general direction of travel. So, playing a silly game on your smartphone is probably out of the question, although watching a movie on the car’s infotainment screen may be possible.
Indeed, the driver could relax behind the wheel while the traffic jam pilot is co-driving.
But if he is chilling out to the point of zoning out, or even falling asleep/unconscious, the system would prompt the driver to regain control of the car. The system determines when to do so by using a camera nestled at the 12 o’clock position of the instrument panel to monitor the position and movement of the driver’s head and eyes. It works even if the driver is wearing sunglasses
There are two stages of prompting before the system intervenes by turning on the hazard lights, bringing the car to a complete stop within the lane and sending an SOS to emergency services.
Such an eventuality would probably worsen the traffic congestion. But in normal circumstances, the Audi A8’s AI traffic jam pilot would make bumper-to-bumper traffic less of a drag for the driver.