I'm watching a movie with Audi engineer Christopher Demiral. It has a dinosaur in it. We're crawling through traffic in an Audi A8 and the car is doing all the driving. All the driving. No one else is in the car. Outside, people are holding their tempers in the slow-moving congestion. Who are the real dinosaurs here?
Demiral is behind the wheel because he's one of the few people in Germany licensed to test drive an autonomous car. And make no mistake: While other auto makers take great pains to call their self-driving production cars "semi-autonomous" vehicles, which just assist tired or distracted drivers, Audi has called its new A8 a "conditionally automated" vehicle.
"Conditionally" means the car will completely drive itself under certain conditions, and this A8 is using Traffic Jam Pilot. If traffic is travelling at less than 60 kilometres an hour on a multilane highway, and there's at least one other car on the road, and there's a barrier between opposite lanes so an oncoming car cannot cross over and crash into you, and there are no pedestrians or traffic lights, then the A8 will do everything, and for as long as the conditions persist.
In other words, that crawling commute every morning and evening? You can watch movies, read a book or Facebook, even just chill out until the traffic clears. The car will do everything for you. Other fancy cars switch off their assistance if you don't provide some steering input within 30 seconds, but the Audi will let you kick back all the way home if conditions are right.
And that's what we're doing. Demiral's hands haven't touched the wheel and his feet haven't touched the pedals for a couple of minutes. The Audi's holding a comfortable distance from all the other cars in this stop-and-go traffic; in fact, it's even a little to one side of the lane, to let motorcycles and emergency vehicles through. When another car pushes into our lane ahead, the Audi backs off to let it in. "I go looking for traffic now," Demiral says. "I love sitting in traffic. The other day, I was driving up from Ingolstadt and the GPS warned me there was traffic ahead and asked if I'd like to take another route and I thought, no, I'm good."
Of course, this is not yet legal for you and me to do. It's a stretch in Germany, too, which is the first country in the world to allow a regular driver to not have to pay constant attention to the road if behind the wheel of an appropriate vehicle. Germany, of all places – home of lane discipline and the high-speed Autobahn.
The hitch is that the vehicle itself is not legal for production if it's capable of more than 10 km/h, which is all that's needed for experiments and trials. This is an international law of vehicle designation and must be amended by the United Nations before such cars are permitted for sale to the public. Audi hopes this will happen next year, and you'd better believe all the German premium auto makers are lobbying hard for it.
Most cars that offer driver's assistance of some sort – keeping you in the lane, braking automatically for obstacles, holding your speed at no faster than the vehicle in front – do so with various combinations of sonar, laser and camera sensors. The new Audi adds lidar to that, which is an enhanced form of radar that creates digital images of everything around it for its computer to interpret. There are so many sensors that they overlap at least twice, in case something breaks.
There's also an infrared camera sensor in the car that monitors the driver. You shouldn't be sleeping – and it can see through sunglasses. If the camera detects your eyes closed for an extended period, or obscured by a newspaper, it will ask you to take back the wheel.
The traffic finally clears and it's safe for us to drive again at more than 60 km/h, so the car beeps a signal and flashes a notice on its driver's display screen, where the gauges are. Demiral takes the wheel and the movie turns off on the screen, although the soundtrack continues through the speakers and it all sounds quite exciting as the dinosaur stomps around. I don't need any extra excitement, though. Watching a driver not drive an expensive car through congested traffic for five minutes is excitement enough.
If Demiral hadn't noticed the Traffic Jam Pilot turn itself off, it would beep more loudly, give him a couple of squeezes with the seatbelt, and even jab the brakes to give him a jolt. If he'd actually gone into a coma or died, the car would come to a halt, phone for help and unlock the doors for emergency responders.
I know this, not because Demiral conveniently went into a coma, but because Audi let me drive the car beforehand on a closed course at an airfield. He set it up to mimic me passing out at the wheel and the car did everything to stop safely, including activate the hazard lights, while I did absolutely nothing. Nothing except breathe in deeply at the intelligence of it all. Holy cow.
On a scale of one to five, this is considered Level 3 autonomy, and the Audi is the first production car to make it this far. Level 1 has only features such as regular cruise control and needs hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Level 2 doesn't need hands on the wheel, but it does need eyes on the road and would include lane-keeping assistance or self-parking. Level 3 needs neither hands nor eyes, but only under specific conditions.
What's next? Level 4 needs neither hands nor eyes in almost all driving, but you might have to step in to navigate through a flood or heavy snow. That's still a few years off, although most auto makers are confident the technology will be ready before 2025. Level 5 is completely self-driving, without even a steering wheel, so you can crawl into your car drunk without a licence and it will take you home legally. Or you can get a cab, but where's the challenge in that?
For Audi, the justification of Level 3 driving is that overall congestion will ease if the car does the thinking and not the driver: Vehicles will operate more logically and precisely in traffic, with no lapse of reaction time or skipping between lanes. The entire interaction will be smoother and simpler.
It was certainly smooth and simple for us in the Dusseldorf traffic and we got to watch a movie about a dinosaur instead of being dinosaurs. Works for me.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.