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The Audi A8, seen at the Audi Summit in Barcelona on July 11, 2017, will be the first publicly available Level 3 autonomous car in the world.

Albert Gea/Reuters

You're in the driver's seat of your new self-driving car, watching something on the car's dashboard screen, maybe Christine, the movie where the car has a mind of its own and kills everyone. Your Audi starts beeping; the traffic jam on Highway 401 is letting up, so you turn off the movie and start driving. Movies are so unrealistic.

Or you're heading to the cottage in your self-driving car, deep in conversation with your passenger. Your hands are gesturing wildly. Northbound Highway 400 is crawling and rain is pounding the windshield. There's honking up ahead; you can't see much out the window; your car starts sounding alarm bells. You have 10 seconds to take back control and avoid a three-car collision directly ahead. You can't.

Such scenarios are no longer fiction. This level of self-driving technology is real, and available in Audi's new A8. It will be the first publicly available Level 3 autonomous car in the world, and, arguably the first real autonomous car available to the public. Except it's illegal.

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Regulating the unknown

With technology moving faster than governments can regulate it, there's a danger the autonomous vehicle could turn into another Airbnb or Uber. In each case, the government has been forced to rein them in, putting regulations in place to protect consumers and the public interest after these technologies were widely adopted. With cars, lives are on the line; the stakes are higher.

In Canada, the technology behind Level 3 autonomous vehicles is legal, but using it on public roads is not. The law states the driver is responsible for control of the vehicle. There's no provision for giving responsibility over to the vehicle itself.

"This is the reason why we need changes in road traffic laws, because currently the driver is responsible, fully responsible for any action," said Martin Siemann, a lawyer with Audi's corporate legal service in Germany.

When and in which jurisdictions the A8's Level 3 system will be enabled depends on the legal situation, he said.

The German government passed a law this year that would allow the use of Level 3 cars, but it's unclear what effect it will have. It's an unusual piece of legislation, because such regulations would generally be made first by the European Union and then adopted by member countries. This is happening the other way around. It could be a case of Germany, under pressure from its own auto-industry, prodding the EU to act.

A quagmire

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In Canada, jurisdiction over the regulation of autonomous vehicles is messy. Several groups at various levels of government are all working on AV policies. The federal and provincial ministries of transportation are looking into the issue separately, but are sharing findings with each other through the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, which liaises with its U.S. counterpart.

The Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications has a "study on the regulatory and technical issues related to the deployment of connected and automated vehicles." It has heard from dozens of stakeholders, including Toyota, General Motors, Ford, the Canadian Automobile Association and the RCMP. "The federal government is ensuring that all new vehicles put on the road comply with safety standards, environmental standards and what have you. But the provinces are largely responsible for the use of that vehicle on the road, so this is where it becomes a bit of a jurisdictional quagmire," said David Adams, president of Global Automakers of Canada (GAC), a lobby group representing the interests of auto makers to all levels of government.

The meetings between the GAC and the government have been, "educational and exploratory at this time," he said over the phone. They've not dealt directly with legalizing Level 3 autonomous vehicles like the new Audi A8.

Of course, Canada may just end up copying American regulations.

"With respect to regulatory evolution in Canada," Adams said, "it's tended to be that way, that whatever the U.S. does – because it's a much larger jurisdiction and vehicles are largely the same in both markets – we have tended to follow."

Safety concerns

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Nobody knows how safe a Level 3 autonomous car will or will not be.

Every car currently on the road, from Tesla and Mercedes and others, are at best Level 2. They'll assist you in driving, but won't drive for you. Level 3 cars, such as the new Audi, will drive for you in situations in which the car deems itself capable of doing so, with the caveat that you must be able to take over on short notice.

Bosch, a key supplier to major original equipment manufacturers, recently demonstrated its own stand-alone Level 3 self-driving system, technology that could fit into new vehicles from any auto maker willing to buy it. In the A8, if the car decides it's safe to use the Level 3 system, called AI Traffic Jam Pilot, the cockpit will light up green, and the driver can push the "Audi AI" button to relinquish control.

Some companies, including Ford and Volvo, have said Level 3 is too dangerous. They're skipping to Level 4, in which cars must be able to negotiate any emergency situation, pulling the car safely off the road even if the driver is unconscious. Ford discovered the danger was boredom. Its engineers kept falling asleep behind the wheel while trying to monitor an autonomous car, according to Bloomberg. Google's self-driving cars have no steering wheel or pedals, and are meant to be fully-autonomous from the start.

"We have concerns about a system that would allow drivers to disengage from the driving task if the system isn't able to completely and safely resolve any situation, up to and including reaching its limits," said David Zuby, chief research officer for the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, speaking to Consumer Reports about the A8.

The hand off

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Some of the big questions about Level 3 vehicles revolve around the "hand off" – the moment that responsibility for control of a vehicle switches from car to driver, or vice versa. How much warning will drivers have to regain control? Will it be clear to the driver who is responsible, when? At what point during the hand off does the driver become responsible? The answers will determine who is ultimately culpable in the event of a crash.

"It's really not easy to answer this question in a general way," said Siemann when asked about these scenarios. The new German law, he said, "regulates very clearly that if the car is prompting, you need to take over and you should take over immediately."

Under such a law, it's difficult to see Audi ever being held responsible for a crash once a hand-off request has been initiated.

"In the end, the courts will decide," Siemann said. "If our [hand-off] request is too short, there might be the possibility that the courts will say, 'Okay, there's a kind of design defect.'"

Audi promises the A8 will give drivers at least 10 seconds to take back control. "We've done customer studies on that and 10 seconds is enough," said Mirko Reuter, head of automated driving functions for the A8.

In the event of a crash, depending on the jurisdiction, a black box inside the car will record camera data, when a hand off was initiated, and when the driver took control. That data, Reuter said, would belong to the owner of the car, not Audi.

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The A8 may be the first, but it surely won't be the last Level 3 vehicle to hit the market. The world's not quite ready and the technology remains unproven. We've driven off the edge of the map.

With its updated self-driving systems, the new Mercedes E Class coupe can change lanes all on its own. The presence of such semi-autonomous systems in new models is growing as the technology evolves.
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