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Highly automated driving: Can Audi take it to the next level?

Audi's new A8 will be capable of level 3 automated driving. (Photo: Audi)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Hello, automated driving community! Audi dares to level up, the railway hits German roads and Renault has solved a problem no one knew existed – we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

We all know it from gaming. Whether it was Super Mario Bros or Pacman – the challenges grew more difficult with every level. With automated driving it’s the same – but different. While the challenges do increase with every level of automation, in some ways, level 3 is more complex than level 5. And this is why Audi’s new A8 could have a game-changing impact on autonomous driving – for better or worse.

There are already some series vehicles with level 2 on our roads today: Tesla’s Model S and the Mercedes E-Class, for instance. They can automatically accelerate, brake and steer the vehicle. Yet, the driver needs to monitor the road at all times and be ready to resume control. The Tesla Autopilot accident proves that distraction can lead to fatal consequences. Audi has now announced that the new A8, which goes on sale in Europe this fall, will be the world’s first production car capable of Level 3 automation. This means, on highways and at speeds up to 37.3 mph (60kmh), the driver can read a book, text his friend or watch a movie. He doesn’t need to watch the road. A series of audio and visual alerts will tell the driver in advance when to retake control. If the driver doesn't respond to the alerts the vehicle "will become increasingly annoying," Mirko Reuter, Audi’s head of automated driving said according to Automotive News Europe.

Level 3, by the way, is not allowed on German roads yet but Audi expects the laws to change in 2018. Now while this may sound like an improvement in theory, experts doubt that level 3 automation will ever be practical. They fear mode confusion: that the driver does not know who is in charge of driving. Studies have also shown that it took drivers in transfer conditions up to 16 seconds to anticipate a latent hazard. So will level 3 increase safety? Many carmakers are not convinced. Volvo, Ford and others have already announced that they will skip level 3 entirely. So the industry will surely be watching Audi’s actions closely.

“We are in uncharted territory here,” Peter Mertens, Audi’s head of R&D said. Like in a good game, this increases suspense. But it also increases the risk of failure.

Platooning: Who’s in the driver’s seat?

Talking about uncharted territory: how about trucks forming a driverless convoy on highways? Although you could argue that automated trucks are already conquering them. Platoons have successfully traveled across Europe and Uber made headlines with a driverless truck beer delivery. And now another big player is claiming territory: DB Schenker. The German logistics giant is Europe’s leading overland freight transporter. Starting 2018, Schenker will team up with truck maker MAN and use truck platoons for its day-to-day operations in the South of Germany. The automated trucks will be deployed on highway A9 – Germany’s “digital motorway test bed”.

Automated trucks could very well be the first driverless vehicles that prevail on our roads. The reason is simple: for fleet owners, they promise a lot of cost reductions by lowering fuel consumption. And of course, elephant in the room, by making a lot of jobs obsolete. The downside of truck automation is that many truck drivers could lose their job. Experts are heatedly debating whether driverless trucks hurt or rather benefit the job market. In that regard, it is interesting to know that DB Schenker is owned by Deutsche Bahn, the railway company owned by the German state. The German administration is also subsidizing Schenker’s project with two million Euros. A sensitive subsidy? At least, the project also aims to learn more about the impact platooning has on the trucking profession. And that’s really uncharted so far.

Ka-ching! How autonomous cars will handle toll booths

With technology rapidly changing, it is comforting to know that some things will stay the same. For instance, we will still have to pay quite a few bucks each time we pass a toll station. But how will driverless cars pass toll booths? If you’ve never thought about this question before, well, that makes two of us. Luckily, Renault has. The carmaker recently partnered with French road toll operator Sanef, responsible for over 1,000 miles of French roads. Together, they have developed equipment which will allow toll road infrastructure to communicate with cars using short-range WiFi one kilometer before arriving at the toll station. The car is then able to reduce speed and find the lane that is compatible with driverless cars – as demonstrated in the following video.

An interesting question that arises from this project, considering there are many different toll operators in Europe: How can common standards be assured – so every autonomous vehicle is compatible with every toll booth location? We don’t know yet, but I guess where there is money to be collected, there is a way.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

Angelo Rychel

Editor, 2025AD

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Angelo Rychel
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