Look, no hands! On the autobahn in Audi’s driverless car

Giving up the controls was as breathtakingly simple as touching two turquoise coloured buttons below the steering wheel with both thumbs. A melodious bell chimed, a line of LEDs stretching across the dashboard switched from red to yellow to aqua blue, and the steering wheel withdrew slowly and serenely from my sweaty grasp.

But any nervousness I felt stemmed far more from being required to steer a multimillion-euro research vehicle the few kilometres from German car manufacturer Audi’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, on to the autobahn, than the fact that “Jack” had now taken over the driving.

I had signed a liability waiver before embarking on the road test, which required me to accept the risks of a piloted journey on the autobahn, including possible injury or death. But once Jack was calling the shots, it took remarkably little time to get used to the idea. The car shifted to the exact centre of the lane, and continued throughout the 20-minute journey to drive smoothly and keep a safe distance from the other vehicles. The first time the steering wheel moved to the left to pass a slower car felt a little unreal, but knowing I could at any time take hold of the wheel or press the brake pedal to regain control was sufficiently reassuring. The manoeuvres were so smoothly carried out it felt like the car was participating in a courtly dance with the others on the road.

A brief glimpse of Jack’s “brains” before setting off revealed several PCs, controlling everything from steering and braking controls, path planning, acceleration and the operation of its three cameras, six lasers and numerous light detection units affixed to the car, filling the boot.

With a senior engineer in the back seat, and a “safety co-driver” beside me who was virtually silent throughout, but who would have lunged across and taken over had anything gone drastically wrong, there was little inclination to do anything other than sit back and enjoy the ride. It even had the potential to become a little boring, though it was a novelty to be able to take in the lush green of Bavaria’s Altmühl valley nature reserve that surrounded us, and to scribble in a notebook while we drove and chatted.

Gone too was the angst which comes with taking to an autobahn with no speed limit in a vehicle with anything less than 200hp and as someone possessing no 3D depth perception. I’ve felt regularly traumatised by Mercedes and BMWs coming out of nowhere while I overtook a lorry, continuing to aggressively tailgate my car until I moved out the way.

“Such behaviour will become a thing of the past, because in a driverless car everyone will go at a similar speed,” Klaus Verweyen, the engineer, assured me as we cruised along at 130kph (80mph). For some this signals a certain mundanity. For others it’s a welcome assurance that roads will become safer.

Jack’s makers say 130 kph is the optimal speed for driverless cars because it would be fast enough to maintain an efficient flow of traffic while also allowing adequate time for humans to react should they have to take back the controls.

“A lot of the aggression that drivers feel stems from the frustration of getting stuck in traffic, of the monotony, which is what Jack is trying to eliminate by giving you the chance to use your time more usefully than staring at the road ahead,” Verweyen said. The equalising quality of piloted driving, he added, should make not only road rage a thing of the past, but also what Germans refer to as ego drivers – those who see powerful cars as an extension of their personalities.

Kate Connolly and Audi’s piloted car. Photograph: Audi

The Audi engineers, who are working closely with a team of psychologists and lawyers, talk of Jack as an evolving machine, built on the experience of power steering, cruise control, anti-lock brakes and other assistance we’re already used to. And while the automobile industry media talk of the cut-throat race between car manufacturers in Germany, the US and Asia, to come up with the first marketable fully autonomous cars, the engineers in Ingolstadt prefer to talk about a healthy competitive spirit that is helping to spur developments. “Everyone’s concentrating on different aspects of this,” said Alexander Freier, my co-driver. “We’re very proud of our laser sensors, which others are now copying.”

With safety considered the top priority, Jack has been programmed – over tens of thousands of kilometres so far – to deal with any number of scenarios, from deer running on to the road to potholes, lorries losing their loads, smog and heat hazes. Swarm intelligence – the sharing of data between the cars on the road – will enable them to become ever smarter and safer, according to Jack’s creators. The more cars there are with pilot mode, the smarter they will become. Some 93% of car accidents are caused by human error. Jack’s creators are convinced that self-driving cars, by excluding the human from much of the driving, can only enhance road safety.

So I had to expect that its laser sensors were aware of the BMW driver who relinquished control of his vehicle to whip out his mobile phone and film Jack as we passed by. One woman appeared to squeal in delight, responding to the “piloted driving” logo emblazoned on the side of the car, as we overtook her in the central lane. People hadn’t gawped at my driving so much since May 2003 when the sight of a woman behind the wheel of a land cruiser on the male-dominated roads of southern Iraq prompted much finger-pointing and even laughter.

But however much I was encouraged to do so, it was hard to ever really take my eyes off the road for long beyond taking some hurried notes or to do a “look, ma, no hands” pose, for the photographer hanging precariously out of the car ahead.

As Jack evolves, the idea is that the small screen to the right of the steering wheel will become a touch-pad for emails, texts and watching films, but crucially via that same screen the car will always be able to communicate with you, via audio and visual alerts. “We wouldn’t encourage people to put on make-up or other complicated things that might make it difficult for the car to communicate with them,” insisted Verweyen.

Two kilometres before the autobahn drive was due to end and 15 seconds before the transfer back to manual driving, a deep American female voice informed me the pilot was turning off. The LEDs turned red again, the wheel reached out to me.

What would happen if someone had a heart attack at that moment or went into labour and was incapable of taking over the controls of the car? “If the driver doesn’t respond, the car is programmed to turn on the hazard lights and manoeuvre itself onto the hard shoulder,” Verweyen insisted.

A Jack repackaged for mass consumption (with a smaller computer so there’s room in the boot for luggage) won’t be available for another decade, he said. In the meantime, its creators will have to work on their biggest obstacle – social acceptance. Surveys show that consumers are far too nervous about the idea of taking their eyes off the road. The trust is not yet there. Others hate the idea of losing control by not being able to drive.

Volker Hartmann, Audi’s in-house counsel on matters relating to autonomous cars, admitted there’s still a lot of work to do to win people round, as well as many legal matters still to be ironed out.

“But there were similar discussions when the first automobiles were on the roads,” he said. “And when lifts came in, they were only allowed to be operated by a liftboy. When the first electric traffic lights were introduced in Germany in the 1950s, people sued the authorities in the constitutional court for infringing human dignity by forcing them to obey a machine.

“The basic architecture of the discussion whenever you introduce new technology is similar.”

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