I’ve just had one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in a car. I’m sitting in the ultra-comfortable passenger seat of Audi’s all-new flagship A8 as we try to make our way along one of Düsseldorf’s many congested road arteries.
It’s Friday afternoon, and everyone’s trying to make an early getaway from work and get out of the city, which means we’re now in a stop-start hell of a traffic jam.
It’s something we’ve all experienced at some point, groaning in frustration as brake lights flash up in unison in front of us, forcing us to come to a halt, before we start gently moving on again.
Nothing too out of the ordinary then – but it’s when I glance over at the Audi engineer chauffeuring me back to the airport that things take turn for the bizarre.
With his hands off the steering wheel, feet purposefully positioned away from the pedals and eyes fixed on one of the A8’s large 10.1-inch screens broadcasting a German version of The Chase, we’re happily moving along in the outside lane, stopping and starting in time with the surrounding traffic.
That’s because the new 2018 A8 comes equipped with technology which Audi calls Traffic Jam Pilot, and, following a change in German road traffic laws, it’s perfectly legal too.
Our Audi engineer, Simon Ulbrich, was so proud of the system that once the traffic began to clear he asked if we wanted to find another jam.
And proud he should be – it’s an incredibly clever piece of tech, and the world’s first system that enables SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) level 3 conditional automation.
This means the A8 can take over the task of driving in a traffic jam or slow-moving highway traffic (provided there’s a physical barrier separating the opposing carriageways) at speeds up to 37.3mph (60km/h), handling accelerating, steering and braking in its lane. It can even cope with the inevitable dummkopft cutting in in front of you.
Traffic Jam Pilot is triggered by the driver hitting the AI button in the center console; the A8 will notify them if conditions are safe for the system to take control, and once it’s done so the driver can take their hands off the steering wheel and feet off the pedals.
You can watch TV, read a book, send emails… the only thing you can’t do is fall asleep; you must remain alert and capable of taking over the driving if the system prompts you to do so.
And don’t think you can snatch a crafty 40 winks either – there’s an onboard camera that constantly assesses the position and movement of the driver’s head and eyes, and should the eyes remain closed for an extended period the system will give a visual and audio prompt to the driver to resume control.
You’ll also be prompted to take control once the speed exceeds 37.3mph or the traffic begins to clear – ignore the prompt and the A8 will come to a stop in the lane you’re in with the hazard lights switched on.
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The tech behind it
In order to be able to safely take control of the car, Traffic Jam Pilot needs to constantly analyze the environment surrounding it, and to that end it features a host of sensors that are tucked away out of sight.
There are 12 ultrasonic sensors, four 360-degree cameras, one front camera on the top edge of the windscreen, four mid-range radar sensors on the corners of the car, and a long-range radar sensor and a laser scanner on the front.
The data from these is fed into a central driver assistance controller (known as a zFAS for short), which continuously monitors these signals to create an image of the car’s surroundings.
The A8 is so advanced that road traffic laws are having to catch up with the car, and Audi has had its work cut out convincing regulators and lawmakers that the system is safe.
While Germany has amended its laws to allow SAE level 3 conditional driving, and it’s permitted in some US states, many countries, including the UK, don’t allow the tech to be used on their roads yet. However, Audi is confident that other countries will follow suit in the coming months.
In the meantime Audi will only roll out Traffic Jam Pilot in markets where its use is permitted, although it does hope to offer the system worldwide by 2019.
Why, you might be thinking, should you care if you’re not in the market for a top-of-the-range saloon? Well, as we’ve seen with previous generations of the A8, it’s a model that allows Audi to show off its latest tech, and that tech will in time filter down to more affordable models.
So, a few years from now, while we still might not be able to do anything about traffic jams, at least we might not have to endure them in quite the same way.