Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few years, you’re aware that autonomous cars are now a thing. The technology is still in relative infancy, but most of the major OEMs, Tier 1 automotive suppliers, and many of the big tech companies—not to mention plenty of startups—have been telling us that we should expect self-driving vehicles to show up (in some geofenced areas) within the next five years. But as often happens, getting the technology in place is only one part of the puzzle. Society has to be ready for it, too. In the case of autonomous cars, both the general public and regulators are going to need to know the cars are safe. And that was the precise reason that Audi brought Jack to Washington DC earlier this month.
Jack has been doing some stellar work for Audi, but he’s not an employee; he’s an AI-controlled car. He was in town to show off his abilities to law makers in Congress, but during his time there, Ars also got to experience his skills.
Jack is one of several autonomous Audi research vehicles—there’s also Robby and Bobby—that uses the A7 as a starting point. Passing it in the street, the only giveaway that this isn’t a regular A7 are the red and gray graphics that wrap around the handsome sportback body. This is somewhat unusual. Most autonomous research vehicles—including the ones we’ve ridden in from Delphi and Nvidia—have been festooned with roof-mounted sensors. But under the skin, Jack is packing plenty of tech.
Forward-facing lidar scanners replace the front fog lamps (which have now been integrated into the main headlights). Radar sensors lurk behind the front fenders. And the car’s existing ultrasonic and optical sensors—used for things like adaptive cruise control and parking assists—are also used to provide Jack’s situational awareness. In the trunk, much of the luggage space is taken up by Jack’s brain and all the data recording equipment that Audi uses to monitor his systems. (In production vehicles with skills similar to Jack, all of that will be replaced by a tiny—by comparison—zFAS controller.)
From inside the car, there are a few signs that Jack is no ordinary Audi. Behind the front passenger seat, there’s an LCD monitor and keyboard for the engineer who always rides along. Other changes are remarkably well-integrated into the car. A small display has been integrated into the central air vent on the dashboard. A pair of buttons—to engage self-driving—have been added to the lower spokes of the steering wheel. Where you would normally expect to find a little cubby and 12V port ahead of the gear shifter, there’s a row of toggle switches. And integrated into the dash just below the windshield is an LED strip used to clearly signal to the driver what mode the car is in.
Now, Jack is not fully autonomous—which is known in the industry as SAE level 4 or level 5. Instead, he can drive himself on divided freeways, a skill he demonstrated on a route from Capitol Hill to Arlington and back (Audi describes Jack as a “high level 3” car). On DC’s tourist-packed streets, Jack was driven by Kaushik Raghu, the project’s principal engineer. When Raghu merged onto I-395, that little display between the air vents displayed a countdown to indicate autonomous driving could begin shortly. And as we crossed the border into Virginia, Jack signaled his ability to take control on the LCD’s main instrument display. (As an aside, I was very impressed with how well those messages were integrated into the vehicle—this was no hacked-together test bed, but a polished technology demonstrator.)
Raghu pressed the appropriate buttons on the steering wheel and Jack took over the driving, communicating to us in the car via that LED strip underneath the windshield. Cruising along I-395 was utterly unremarkable—save for the fact that Raghu was in the driver’s seat but not actually driving. Jack kept perfect position within his lane, and he even changed lanes at times. As we neared the end of the route and prepared to leave the highway, Jack began to tell us it was time for Raghu to take over control. Audio alerts and a change in the LED color to red, as well as an indicated countdown on the center display kept Raghu aware of the situation and ready to take over. (Had he done nothing, the car would have driven itself to the hard shoulder and slowed to a stop with the hazard lights on.)
Some of those features will be coming to Audi’s road cars in the near future. The 2018 A8—an all new model—will include a Traffic Jam Pilot feature, which moves the game on from the traffic jam assists we’ve used in recent Audis and Volvos. At speeds under 37mph on divided freeways, a suitably equipped A8 will be able to handle all the stop and go itself.