Shock! Your next car could drive itself

Picture this: you're driving to work and traffic is the usual peak hour crawl.

So, you engage autopilot and turn your attention to other matters, like making calls, answering emails, organising your day. The car not only advances and stops with the traffic, it also steers itself, making turns at intersections, delivering you to your office.

You get out, grab your briefcase and, via a smartphone app, tell the car to park itself. The car disappears around the corner into the parking garage, heads up to the appropriate level, locates an empty slot and parks itself.

After work, you walk out the front door and, again via the smartphone, tell the car to return. A minute later your car arrives, and opens the door, ready for you to begin the journey home.

This fictional scenario could be reality in the next two years, Audi development boss Dr Wolfgang Durheimer told Wheels at the Geneva show. It is practically production-ready, he said.

"Piloted Drive and valet park is now. Technically we know how to do it, and we have the technology and the systems under control. It could be in production from 2015 on. To hand over to the car in stop-and-go traffic… we are there. We know how to do it."

When asked what car it could appear on first, Dr Durheimer had no hesitation in naming Audi's luxury flagship, the A8 sedan. He said real-world testing of Piloted Drive is already happening in America.

"In Nevada we have the legal approval from the state that we can do test drives on the road without any interruption."

Dr Durheimer says early versions of Piloted Drive will be far from the much-publicised scenario of reading the newspaper in the back seat while the car chauffeurs you to work.

He says it will more closely mirror autopilot on a plane.

"Piloted Drive is a very good name for this. An aeroplane pilot is always alert. He doesn't sleep. He is watching the controls, he is looking outside the windows. He is ready to take over as soon as the system says he needs to.

"[So] you cannot sit in the back seat. And as soon as you disappear from the driver's position we will stop the car, activate the emergency brake, the hazards will start to blink and the car will pull aside and not drive anymore."

He says the system initially will not operate at higher freeway speeds.

"No, not for our autonomous drive by 2015. I'm talking about traffic jams and boring traffic situations that waste time and are easy to control."

But it will come, eventually.

"Of course there will be a challenge between carmakers who can do the highest speed fully autonomous. But I wouldn't compete in this race. I much rather prefer to race at Le Mans. But it's human that people try out these situations.

"I think the sanctioning body, the governments will not allow autonomous driving above a certain speed. I think the traffic jam situation and the stop and go situation in the morning will be our limits, at least in the near future."

As for when this system could come to Australia, Dr Durheimer is circumspect. "It's all a matter of regulatory environments."

As for the valet parking scenario, "in this specific case it's necessary that the garage has the infrastructure to support it," says Dr Durheimer. Which won't happen until there are enough autopilot cars to warrant it.

Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.

Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!