AUDI wants to sell you a car that you can drive while reading a book. Or while checking your emails. You can probably even have a nap.
And you could be able to buy it in less than 12 months’ time.
The German company has revealed that the new version of its Audi A8 flagship limousine (pictured), due for release in 2017, will be equipped with what Audi engineers call “Stage Three” autonomous systems, which will allow drivers to take their eyes, and hands, off the steering wheel for indefinite periods of time.
“Next year we will open the next chapter in the industry,” said Audi’s board member for sales and marketing, Dietmar Voggenreiter (pictured, above). “We will open the chapter of autonomous driving in a new way.
“It is the situation where the car takes over totally and you can take your hands off the wheel and drive along the highway while checking your emails, your apps or read a book.”
The new system will be a step beyond the autonomous technology currently offered by Tesla and Mercedes-Benz, which can already steer, brake and accelerate the car automatically. But Audi’s system will initially only work up to speeds of 65km/h. Expect that speed restriction to rise once the system is rolled out.
With Stage Three ready for production, Voggenreiter revealed Audi is already imaging an autonomous driving future where cars won’t have steering wheels or pedals.
“That is Stage Five autonomous driving,” he said. “We are working on this technology, but today it is not easy to predict if it is 2025, 2030 or 2040 when we will see this technology in the market.”
Voggenreiter also said that like Volvo, Audi will take legal responsibly if one of its cars crashes while its autonomous mode is engaged.
“If you take over the responsibility and let people take their eyes of then road, then you are responsible,” he said. “For sure if we allow you to read emails or whatever, then we are responsible.”
Voggenreiter said the degree of responsibility could differ from country to country, depending on legislation.
“One fact, what we have to clarify is the legal situation in some countries. For example, in the US we have clear legislation rules and a definition of who is responsible in each situation in which driving mode. So for America, this [Audi taking responsibility] is the right answer.”
Yet despite its willingness to accept the blame for crashes, Audi says its autonomous technology will make roads safer.
“The number of accidents will go down,” said Voggenreiter. “So insurance will be cheaper. If the car detects a situation, in a construction area for example, and says there is a risk, it will ask the driver to take over control once again. This will give you 10, or 15 or 20 seconds of time to regain control.”
The biggest question mark surrounding Audi’s autonomous rollout is how it will work in Australia. With the A8 due to be revealed internationally next year, it could arrive Down Under by late 2017. However 2018 is more realistic.
How Audi’s autonomous tech will conform to Australian legislation is yet to be decided.
“This is a question that’s really hard for me to give a clear answer,” said Voggenreiter. "In the US we see a clear trend, in China there are a lot of discussions. In Europe we are a bit more conservative, but it’s really hard to predict if the Australian government will be the fastest one after America.”
Audi Australia admits that working out the A8 system’s legalities will be a “challenging conversation to have”.
Audi has already trialed its autonomous driving in the real world. Its concept piloted car, an Audi A7 Sportback nicknamed "Jack", used its latest test to show how it could interact more naturally with its surrounds. This including things a real driver would do, such as leaving a larger lane gap to a truck while overtaking on the freeway.