Jun 6, 2017 - Technology

How self-driving is really starting


When Audi starts selling a pioneering self-driving car later this year, drivers will be able to watch the news on a built-in screen, send emails, and otherwise take their eyes safely off traffic-jammed freeways. What they won't do: drive in the city, or watch the car automatically veer around slower drivers.

We keep hearing that major carmakers and Silicon Valley are on the verge of selling fully autonomous cars. They aren't, as I saw yesterday on a test-drive of the Audi technology: Audi says it's setting the commercialization pace, but that full autonomy is years away from being safe enough for the market.

It's still cool: As Audi engineer Kaushik Raghu told me, being stuck in grinding freeway traffic, day after day, month after month, is one of the most soul-killing experiences for a lot of people. Those will be precious minutes saved from such teeth gnashing.

The massive push to self-driving is attracting much attention: It's roiling both the tech and carmaking worlds. On one hand, some industry experts say self-driving technology will produce a $7 trillion-a-year industry. But they also say some 7 million American jobs are at risk if commercial trucks and taxis become self-driving. The same will happen to jobs around the world.

But, unlike the drumbeat of assertions from Silicon Valley, Wall Street and analysts, the rollout will take a decade and probably longer.

  • Raghu told me that, as far as he knows, Audi will be first to commercialize "Level 3" self-driving technology. This is the middle point in the industry's five-level scale of autonomy, with Level 5 -- which currently does not exist -- being entirely hands-off, with no human intervention and probably even no steering wheel.
  • In a refreshingly modest account of the self-driving space, Raghu said that only in four or five years, the Audi A8 -- the first model from the carmaker that will feature Level 3 autonomy -- will change lanes by itself on the freeway. For now, the technology will be called "Traffic Jam Pilot." When the cars can operate in cities, the tech will be called "Urban pilot."

These cars will not be cheap. With an $82,500 baseline pricetag, the current A8 Audi is the automaker's highest-end car. And the company has not said how much it will cost outfitted with Traffic Jam Pilot, which will contain up to 20 expensive self-driving sensors.

A key takeaway: The Audi was a window into how carmakers are tackling the problem of safety -- they are borrowing from the aviation industry by building in redundant safety systems. The car in which I was driven contained three overlapping sensing systems -- Lidar, which is laser-driven 3D technology; radar; and a camera. Raghu said that the car only reacts when all three systems agree on what is being "seen."

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