Self-driving cars are not a thing of the future – the technology is already working today, and we’ve sampled what it’s like to ‘drive’ an autonomous car. This is Audi’s A7 Sportback piloted driving concept, a fully functioning test mule that’s currently running on the German autobahn. And in as little as two years, the brand believes this tech will be ready to hit the market.
Behind the wheel, we pull out on to the autobahn and sit in the inside lane for 20 seconds while the A7 finds its bearings and asks if we want to activate autopilot. Press both buttons on the steering wheel and the tech takes over, accelerating, braking and making lane changes for us.
At first it’s an odd sensation, but very quickly it becomes surprisingly natural. With a new line of luxury Audis coming soon (see right), this exciting technology is not far away.
Audi says self-driving cars will bring four main benefits: improving safety, freeing up drivers’ time, increasing efficiency and reducing congestion. The project’s leader, Dr Arne Bartels, explains the three phases on the path to fully autonomous driving: “The first is improving driver assistance systems – the next is piloted driving on the motorway, like here, and the third includes urban and country roads.” Bartels says that motorways were chosen to test this second-level technology because “they are easiest to work with. Well defined lane markings and no pedestrians or traffic lights make it a safer environment to develop the system”.
Yet as with any cutting-edge technology, there will be plenty of hurdles before self-driving cars go on sale. The hardware is here, but infrastructure and legislation need to catch up. So although Audi believes its piloted tech will be ready in around two years, don’t expect to see it in dealers until at least 2020. For fully robotic cars in town, it’ll be closer to 2030. The main reason is safety. “Humans are the big question mark in the development,” adds Bartels.
The A7 logs the last 30 seconds of data from all of its sensors using a clever box of tricks called zFAS. At the moment, a vast array of computers fills the A7’s boot, but the hardware has already been condensed down to no bigger than a notebook. Like an aircraft’s black box, this will paint a picture in the event of a crash and, crucially, show who was responsible – car or driver.
With lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning and self parking all currently available, the concept only uses three extra parts compared to a top-spec A7. This means that it shouldn’t hike the price of a car by too much in the future.
Find out more about driverless car tech and when you’ll be able to buy a self-driving car here…