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Despite Tesla's setbacks, Audi is racing fast toward self-driving cars

WASHINGTON, D.C. — I'm sitting in the passenger seat of a modified Audi A7 going about 50 mph on a Washington freeway when the driver — an Audi engineer — takes his hands off the wheel. A strip of sky-blue LEDs just beneath the windshield lights up, the dashboard behind the steering wheel indicates the car is in "piloted" mode, and the steering wheel recedes slightly.

Now, and for the next five minutes or so, the car's doing the driving.

As we pass an interchange, a sedan and an SUV move to merge into our lane. The Audi, nicknamed "Jack," slows down on its own, giving the other cars enough room to merge safely. All the while the Audi engineer, Kaushik, doesn't lift a finger — or a toe for that matter — to touch the wheel or the pedals.

A few minutes of automated cruising later, and our freeway exit is getting close. A warning chime begins to ring and a voice advises the driver to take over steering. Those calming blue LEDs are now blinking red. The car's still doing the driving, but clearly it wants a human to take control. Kaushik still doesn't touch the wheel — that's because he's going out of his way to show how hard the car's automation system will work to get the attention of the driver.

Racing toward driverless

This is Audi's vision of the future of automated driving, and it's not too far away. The Volkswagen-owned brand plans to sell a version of this technology as soon as 2018. That system, destined to be an option in an upcoming Audi A8, is intended for stop-and-go freeway traffic jams — arguably the most frustrating part of the commuting experience — but it'll only work at speeds less than 35 mph.

In Audi's case, the car has many different pairs of eyes, so the driver's can potentially wander.

The system I experienced takes the automation up a notch: Not only will it be able to take the wheel on jammed-up freeways, but clear ones as well, and at up to 70 mph. That system, which Audi expects to have in production cars by 2021, can drive the car up to the posted speed limit on freeways for extended periods — speeding up, slowing down and even automatically changing lanes as needed.

That may sound similar to other systems out there, notably Tesla's Autopilot, but Audi's autonomous tech is demonstrably more capable. Feature-wise, the two systems are very similar (though Tesla's needs the driver to indicate a lane change), but there are some very notable technical differences: Audi's Jack uses more sensor systems, including radar below the headlights, a camera mounted behind the rear-view mirror, and LIDAR (light detection and ranging), which is a sophisticated laser-based radar that helps a self-driving car "see" what's in front of it, and is notably absent on Autopilot. Jack has ultrasonic sensors as well.

That all adds up to a big chunk of redundancy — a critical part of Audi's approach. If some of the sensors fail to see an obstacle, there are several others that probably will. With Tesla Autopilot, the driver is essentially the backup system; they must pay attention and step in should the situation require it. In Audi's case, the car has many different pairs of eyes, so the driver's can potentially wander.

That underscores biggest difference between the two systems, which is one of experience, even philosophy. When the automated system is active and the car is doing the driving,

Audi fully expects the person in the driver's seat to disengage — at least somewhat — from the driving experience. While other systems (like Autopilot) tell the driver they need to keep their hands on the wheel, Audi's actively discourages it: If you grab the wheel, the system turns off.

© 2014-2023 by Smart Group LLC.

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