What it’s like riding in an Audi that drives itself (at least on the highway)

Posted March 2nd, 2017

There’s something about that moment when a driver takes their hands off a car’s steering wheel that sets off the “DANGER!” signal in the brain of a passenger.

It’s not dissimilar to hearing the word “shark” near a beach or being told “Let me show you pictures of my ex!” on a first date. Red flag! Warning! Fight or flight!

I’ve been reassured that there’s nothing to worry about, though, as Audi self-driving engineer Kaushik Raghu takes his hands off the steering wheel of the modified Audi A7 vehicle dubbed “Jack” that’s sailing down U.S. 71 toward Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

This is a self-driving car... sort of.

It can’t do highway exits or shuttle you around downtown Austin, but it can take over driving on the highway in certain conditions.

It can change lanes, avoid a driver cutting you off and pass cars. It’s Audi’s work-in-progress concept “Piloted Driving” and “Highway Pilot” that will reach cars for sale over the next few years. By next year, there should be an Audi model available that can take over the wheel in traffic up to 35 mph. By 2020-2021, Audi plans to sell something closer to the “Jack” prototype we’re trying out, that will take full control of the car at highway speeds.

Omar L. Gallaga/AMERICAN-STATESMANKaushik Raghu, an engineer on Audio's self-driving car project, demonstrates "Highway Pilot" technology, which allows a vehicle to take over driving at highway speeds under certain conditions. Not pictured: reporter reciting prayer to himself. 

Audi is in town this week, demonstrating Jack to members of the media as well as Texas legislators in an effort to make sure state laws will allow for this kind of tech to be legal in ways that states such as Florida have taken the lead on.

Kaushik says that Audio is working on completely self-driving cars, but also on upgraded features in its existing line of consumer cars that take concepts like “Lane assist” to the next level.

There are five levels of automated cars, he explains. Currently, we have cars on the road that are partially automated at, say, Level 1 or 2: cruise control and lane assistance fall into those categories.

The concept car Jack falls somewhere between Level 3 (Conditional Automation) and Level 4 (High Automation) but not quite full self-driving.

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Jack has 20 sensors in and around the car, an array that includes cameras and collision-detection sensors. The car has dashboard indicators that tell the driver when it’s safe to activate self-driving mode and gives about a 15-second warning when the driver needs to take over again. A line of blue lights indicates when the car is in self-driving mode.

Audi, of course, is in a race with many other tech and auto companies to bring fully autonomous cars to market. Tesla, Uber, Alphabet and many others are in varying stages of testing this technology. Tesla offers a feature called “Autopilot” that can take over some driving duties, while Alphabet’s Waymo and Uber are already testing fleets of cars on the road in some cities. But a big question has been how quickly some of the more advanced automation features will be available in cars we can actually buy and how reliable and safe that tech will be. It’ll be the subject of a large group of panels at South by Southwest this year.

Is riding in Jack while Jack drives itself scary? A little bit, depending on your level of trust in technology. As someone who has a long commute along Interstate 35 nearly every day, I’ve seen all kinds of terrible driver behavior, and I’m inclined to trust a tested, highly scrutinized computer system more than I would someone who, say, hasn’t taken a driving exam in 10 or 20 years. 

Our ride to and from the airport goes smoothly and safely with minimal lane changes or passing.

It’s not the future yet, but it feels like another small step toward that.