Audi unveils state of the art A8, claims first LiDAR Level 3 vehicle

Audi has unveiled its new A8 luxury sedan, claiming to be the first automaker to ship a production car with SAE Level 3 self-driving capabilities – thanks to LiDAR. From 2018, Audi plans to launch self-driving systems for parking, traffic jams, and parking garage navigation as core features of its new premium vehicles, as the race for self-driving cars heats up.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines its levels of automation as follows: Level 0 is ‘No Automation’; Level 1 is ‘Driver Assistance’, such as cruise control, where the car is controlling either speed or steering; Level 2 is ‘Partial Automation,’ includes systems that control both speed and steering, but on the basis that the human driver will be able to immediately intervene; Level 3 is ‘Conditional Automation,’ where the automated driving system handles all aspects of the driving task, but where a human can “respond appropriately” to a request to intervene.

The 2019 A8 claims to support Level 3, but future vehicles will go a few steps further. Level 4 covers ‘High Automation,’ where the machine can drive without that “appropriate” response, meaning that a machine won’t be asking the driver to intervene if it sees something up ahead that it is unsure about, and Level 5 achieves ‘Full Automation,’ where the system is operational full-time and doesn’t require the human driver.

So, the A8’s Level 3 capabilities should mean that drivers could browse their smartphones, watch TV, or engage in conversations with passengers, with the car operating safe in the knowledge that it can ping the driver to intervene – operating without constant supervision. Level 4 is the point where that driver can begin napping, and at Level 5, there doesn’t even need to be a human in the vehicle.

Tesla claims that its current Autopilot hardware is suitable for SAE Level 5 driving. Its Hardware 2 platform centers around an Nvidia Drive PX 2 after the demise of the deal with Mobileye and Tesla ditching the EyeQ3 platform. Hardware 2 has been supplied since October 2016, some three months after the end of the Mobileye deal – after heightened tensions in the wake of the infamous fatal crash.

Of course, Tesla isn’t enabling the Level 5 driving currently, as it would be in breach of driving regulations the world over. Tesla’s Autopilot feature currently offers Level 2 driving, and demands that the driver is still observing the road – ready to intervene when needed. It is close to Level 3, but demands a bit more attention of the driver than a Level 3 system would. Audi is really selling the vision of doing other activities while its system is active – while Tesla is not.

But while Audi will be manufacturing the A8, Tesla’s engineers will be busy tweaking the Autopilot software to upgrade its capabilities. On the sensing front, Tesla is notable for its aversion to LiDAR – a technology that most of the automakers are actively pursuing.

Alphabet’s Waymo is perhaps the most well-known LiDAR vendor, but it is in the midst of a pretty bitter lawsuit with Uber. Delphi and Mobileye have a self-driving development deal, and Apple has been spotted running Lexus SUVs with Velodyne LiDAR units mounted on top. Baidu has been pretty active with Nvidia and TomTom deals, Ford has invested $1bn into a company called Argo AI, and has invested in Velodyne, and Intel, Mobileye (bought by Intel for $15.3bn), and BMW have a partnership to deliver a Level 3 car in 2017 – with Level 5 due in 2021. As you can see, this market is a hot mess.

But now back to Audi. Based on diagrams provided by the launch, the A8 is only using LiDAR at the front of the car. A forward-facing camera is mounted at the top of the windscreen, with each wing-mirror and the front and rear bumper also containing cameras. Two ultrasonic sensors monitor the front and back of the car, but it looks like the only angle that doesn’t have at least two modes of machine-vision is the width of the doors – which are only covered by the wing-mirror cameras.

The new AI Traffic Jam Assist can be activated by the driver on roads that have a barrier between the two directions of traffic – mostly restricting this to freeway or motorway use. At speeds under 37mph, the system will automatically drive the car in the kinds of unpleasant driving conditions.

Once the car is up to that 37mph limit, it will use visual and audio alerts to prompt the driver to take control. There is a ten-second window here while the car waits for the driver to begin driving, but if the driver does not take over, the A8 will come to a stop with its hazard lights on. The next step is an automated call to Audi’s Online Roadside Assistance system, which will contact the car to investigate what the problem is. We guarantee that someone will fall asleep using this system.

For slower speed maneuvers, the parking functions can be activated from the Audi smartphone application, and don’t actually require a driver in the car. The user needs to hold their finger on a button in that app, to let the car know that it is safe to continue parking, where releasing the button would intervene.

Notably, Audi says that there is no shared responsibility when the car is driving itself. Speaking to CNET, two Audi executives confirmed that Audi would assume full legal culpability when the A8 is driving itself – a similar declaration to one Volvo has made.

The A8 is noticeably longer than its predecessor, with Audi saying that this has been done to create a larger and more luxurious interior – something that is important for drivers with more time on their hands. The long-wheelbase variant includes foot massager for the rear-right passenger – the other occupants will have to make-do with only seat massagers.

Voice control is a key feature of the new UI, for controlling features in the car, but Audi notes that navigation information might be delivered via LTE, and not stored on board – with support for traffic sign recognition and hazard information, crowd-sourced from the Audi fleet.