Autonomous Audi A7
This is how it feels when the car drives alone
Crammed with cables, instruments and computers: On the road in the prototype of an autonomously driving A7 Sportback.
Passenger behind the wheel, a new feeling that engages brain and heart in equal measure. All around on the three-lane autobahn near Ingolstadt, all the others. Trucks in the right lane and always in the middle of the elephant race, vacationers on their way to the fall vacations, business people in a hurry with a heavy right foot. So there's a lot of traffic on the racetrack heading east. And we're at the center of it all, hands parked on thighs, a green light band at the bottom of the windshield signaling that this Audi can just do without the human factor.
Maybe "Jack" will, as the engineers almost affectionately refer to the white Audi A7 Sportback, which is somewhat disfigured with stickers. As the first car to drive fully automatically in public traffic on a German autobahn. It maintains lane and distance, it overtakes without instructions from the driver and also dutifully sets the turn signal. "Jack" can even be polite and allow another car to merge onto the highway, if the overtaking lane allows it. The metal Playstation car receives its commands from an electronic mastermind that evaluates the signals from all the sensors, classifies them and converts them into a maneuver that is just right for the task at hand. Laser scanners, cameras, ultrasound and, above all, radar eyes around the car see more than any human, always have a 360-degree panoramic view.
Three pedals, none needed
Engineer Miklos Kiss observes the work of his protégé from the back seat; his colleague in the front passenger seat has three pedals in his footwell, just in case, like in a driver training car. "We only need it very rarely", reassures Kiss, who is responsible for the "Advanced Development of Assistance Systems" at Audi is responsible. "Jack learns with every drive, usually assesses sudden situations correctly", reports the Hungarian engineer.
And suddenly there is such a situation. An Eastern European tractor-trailer decides to leave the vehicle in front of it behind and shears a good 70 meters ahead of "Jack" to the center lane. The Audi seems to think for a moment – slow down or switch to the left lane? At this moment, two motorcyclists are approaching from behind, crouching close behind the handlebars, probably fighting a private duel at a good 200 km/h. To make a long story short: The test Audi detects the danger, gently brakes in behind the truck, and only shifts into the passing lane after the bikers have shot by.
You have to get used to doing nothing
"It's a challenge for the computer", explains Miklos Kiss. "The deeply crouched motorcyclists, who are approaching at a high excess of speed to boot, are harder to spot than a passenger car.". But the Audi man is satisfied with the work of the electronic command center. "Everything done right", he praises. So the radar sensors in the rear have correctly calculated the speed of the two-wheelers. Stopping the planned change to the left lane.
In all of this, the person in the driver's seat is only a passenger, uninvolved and, as it were, at the mercy of the technology. "A normal feel", Kiss describes this human emotion. "It takes some time to build up confidence in the computer's driving skills," says the head developer. So, for example, when "Jack" After overtaking, the car changes back to the center lane. In the process, it often swings much closer to a truck driving on the right than you would as the driver yourself. Whose hands involuntarily move from the thigh toward the steering wheel, open to quickly enclose the leather rim if the approach to the truck becomes too close. Gently, the Audi finally settles correctly into its lane. The hands change from alarm mode to relaxed mode.
Dr. Kiss is right. After a few kilometers, a trace of confidence actually sets in. "Of course, many questions are still unresolved", says the chief developer. Fog, heavy rain, slush or black ice are a challenge because they can affect sensors in a special way." He also mentions construction sites or exits as future tasks, the change from one highway to another at a traffic junction. Such a drive now lies ahead. The LED light band changes to yellow, which should awaken the driver from his slumber. An advertisement reports that the so-called piloted driving will end in one minute. Man takes over, has the reins in his own hands again.
So this is what it will look like, the new time. A dream for many, but a nightmare for quite a few. This somewhat different kind of driving pleasure must first be understood and then learned by today's generation of drivers. Miklos Kiss sums up what will be possible: "We are really handing over responsibility to the machine. Not in all situations, but in more and more situations in daily traffic. Our highest goal is the security of our customers,".