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What’s up with Audi’s autonomous car?

Audi announced that its 2018 A8 sedan will be autonomous — like, hands-off-the-wheel, watch-a-movie autonomous. Is this for real? Is it safe? Is it legal?

Let’s find out.

Is the autonomous Audi for real?

Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Still yes, but. The 2018 Audi A8 will be SAE Level 3 autonomous, which is defined as “conditional automation.” The A8 will operate autonomously only on divided highways — that means there’s a barrier between cars going in different directions — that have designated on and off ramps. And it will only work up to 37 mph, so this is more of a stop-and-go traffic situation. Audi has been working on autonomous technology for years, so making this level of autonomy to market this early isn’t a huge shock.

Is it safe?

Short answer: Probably
Long answer: We won’t know for sure until these cars are on the road. Early adopters are going to be the best test cases, better than anything Audi or any other manufacturer can do with all the test drives and simulations in the world. That’s because real-world drivers do things so unexpectedly stupid. They will climb in the back seat. They will fall asleep. They will ignore any beeps or bells that the car uses to say, “Hey, human! There’s some shit going on that I can’t figure out, so you need to take over.” But in a larger sense, where sensible people use the technology as it was intended, it will be far, far safer and prevent huge numbers of fender-benders.

Is it legal?

Short answer: Sometimes
Long answer: It’s legal in states like California, Nevada, and New York. Mostly. Audi kind of jumped the regulatory gun here. Several states have created regulations for companies that want to test autonomous vehicles, but the rules for regular old drivers having an autonomous car haven’t really been written. Say these states fix their regulations so it is totally legal. That means you can drive your Audi in autonomous mode from California right over the state line into Nevada. But if you continue on (granted, at 37 mph), into Utah, you won’t be able to use the autonomous feature anymore. Audi will use “geofencing” to disable the system.

Level 3 autonomous technology has the potential to save thousands of bumpers and maybe even lives. You’re going to be distracted in a traffic jam anyway; it would be better to just let the car take over. But expect growing pains before we get to that level of safety and predicability, even from a German-engineered Audi.

 

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