Last year’s death of driver in a Tesla Model S that crashed while in Autopilot mode is a strong reminder that self-driving technology is still in its infancy.
That doesn’t mean the technology isn’t advancing at a rapid rate. In fact, as early as this year we’ll see the first car on sale with Level 3 self-driving capability.
The car is the redesigned A8 which will be revealed on July 11. It will allow hands-off, eyes-off travel in heavy traffic conditions and at speeds of up to 37 mph, but only on roads where the oncoming traffic is separated by a barrier.
As outlined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Level 3 is where a car can take complete control but only in specific situations and with a driver ready to take over when prompted. It means you could use a phone or read a book once the car is in self-driving mode.
You won’t be able to nod off, though. Audi’s system is designed to constantly monitor the driver and warn them should conditions change, for example when the traffic starts to speed up. Should the driver not respond, we're told the car will be able to safely slow down to a stop.
2018 Audi A8 spy shots - Image via S. Baldauf/SB-Medien
The most advanced self-driving systems offered for sale so far have Level 2 capability. This level is considered partial self-driving capability and requires the driver to monitor conditions at all times as they may need to take control at any moment.
Early next decade, automakers predict we’ll have cars with Level 4 self-driving capability. This is where a car can be in control in all but the most extreme conditions, such as severe weather. And Level 5, the ultimate goal, is where a car can safely operate without a driver onboard.
Unfortunately, we’re yet to see the legal framework established even to allow Level 3 self-driving capability. It means the A8, despite having the technology ready, likely won’t offer Level 3 self-driving capability at launch.
At Audi’s 2016 financial results press conference last month, CEO Rupert Stadler said the A8 will only offer the feature when governments in the automaker's core markets allow it and when that is legally safe, Automotive News (subscription required) reports.
One of the first countries that could allow Level 3 self-driving cars on public roads is Germany. The government there is evaluating a bill that would require a declaration from automaker to the customer clearly listing the conditions in which the car can drive on its own. Additionally, the bill would require a black box recorder so crash investigators could determine the conditions at the time of a crash and whether the car or the driver was in control. Most firms developing self-driving cars have stated a willingness to accept full responsibility for any accidents caused by the car when in self-driving mode.