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With the launch of its 2019 A8 in Barcelona on July 11, Audi is marketing itself as the first company to sell a Level 3 self-driving car.
The technology isn't legal yet in many markets, but Audi says the new A8 will have the hardware and firmware it needs to wrest control of the car from the driver on a semi-permanent basis.
At the touch of an Audi AI button, the A8 will give audible and visual signals that it's in piloted-driving mode. The car will be able to accelerate, steer, and brake on its own, without requiring the driver to take back control on regular brief intervals (a situation that describes Level 2, seen today on the Tesla Model S and Mercedes E-Class and a few other cars).
MORE: Read our 2019 Audi A8 preview
Once the system's engaged, Audi says the driver will be able to take their hands off the wheel and perform other tasks, depending on local laws. While the driver checks email or watches YouTube, the car will play abstract video in the gauge cluster.
When it can no longer ensure safe operation–driving conditions, higher speeds–the car will signal the driver that they have 10 seconds to take back control.
While the hardware will be baked into every new A8 from the time it goes on sale in the U.S. in spring 2018, a constellation of agencies in the U.S. will need to change laws and rules before they sign off on it. (A bill under discussion would override all those laws and create a single national standard for legalizing self-driving cars.)
Here's how the A8 moves the self-driving car needle to Level 3 semi-autonomy.
2019 Audi A8 rear-wheel-steering system
2019 Audi A8 rear-wheel-steering systemEnlarge Photo
Electrified steering and suspension
The A8 has electric power steering that can be controlled by the car's computing brain. In the new A8, it also interfaces with an active suspension that's not a requirement for self-driving cars, but networks with their complex interface to make semi-autonomous driving smoother and safer.
2019 Audi A8Enlarge Photo
A host of cameras, sensors, and scanners
Audi essentially builds a sensory system for the A8 that lets it "see" and decide how to react to obstacles. At the front, an infrared camera handles night-time driving, while a monocular camera at the top of the windshield delivers an overall image of the road ahead. Four 360-degree cameras mount on the front, rear, and under the sideview mirrors; their data compiles into a surround-view image of the car and its environment.
The A8 also has ultrasonic and radar sensors at its perimeter that contribute data used to describe images. A long-range radar sits on the front of the car, while four mid-range radar sensors emit signals and gather information at the corners. An array of 12 ultrasonic sensors mounted around the car's perimeter handle close-range information.
2019 Audi A8 laser scannerEnlarge Photo
2019 Audi A8 self-driving hardwareEnlarge Photo
Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy
The information from all those data capturing devices gets blended together, and examined for accuracy. Then it's shared with a cloud-based learning field, combined with data from other cars, then re-consumed by the A8 as it drives itself. The system relies on the redundancy of all the information it gathers, so it can pilot the car when one stream or more of data is missing. The redundancy isn't based on strict formulas. If extreme wet and cold creates a thick layer of ice in front of the car's laser scanner, it may not have enough information to proceed; if fog impedes camera-based information but the road surface is good, the car may be able to soldier on.