Audi to roll out hands-free system for traffic jams

Audi shows off state-of-the-art system in the new A8 that removes tedium of traffic jams

In Singapore, I try to beat the rush hour by leaving a little earlier. But here I am in Germany's Essen-Mulheim Airport, waiting to leave a little later so that an Audi A8 can take me into rush hour on a highway nearby.

Gridlock is necessary for Audi's demonstration of its artificial intelligence traffic jam pilot.

Currently, only the new A8 limousine can be equipped with this newfangled feature, which is undergoing technical approval in Germany for rollout next year. The A8 is the first production car to be developed from the start for a high degree of autonomy.

The technology employs a laser scanner (mounted in the front bumper) and a central control unit (about the size of a tablet computer) that manages all the software and hardware (such as ultrasonic sensors, radar devices and digital cameras) required for piloted driving.

The system allows for completely hands-free driving in slow-moving traffic (up to 60kmh). It only works on a dual carriageway with a physical dividing barrier in between and no traffic lights.

Going by what was demonstrated, it has a far higher degree of autonomy than Mercedes' system, although Daimler is working on an upgrade.

Audi A8's hands-free feature may allow the driver to watch a movie on the car's infotainment screen.
Audi A8's hands-free feature may allow the driver to watch a movie on the car's infotainment screen. PHOTO: AUDI

When these conditions are met and the A8 system is ready for activation, pulsating white lights come on in a digital instrument cluster, accompanied by a text saying "traffic jam pilot available" and a distinct white icon. The "Audi AI" button on the centre console is also illuminated to indicate the system's availability.

After the system is activated, the in-dash display adopts a stylised graphic of the A8 from the rear. The driver can then take his hands off the steering wheel and let the A8's traffic jam pilot handle the tedious task of tackling a traffic jam.

"The system is driving for the driver," says Mr Stefan Rietdorf, a member of the development team present at this tech event. "Hands off and mind off."

Well, not exactly. The system still requires the driver to gaze in the general direction of travel. So playing Fruit Ninja on your phone is probably out of the question, although watching a movie on the car's infotainment screen may well be possible.

Indeed, the driver can relax behind the wheel while the traffic jam pilot is co-driving. But if he is chilling out to the point of zoning out or dozing off (or losing consciousness), the system will prompt him to regain control of the car.

It determines when to do so by using a camera in the instrument panel to monitor the position and movement of the driver's head and eyes. It works even if the driver is wearing sunglasses.

There are two stages of prompting before the system intervenes by turning on the hazard lights, bringing the car to a complete stop within the lane and sending an SOS to emergency services.

Such an eventuality would probably worsen any existing traffic congestion. But in normal circumstances, the Audi A8's AI traffic jam pilot would make bumper-to-bumper traffic less of a drag for any driver.

In this demo, journalists were not allowed to sample the system on public roads (an Audi driver was behind the wheel). A separate test route on an airfield was arranged for journalists.

•The writer is the editor of Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2017, with the headline 'Look ma, no hands'. Print Edition | Subscribe