In an era when cost efficiencies often dictate how corporations are run, this is certainly an alluring proposition for the CEO keenly watching the quarterly profits: a chauffeur-driven company car that potentially does away with the expense of an actual chauffeur.
I am referring to the A8. Audi touts its flagship limousine as the world’s first vehicle in production developed for “conditionally automated driving at level 3”. Once this rather jargonistic phrase has been dissected, the significant breakthrough can be quite easily understood.
Under the right circumstances – which, in this case, means any highway divided by a physical barrier between the two directions of travel – the car can drive itself at the press of a button. Using artificial intelligence to handle the menial tasks of accelerating and braking (even from and to a stop) and steering within its lane, this virtual Jeeves will take charge at speeds up to 60kmh.
At this point, clued-in readers would rush to point out that systems today can already do this. Like Cadillac’s Super Cruise, Tesla’s Autopilot and the “traffic jam assist” adopted by many carmakers. But the vital difference in the Audi is that you can take a literal hands-off (and eyes-off) approach. Unlike existing level 2 automation, this step-up requires you to take over the wheel only when the system prompts you to. The feature is called “traffic jam pilot” – in Audi-speak, the suffixes “pilot” and “assist” denote level 3 and level 2 automation respectively.
Audi take the wheel
Freed of the need to monitor the car constantly, you could perform any activity supported by the on-board infotainment system. For instance, you could watch a morning news segment on the right-sizing of rival Acme Corp. And then follow up by dictating an e-mail, asking HR which department is the best to retrench.
Alas, for the penny-pinching chief executive, while all the hardware is there and raring to go, no jurisdiction in the world currently allows the technology to be used as Audi intended. Chauffeurs can breathe easily for now.
All those clever sensors, however, have not gone to waste. The astonishing array consists of the world’s first laser scanner, a long-range radar, a front camera, a further four mid-range radars, 360-degree cameras and a dozen ultrasound sensors, all feeding into a central driver assistance controller the size of an iPad. And those gigabytes of data it gathers have gone into making other driver assistance features better than the previous generation’s.
To test this out, I’ve become possibly the first person in the world to deliberately set off at 8.30am in the morning, at the height of rush hour, in search of some of Singapore’s worst traffic jams. Things are surprisingly smooth on the PIE and the BKE, but I hit the mother lode on the KJE towards the CTE, which is depicted by Google Maps as an angry red line.
So I turn on adaptive cruise assist with traffic jam assist, which uses the same technology as the “pilot” version, but you have to keep your hands on the wheel. Crawling along, I notice that the car keeps better centred in its lane, instead of gently weaving from left to right that the previous version tended to do.
Access to the settings of the bulk of the new assist functions is quite conveniently consolidated under one button on the dash. Some features help you to manoeuvre out of awkward situations, such as reversing out of a parking space onto a busy street (should not have gone head in, should you?), and it is smart enough to nudge the steering and brake the wheels separately to avoid obstacles.
What I particularly like: the curb warning, which allows you to parallel park as close to the road edge as possible without scratching the expensive 18-inch alloys; and an electronic door handle that scans the side of the car for passing cyclists, before releasing the catch, to prevent unintended somersaults for our two-wheeled friends.
To add to the air of intelligence of the car, you can control various functions using just your voice and in natural language. So, instead of turning a knob or punching letters on the on-screen keyboard, in Audi’s version of Apple’s Siri, you can tell the car that you are feeling too hot, or to have the satnav direct you to the office.
Carmakers often use their top- of-the-line products to debut and demonstrate the most cutting-edge technology – ABS, for instance, first showed up in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the 1970s – and that will surely filter down to the entire range in time to come. So, in 2030, perhaps even the cheapest hatchback might come with a built-in chauffeur. Imagine that for the ultimate cost-saving measure.