Audi’s new A8 flagship sedan is poised to be the first production car to take advantage of a law passed late last month in Germany that allows drivers to cede full or partial control should their cars have Level 3 or Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities.
Level 3 allows hands-off capability but requires the driver to take back control at any time. Level 4 is even more advanced.
Not only is Germany the first country to pass such a law, it is also Europe’s largest new-car market, with more than 3 million registrations annually. In addition, Germany is Audi’s second-largest market after China.
Under previous domestic legislation, drivers’ eyes had to be on the road at all times even if assistance systems combining adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assist allowed them to take their hands off the steering wheel for several seconds.
“The operation of a motor vehicle by means of conditional or highly autonomous driving functions is permissible,” states the eighth amendment to the country’s road traffic law that took effect on June 20. Earlier this year, automakers had feared that the legislation would be delayed until a new federal government is elected in September.
Certain provisions were put in place specifying that drivers must be able to deactivate or manually override these systems and that “sufficient time” is ensured before the vehicle operator takes back control. It also provides for a data recorder that logs handovers as well as their requests, and technical defects in the case of a collision.
While auto executives often complain that legislation fails to keep pace with new technological developments, in this instance the law is ready before the product that it covers exists, which experts says is a bit problematic.
“A law has been passed, but we’re far from saying that all the questions have been resolved,” the president of Germany’s auto importers association VDIK, Reinhard Zirpel, told reporters in Frankfurt days after the legislation took effect.
One sticking point is that the law only pertains to drivers. It doesn’t cover how a model such as an A8 with Level 3 autonomy will be homologated. As a result, the A8, which goes on sale in Europe this autumn, still needs to regulatory approval for its new Traffic Jam Pilot. This feature allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road at limited speeds on roads with one-way traffic and no pedestrians or bicyclists. They can cede operation of the vehicle entirely, so long as they remain capable of taking back control within a specific frame of time, such as 10 seconds.
Audi says that A8’s with Level 3 autonomy will allow drivers to do other tasks while the car copes with stop-and-go congestion on highways.
“Future premium means taking back control of your time, because time is one of the most valuable goods,” Audi CEO Rupert Stadler said during the A8 world debut this week. “Downtime: When you need a break and some entertainment. Productive time: When you want to get things done. And quality time spent with family and friends. Why shouldn’t a car allow all of this?”