Audi’s self-driving car: Hands off the steering wheel!

January 28, 2015, 8:14 PM UTC

What’s it like to drive a car that drives itself? To give a computer full control of your destiny, on the highway, at 70 miles an hour?

It will happen to you, maybe not in five years, but definitely within 15. You’ll be on the highway and hit a button and the car will take over, navigating through slow traffic and allowing you to tap away at your cell phone or even take a short nap.

Well, I’ve experienced it already, in the very first week of 2015, on a 560-mile road trip from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas. On behalf of Fortune, I was one of five journalists to experience an autonomous car at this advanced level.

Audi's self-driving A7
Photograph by Jim Fets

The car was an Audi A7 that looked exactly like any other, if you discounted the special paint job and the words “Audi Piloted Driving” on the sides. The oddest part was just how quickly I got used to the car making decisions for me at highway speeds.

All the major automakers are in a race to develop the first fully autonomous car, and if you listen to some of the companies it sounds as if a robotic chauffeur will be taking over grocery-getting duties any day now. Don’t believe them. Neither the technology nor the laws governing it are anywhere near that point. Your 10-year-old will still need his or her driving license in six years unless you plan to pay for Uber rides to the mall well into their 20s.

Nonetheless, Volkswagen Group-owned Audi was out to prove that it was ahead of the curve, and invited me to test drive a prototype sedan capable of “level three” autonomous technology (see accompanying story for definitions of those levels). The trip began from a hotel in Menlo Park, and I had visions of inputting “Las Vegas” into the navigation system, hitting the “go” button and kicking back with 1984 on my Kindle as the car whisked me away.

Audi's self-driving A7
Photograph by Jim Fets

Not so much. This special prototype can only pilot itself in very specific situations. The basic criteria: 1) It drives itself only on well-marked freeways during the day and in favorable weather conditions; 2) A driver has to be in the seat at all times and ready to take back control immediately in an emergency situation (so no napping); 3) The driver gives up control while already on the freeway and takes it back before it’s time to exit.

Audi engineers says they have done more than 50,000 miles of testing on public roads in America using this self-driving technology. But on this trip they weren’t leaving much to chance. They had run the long, southeastern route through Bakersfield at least six times previously. There were two German engineers in the car at all times. The one in the back had a laptop and was constantly screening data. The fellow in the right-hand seat paid keen attention to the road ahead. Disconcertingly, he also had his own gas and brake pedals.

The trunk of the car was filled with components from desktop computers, with a hydra of cords interconnecting them to the car. Also a bit disconcerting. But the interior looked almost entirely normal.

It’s at this point that I should mention that I’m an A-type driver. Years of training on the racetrack and practicing emergency maneuvers have not helped matters. You may think you’re a great driver. I would likely disagree. I love to be in the driver’s seat—and if I’m not, I’d just prefer to be outside the car. So yes, you might say I’ve got control issues.

And while I like technology, I don’t really trust it. Computers crash all the time. They can be hacked and compromised and my Apple computer too often suffers that spinning ball of death. Was I really ready to turn over my life to a robotic overlord? Have we learned nothing from the Terminator movies?

So I was happy enough to be in control as we motored through a small California town in the prototype Audi, making our way toward Interstate 5. The prototype was in most regards still a stock A7, a sexy, swoop-backed sedan that I really love. It has lots of pep and a great suspension.

Audi's self-driving A7
Photograph by Jim Fets

Then we got on the freeway and a message appeared on my digital dash, informing me that “piloted” driving mode was available. Traffic was heavy and too closely spaced together. This truly would be a test of the technology.

I glanced over at the engineer and he gave me a confident nod. The lower stalks of the steering wheel have two extra buttons. You press and hold both simultaneously to engage the autonomous feature. I did so: an alert sounded and the steering wheel automatically retracted several inches, literally moving out of my hands.

The A7 prototype uses an array of stock sensors, including radar and a front-facing camera, to navigate through traffic. It stays in the right-hand lane until it comes on slower-moving traffic, and then will engage its turn signal, pull into the left lane, and pass.

Using the side stalk, I set the speed at 70 mph. The steering wheel was moving on its own, a ghost in the machine. We were approaching a slow-moving minivan quickly and I tensed, my foot hovering over the brake pedal. The car smoothly engaged the brakes, waited for a car on the left to pass, turned on the signal, passed the van and pulled back to the right. Seamless.

I stared straight ahead, hands in lap. Then I relaxed a bit. Then I got bored. I twisted in the seat and began chatting with the engineers. Then I started messing with traffic around me, planting both hands on the side window as cars passed. Look, sir! No hands. I got some strange looks. I even tried to attract the attention of a state trooper pulled to the side of the road. My engineer/minder wasn’t so amused.

Here’s what I liked: It was very easy to take back control. Simply grab the steering wheel and apply light pressure, and the system happily gives all controls back to you. You can also apply the brakes or gas and do the same thing. And the car still drove and handled like an Audi. It really wasn’t foreign at all: Easy to understand even easier to use.

What I didn’t like: The passiveness. It’s very hard to pay attention after a while. Being sort-of, kind-of in control is difficult. Either you’re all-in driving, or you’re not. Engineers say that when the technology eventually comes to market, the car should be able to perform some evasive maneuvers. But right now, if a car careens toward you the car can only slow down to avoid an accident. It’s up to you to perform more elaborate evasive action.

As for accidents, we saw a lot of them that day on I-5. Fender benders mostly, but at least one serious incident the other direction. Audi says it is pursuing this technology because it saves lives, as the majority of accidents are the result of distracted driving.

Meanwhile, our A7 stayed out of trouble and accident free, moving steadily to our destination, the Las Vegas Strip, which we would reach just in time for the annual Consumer Electronics Show.

By the end of the trip, I was a believer. The technology is for real. Do I love it? Well, I certainly see the attraction, especially on a long boring route. And I do believe that it will eventually save lives.

But I write about cars for a living. Fully autonomous driving would consign me to the ranks of scriveners, typesetters and harpoon salesmen. I guess at that point, I’ll be reviewing the feng shui of the interior.

For now, I’ll just say that the A7 self-driving car and I are frenemies.



Sidebar: stages of self-driving cars


Hoping for a car that will pick you up at your doorstep, whisk you to work, and then disappear around the block until it returns for you at 5 pm? For many engineers, such a fully automated and self-guiding car is the ultimate goal, but it will be many years until we actually see one.

Experts have laid out five levels of automation, from the lowest (one) to that full robotic taxi (five).

The first level is found on many luxury cars today. It’s referred to as a driver’s assistance program and include automatic cruise control, in which the car will slow or even stop when it senses slower traffic ahead. A lane-assistance system, which helps keep a car from straying beyond lane markings, is also considered level one.

Level two is a car that can handle several tasks independently of the driver, including parking itself, with the driver outside the car controlling some aspects with a key fob.

Level three is where things get more interesting. The Audi prototype that we tested was level three, and it can negotiate traffic on a pre-ordained route independent of the driver. However, it depends on a driver to be behind the wheel at all times, and to take over control at the beginning and end of the route. It also demands that the driver take back control in any emergency circumstance.

High automation is level four. This car will be able to find a safe area to pull off the road if the driver doesn’t respond to a call of action to take back over. It could also potentially drop you off outside of your building and then pull itself automatically into a pre-ordained spot in the public garage.

Five is the robotic taxi that would need no driver behind the wheel whatsoever. Which brings us to this question: When are we going go get those flying cars, anyhow?