Whenever I tell someone how far away I live from Automobile HQ in Los Angeles (29 miles door to door), the reaction usually ranges from expressions of pity to abject horror at the mere thought. One section of my commute is particularly brutal—a traffic-strangled, roughly 10-mile stretch of the 405 freeway between I-10 and the 101 that’s one of the busiest roadways in the country.
I’ve found some good in it, though. If I’m in a convertible, I can work on my tan. It affords me ample time to survey the cabin’s build quality, check out the cockpit’s key attributes, or turn the stereo up to 38 (no really, there is one that stops there). On an increasing number of cars, it also gives me an opportunity to test out adaptive cruise control. It typically uses radar positioned in the grille area and reads the speed of the car in front of you. You set a designated speed as you normally would with standard cruise control, and the car will speed up or slow down as traffic ebbs and flows. You can also set a distance between you and the car in front of you. In L.A., even the shortest distance—about three car lengths or so—isn’t short enough, and it can upset the system when someone invariably fills the gap.
This scenario is where Audi aims to step in with a smarty-pants new autonomous feature for the brand’s all-new fourth-generation 2019 Audi A8 aimed at poor saps like me who trudge through the world’s worst traffic trenches every day. Called AI Traffic Jam Assist (Audi is pushing AI as a subbrand of sorts for its most advanced vehicle technologies), it’s an adaptive system designed to allow the driver to relinquish control up to 37.3 mph.
Numerous automakers are well into development of similar systems, and already on the road are Tesla’s Autopilot, Mercedes-Benz’s Active Distance Control Distronic and Active Steering Assist, and Cadillac’s Super Cruise. All are capable of hands- and feet-free driving at highway speeds. Tesla and its ardent supporters especially have pushed the boundaries of Autopilot, so much so that it was a contributing factor in the death of a driver who wasn’t paying close enough attention to the road with the system engaged. After that tragedy, the fact a driver must be ready to take back control at a moment’s notice was reinforced further. (The Benz system, for instance, has always had restrictions on how long you can have your hands off the wheel.) In essence, you are still liable—it’s still on you.
But the key difference with Traffic Jam Assist is you can turn it on and tune out. Read those texts, fix that makeup, eat that burger. You want to watch some onboard TV? Go for it! Do you need to worry about that clown cutting in front of you? Nope. That’s right; you aren’t in control.
Part of Audi’s confidence with its system is how much tech it has invested into it, including what it calls the first laser scanner for a production car. The system’s central driver assistance controller (its brain, in essence) merges data from the laser (which has a 145-degree field of view), as well as external cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors to create a clear picture of the road. It only works on highways and other divided roads (no yellow line dividers, for example) and has fail-safes built in if the driver happens to fall asleep or is otherwise incapacitated. Once speed exceeds the magic 37.3 number (past that limit it will become similar in scope to an Autopilot, etc.) or if it detects another hazardous situation, it will audibly and visually warn the driver of the need to take over within 10 seconds. If it isn’t getting a response after that, it will begin to slowly bring the car to a stop.
Ah, but here comes the catch: the legal fine print.
In order for Traffic Jam Assist to do its assisting without you at the ready to take over, the system will have to navigate regulatory hurdles before it can be put into operation. Audi is prepared to assume liability if its technology fails. If it can get the proper approvals (at present, it would be legal in Florida, and Audi is hard at work lobbying in D.C. ahead of the A8’s launch next year), it would be slow-go time.
Its application would be limited because there aren’t exactly a ton of spots in the U.S. where traffic is actually that jammed for long, but if the automaker can get it signed off, it would mark a significant milestone on the way toward autonomous driving. You have my number, Audi. Feel free to give me a call anytime if you want me to test it on my way home. I certainly have the time.