Car Culture: Much to see on ride to driverless future

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Automakers and suppliers are responding quickly to consumers’ demand for more high technology in their cars today, and even bigger changes in the not-too-distant future.

Testing at Sonoma racetrack in California, the Audi RS7 is one of the industry's most advanced piloted development vehicles.

As witnessed at the Detroit auto show and CES technology show in Las Vegas, the near-term focus is on advanced in-car infotainment systems and connectivity. Further down the road (exactly how far depends on who you ask) is the promise of piloted and autonomous driving.

Audi, one of the companies in the forefront of all these areas, revealed details of its advanced E-tron Quattro, a concept electric SUV that will be in U.S. showrooms by early 2018. Beyond its Tesla-rivaling 300-mile plus range, the E-tron demonstrates the most advanced levels of Audi’s virtual cockpit driver display and infotainment systems. The vehicle also pioneers the technology for advanced piloted driving, with radar sensors, video camera, ultrasonic sensors and a laser scanner. All these sensors feed into a new computer processor called zFAS. The size of a tablet computer, this unit does the work that used to require a whole trunk full of computers just a few years ago.

Before the arrival of the E-tron Quattro, Audi will launch its A8 flagship sedan equipped with traffic jam pilot, a partially automated system that can handle driving duties in congested highway traffic up to 37 mph. This equates to so-called level-three autonomous driving, where the car takes over control in certain conditions but expects the driver to be ready to take back control if needed. Most of today’s cars are already at level one (using a system such as electronic stability control) or level two (having at least two systems such as lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control working in concert).

The move from level three to levels four and five, which progressively transition from the car controlling nearly all systems to complete autonomy, will take several more years to accomplish, most automakers believe.

Regulatory issues are just one of the barriers standing in the way of progress. “For example, level three could pretty much be implemented in all states right now, except New York which requires one hand on the wheel at all times,” notes Audi spokesman Brad Stertz.

Beyond ironing out all the legislative obstacles on a federal and state level, there are profound technical challenges to moving from partially to fully automated cars. One example is the U.S.-specific scenario of four-way stops, or intersections not controlled by traffic lights.

“Four-way stops with no lights can be very challenging,” says Dr. Peter Steiner, head of Audi AG Electronics Venture. “Humans can see other drivers and estimate what they are going to do. There are a lot of things we as humans solve in a good way; doing the same with computers is not easy.”

However Steiner is confident that “machine learning” will overcome this problem. “Machines can learn from hundreds of thousands of such situations,” says Steiner. “Then the machine is potentially much superior to a human, such as a 16-year-old driver who is encountering a four-way stop for the first time.”

2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class launched at Detroit auto show with many advanced, level three, partially automated driving features.

The other key to the arrival of self-piloted cars is the development of much higher-definition maps than are currently used. In conjunction with the full array of vehicle sensors, better maps will allow a car to determine its position on a road much more accurately.

In this regard, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz recently joined forces to acquire Here, an advanced map data company previously owned by Nokia.

“Having an accurate map can be compared to a person going to the bathroom in their house in the dark,” says Steiner. “They can do it because their mental map helps them find the way. But a map cannot tell a car about other cars in its way, so you need the combination of map and sensors.”

For consumers, the prospect of a true, fully autonomous car remains probably at least five to 10 years away. But in the meantime, companies like Audi and Mercedes-Benz, with its innovative new 2017 E-Class just revealed at the Detroit auto show, will bring us many more intriguing technical advances to whet our appetites.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached