BARCELONA, Spain — Audi's redesigned A8 flagship luxury sedan introduced here last week can drive itself in heavy highway traffic — but only if the local law lets it.
That's a big problem facing all automakers as they push to introduce Level 3 autonomous driving in their vehicles: how to explain to customers that their car will drive itself in a traffic jam in Florida, but if those same conditions happen when they cross the state line into Alabama, they have to keep their hands on the wheel, their foot on the brake and their eyes on the road.
It's a case of technology outstripping humans' ability to keep up, and it may take the U.S. Congress to solve.
Until then, automakers will face problems such as Audi's. Audi says the redesigned A8 will launch this year in Europe and in late spring in the U.S. with all of the technologies and sensor arrays to enable the car to pilot itself in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But the German luxury brand says it won't turn on the features until laws are passed in each jurisdiction that enable the technology to operate legally.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives expect to hold hearings this week on a package of 14 bills that would allow U.S. regulators to exempt up to 100,000 vehicles a year per manufacturer from federal safety rules against the sale of self-driving vehicles without human controls. The draft measures would bar states from setting self-driving rules and prevent the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from preapproving self-driving car technologies, Reuters reported.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group representing General Motors, Volks- wagen AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and others, and the Association of Global Automakers, representing major foreign automakers including Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., are forming the Coalition for Future Mobility to press Congress to act. The group began airing radio spots last week to push the legislation. Meanwhile, GM, Alphabet Inc., Tesla Inc. and others have been lobbying Congress to pre-empt rules under consideration in California and other states that could limit self-driving vehicle deployment, Reuters reported.
Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, told Automotive News here that Audi will have "a fair amount of clarity" about what the next-generation A8 and future vehicles with autonomous technologies will be allowed to do under U.S. laws when the A8 arrives next year.
At launch, Keogh said, "We'll make some determinations about things we won't enable for the customers. Therefore we won't even sell it because we won't even enable it."
If Congress doesn't pre-empt state laws, that might be a problem in the United States, where varying laws have been passed at the state level, says Mirko Reuter, Audi's head of autonomous driving functions.
"In the U.S., all these legal requirements are made on the state level," Reuter said. "We're not talking about [the] whole U.S., [we're] talking about every different state, and every different state will have legal challenges."
He said some states are ahead of others in developing a legal framework for Level 3 autonomy — in which the car assumes complete control under specified conditions — but that legal harmonization will be necessary. The company said it will use geofencing to ensure the A8's Traffic Jam Pilot is available to drivers only in jurisdictions where it is legal.
"We have everything on board for the technologies, so the A8 is equipped with everything that it needs, but the problem is that the legal challenges have not really been solved," Reuter said.
Once the legal issues are resolved in a jurisdiction, the A8's Traffic Jam Pilot functions will be available only under specific circumstances. For example, the car must be on a multilane road with well-marked lanes and with a physical separation, such as a guardrail, between the car and oncoming traffic. The road also must have dedicated exit and entrance lanes, Reuter said.
The automated driving system — which will allow the driver to do other tasks, "like watching videos," while in stop-and-go traffic, Reuter said — will be available only when the car is traveling under 37 mph.
The latest A8's autonomous systems include several redundancies. For example, cameras, radar and lidar sensors are used to monitor the car's surroundings, while an onboard 48-volt electrical system is used to power a redundant braking system.
"One important thing about automation in driving is, because you're now responsible for the driving task, you need to have a backup," Reuter said. "If one of the components fails, everything safety-related must be backed up."
As automakers progress with autonomous vehicle development, questions of financial responsibility will arise. Reuter said that as Audi offers its first Level 3 car, it will mean taking responsibility for the car's actions.
"If you're offering Level 3, we are in charge of the driving part," he said. "That means, of course, if we have driven, then we are responsible. That's true."
In some ways, managing customer expectations about what the new A8 can do — eventually — will be a challenging task, one that all automakers will struggle with regarding their own vehicles.
"People get carried away by their imaginations when they hear about automated driving" Reuter said. "This is just one first step that we are focusing on."
Keogh predicted that, unlike some other premium brands rushing to deliver autonomous driving capabilities, Audi will be cautious: "I think we're one of the types of companies that is going to take less risk because we want to make sure this technology is accepted, this technology is verified, this technology is trustworthy. It's us, the government and consumers that will launch this revolution."