Manufacturers wrestle with the challenge of safely meshing autopilot with driver
This summer, Audi held an elaborate media event in Spain to celebrate a new sedan that would allow drivers to let go of the wheel and pedal while in traffic jams and pay attention to something else.
The driverless technology heralded a new era for mainstream auto makers in their pursuit to create fully autonomous vehicles. But the rollout by Volkswagen AG’s luxury unit—with production for the U.S. originally planned to begin this year— is now uncertain, as the car maker continues to wait for Congress to pass legislation paving the way for autonomous vehicles,
“It’s not a matter of needing permission, it’s more a matter of wanting to introduce the car when we know what the ground rules are,” said Brad Stertz, Audi’s director of government affairs, who acknowledged a shift in timing.
Audi’s predicament reflects the challenge for auto makers as they plunge into an awkward phase of development years before fully driverless cars are ready: how exactly to pass control back and forth between driver and machine.
Congress is still deliberating how to establish rules governing driverless cars, for now leaving it to a patchwork of state laws. Last week, senators said they reached a bipartisan deal on a draft of a bill that would help speed development, but the outcome is uncertain.
“This legislation proposes common sense changes in law to keep pace with advances in self-driving technology,” Sen. John Thune, the Republican chairman of the Commerce Committee, said in a statement when announcing the deal.
Some developers, such as Waymo, the driverless-car unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc., are planning to skip the interim step, convinced there isn’t a reliable way to hand off the wheel.
Others are devising semiautonomous vehicles that rely on humans when driving conditions exceed the computer’s abilities.
General Motors Co. is marketing the new Cadillac CT6 sedan, due out this fall, which lets drivers go handsfree on the highway—but the car also features eye-tracking technology that forces the driver to look at the road or the robot pilot will disengage. Toyota Motor Corp. has been touting the redesigned Lexus LS sedan that automatically can swerve to avoid pedestrians, but drivers must keep their hands on the wheel.
The disparate approaches from some of the world’s largest auto makers highlight the intense competition to be among the first to market with technology many believe will upend the industry. Tesla Inc.’s introduction of a semiautonomous system called Autopilot in 2014 has helped spearhead development.
But the slew of semiautonomous driving technology is arriving as the National Transportation Safety Board raises concerns in the wake of an investigation into last year’s fatal Tesla Model S crash that found Autopilot lacked proper safeguards to prevent its misuse.
The NTSB warned that semiautonomous features such as Autopilot could lull drivers into a false sense of security. Federal investigators estimated the Tesla driver had at least 10 seconds to take control of the sedan before hitting a truck crossing the highway, but he had an “overreliance on automation.”
Following the crash, Tesla changed the software to require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel more often and urged drivers to remain attentive. Tesla contends Autopilot is safer than a human driver without the aide.
Research has shown it takes most drivers two to three seconds— perhaps longer if they are occupied—to take back control of an automated car.
“We have concerns that drivers may give over too much control and take away some of their own attention from driving,” said David Zuby, head of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Those concerns led Waymo to abandon efforts to create a semiautonomous system and focus instead on developing fully driverless vehicles.
GM’s Cadillac emphasizes its new auto-driving system, keeps humans engaged. Designed to activate with the a push of a button on most highways in the U.S. and Canada, the system takes over steering, acceleration and braking. To ensure the driver fixates on the road, an infrared camera mounted on the steering column tracks the eyes.
Audi goes one step further, saying its cameras and sensors will allow the driver to turn their attention to “things like answer their email, write text messages...or plan for their vacation.” The Traffic Jam Pilot works only under about 40 miles an hour on a road with a barrier between oncoming lanes.
After traffic frees up, the car warns the driver for 10 seconds before handing over control, coming to a gradual stop if nothing happens. Audi plans to integrate video displays in the center dashboard that can alert the driver.
Audi now says that gradual production of the Traffic Jam Pilot will begin next year on the A8 sedan, with timing dependent upon government approvals, and that the company is aiming for the feature to reach the U.S. by the fall of 2018—though it is still debating whether it will begin production of the system without knowing if it will be sold.
“We don’t want to have a system built up and locked in and ready to go out on dealership showrooms if there’s going to be a change,” Audi’s Mr. Stertz said.
BY TIM HIGGINS AND MIKE COLIAS