Once we leave the entrance ramp, it's time to relinquish control. Two buttons are pushed on the steering wheel, which then retracts as a blue-lit panel appears on the windshield and the computer announces “Takeover.” Suddenly the car is driving itself along the busy A9 highway in the direction of Nuremberg.
Audi has brought this extremely expensive test vehicle, which it calls Jack, home from Silicon Valley and been granted special permission to try it on a stretch of public highway. The car needs to be able to handle the high-speed and high-density of German autobahns.
Autonomous driving is the next big thing. Audi intends to offer a “traffic-jam pilot” in an A8 model that will be available in 2017. Audi says the car will steer and brake independently at speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph) through traffic jams and congested traffic, but without changing lanes.
Theoretically, the driver could take his or her hands off the wheel, but there is some legal doubt whether Audi is permitted to switch on the function in Germany. The 1968 Vienna Accord, which Germany signed, stipulates drivers must always maintain control of vehicles. The agreement is being rewritten, but legal experts at the German ministries of transportation and justice are disputing whether it’s enough.
Above all, Audi wants to avoid "mode confusion" – situations when it’s unclear whether the driver or the computer has control of the car.
“When the computer takes over, then the manufacturer is liable,” said Arne Bartels, a developer of driving-assistance systems. The aim is for drivers to be able to safely do other things, from surfing the Internet to simply dozing.
Audi intends to develop its system to allow the driver 10 seconds before he has to take control of the vehicle. Psychologists consider 10 seconds enough for drivers to free themselves from complete distraction and to reassume control of the car. Technical experts speak of “retrieving” the driver — as if out of hypnosis.
Audi's Jack anticipates the generation after next of autonomous driving, which could be introduced onto German roads in 2020. Technical experts compare the system to the autopilot function on airplanes.
We are creating a new world of vulnerability and security issues. Amit Yoran, President, RSA security
Meanwhile, everything is going just fine on the test drive. The car’s dozen radars, stereo cameras and laser sensors scan in all directions, a function a driver has to do by relying on mirrors. A computer the size of a shoebox makes decisions about steering angle and acceleration. Jack avoids passing on the right, which is illegal in Germany, and doesn't go faster than 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph).
But then a critical situation presents itself. A truck veers to the left just as Jack aims to change to the left lane, and a speeding car approaches from behind. The driver’s hands want to reach for the steering wheel, but then the computer corrects itself. The car slows down and returns to the middle lane, and there is just a slight outbreak of sweat in the driver's seat.
German autobahns are an ideal place to try out these cars with their clear lanes, no oncoming traffic and easily legible signs. There are plans for further tests on the A9, along which Audi and BMW have their company headquarters.
Germany's minister of transportation, Alexander Dobrindt, recently took a ride in Jack. Mr. Dobrindt intends to upgrade the A9 highway into a “digital testing field.”
Data is almost as important to the robot car as gasoline. Audi engineers hope their car will be able to communicate with traffic signs, and that road-work sites will announce themselves automatically. The developers don't yet want to allow Jack to go through road construction, rural roads or city traffic without a driver in control, as unclear lanes and pedestrians are still great challenges to the systems.
Data security and a whole new world of potential cyber-crime arising from computer-controlled cars will continue to be one of the most important issues. "We are creating a new world of vulnerability and security issues," said Amit Yoran, the president of U.S.-based security company RSA security. "We are just beginning to understand this."
Andy Rowland, from the British company BT Technology, tests the computer security of cars for manufacturers by first attempting to hack their systems by any means possible. This type of "penetration testing" helps the companies to fix security gaps in the systems. Mr. Rowland won't say which carmakers are his clients, but he admitted that "this is a problem for the entire car sector – the number of cyber attacks are rising dramatically."
After the ride in Jack is over, this journalist climbs into his own car. A 2007 VW Golf, with manual transmission and analog tachometer. A vehicle that doesn’t allow for a single mistake by the driver and an adventure future generations might never experience.
Video: Transport minister Alexander Dobrint gets taken for a ride in Jack.
Markus Fasse is Handelsblatt's automotive correspondent. To contact the author: [email protected]