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Audi Puts the Brakes on Traffic Jam Pilot in US

by Stephen Lawson
Partial self-driving systems, which use advanced sensors and computing to make highway driving easier, may be running into the equivalent of a huge construction slowdown zone -- in the US, at least.

Audi reportedly has backed away from offering a Level 3 automation system in the US version of its 2019 Audi A8, the next generation of its flagship sedan. Traffic Jam Pilot, which will let drivers go hands-free and eyes-free for a period of time under some conditions, will be offered in other countries, Roadshow reported.

The reported reasons for Audi's change of heart include fragmented regulations around the US, inconsistent lane markings and infrastructure between regions, and the need for more consumer education on how to use semi-autonomous driver assistance.

Publicity around recent crashes of Tesla vehicles using that company's Autopilot system may also have played a role.

Federal autonomous vehicle legislation, which is currently stalled in the US Senate, would do a lot to make automakers like Audi more confident about introducing semi-autonomous cars, analyst Doug Newcomb of Newcomb Communications and Consulting told The Connected Car. State troopers wouldn't pull over Audis with Traffic Jam Pilot for breaking a state AV law, but the patchwork of regulations across the country gives automakers less certainty about their liability in an accident, he said. Federal regulation would make it easier to introduce such features.

"Automakers are very risk-averse. They don't want to operate in any type of unknown, especially with a technology like this," Newcomb said. "China and Europe have really kind of gotten ahead of the US in terms of regulation and support of this technology."

Traffic Jam Pilot is designed to drive autonomously under certain conditions on divided, limited-access highways with clear lane markings at speeds up to about 37mph. It also lets drivers take their hands off the steering wheel and look away from the road, though not for unlimited stretches.

The A8, a full-size sedan priced at over $80,000, will be available with highly advanced technology, including a Lidar laser scanning system and a Level 2 automation system called Traffic Jam Assist. The Level 2 system, already available on some Audi models, can guide the car in heavy traffic at speeds up to 40mph and let the driver go hands-free for up to 15 seconds.

Both Audi systems warn drivers if they stop paying attention to driving for too long. But accidents involving cars with Tesla's Autopilot engaged, and driver attempts to fool its hands-on-wheel detection system, have heightened concerns about semi-autonomous driving.

A Tesla Model S crash in Utah on Friday, May 10, that injured the driver may have been the latest accident involving Autopilot. The Tesla reportedly was going about 60mph in the Salt Lake City suburb of South Jordan when it hit a fire department vehicle stopped at a red light. The driver, who suffered a broken ankle, said later that Autopilot was turned on when the accident happened. Tesla was not immediately available for comment on the incident.

Recent news about cheating on driver-attention systems has also put partial automation in a negative light. In the latest move, an online vendor is selling a weighted device that's designed to fit in with a Tesla Model S or Model X steering wheel and fool Autopilot into thinking the driver has a hand on the wheel. That could stop the system from warning the driver to pay attention.

As semi-autonomous systems get more advanced, driver attention systems will need to keep up. Cameras aimed at a driver's eyes to monitor attention to the road, like the one Cadillac includes in its Super Cruise system, are likely to grow more common.

"Driver attention systems are going to improve quite a bit," Newcomb said.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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