Progress is fast-paced when it comes to moving slow: As the first manufacturer to do so, Audi has enabled Level 3 automated driving in congestion. When traffic is backed up, the traffic jam pilot takes over. Our reporter Stefan Boysen dared to try it himself.
The work day is over. More and more cars squeeze into the constant stream of vehicles ahead of us. The news on the radio tells us that the roads in North Rhine-Westphalia are very busy. So it’s a normal day on the A52 from Düsseldorf to Essen. But: There’s nothing normal about this for me today. Because I’m about to turn myself and my fate over to sensors and control units. And because the man next to me is taking a route that is almost incomprehensible. “Now we’re going to look for a nice little traffic jam,” says Simon Ulbrich.
But first things first: I meet Ulbrich for the first time outside the Düsseldorf airport. The technical project manager for the traffic jam pilot at Audi gives me a friendly handshake. And doesn’t pay too much attention to all the people curiously eyeing the Audi A8. Its black and white foil is reminiscent of those prototypes spotted on test drives somewhere around the Arctic Circle. Simon Ulbrich is obviously used to all the attention surrounding his vehicle. But how many people here at the airport know that the extravagant appearance of the A8 is nothing compared to what’s inside? I am here to test those hidden qualities. Simon Ulbrich holds the passenger door open for me and invites me to try out the Audi AI traffic jam pilot – the feature that those at Audi call “from a technical perspective, a revolution.”
The car gets a life of its own
They came to the right person. Until now, revolutions have taken great detours around me. My car is more than ten years old and definitely at the opposite end of revolutionary. Unlike the traffic jam pilot: When combined with the A8, it enables highly-automated, Level 3 driving. Audi is the first automobile manufacturer to reach this level – and to allow the driver to hand over responsibility for the car in a particular situation.
I am excited to experience the new technology. And a little tense. Good for my mental balance: Simon Ulbrich and the A8, you quickly notice, are a well-coordinated team. Together, they have logged tens of thousands of kilometers in developing the technology to maturity. “So,” he says suddenly, “I think we have something up ahead.” And it’s true: Traffic is slowing down, our speed diminishes – and the car takes on a life of its own.
Suddenly in the midst of a new era
Blinking white strips of light appear on the instrument panel on the left and right side of the display.
They frame the message: “Traffic jam pilot available”. The silver button on the center tunnel console also lights up, which bears the label Audi AI – for Audi Intelligence. Simon Ulbrich presses the button, takes his foot off the gas, his hands off the wheel – and I’m in the midst of a new era. The
person who was my driver a moment ago says: “Now we are in piloted mode. Do we want to play a movie? Or watch TV?
For the first time in the history of the automobile, the driver can turn away from what is happening on the road – and turn toward some of the activities offered by the on-board infotainment system in the center console, such as surfing the Internet, writing emails and watching movies. Simon Ulbrich doesn’t have to monitor his vehicle; we can rely completely on the traffic jam pilot. Since being activated, the AI button has been lit green. And the display provides us with a simple depiction of our own car on the street.
It doesn’t matter that a huge semitrailer just appeared outside my passenger window: The drive simply feels good. The traffic jam pilot takes us into the center lane of traffic – its acceleration and braking are smooth and controlled. Our environment meets the conditions required by our chauffeur: We are on the highway and driving a maximum of 60 kilometers an hour; traffic is moving slowly and there are lane markings that provide orientation.
The computer makes all the decisions
And if the car that’s passing us suddenly cuts in to the right and narrowly misses our front bumper? No problem, says Simon Ulbrich – the vehicle would remain calm and “be able to handle the situation.” While cruising in the center lane at a speed of 50 km/h, the traffic jam pilot proves to be an excellent observer. At the front, sides, and rear, at the exterior mirrors and windshield: With its ultrasonic sensors, radars and cameras, it registers what is going on around us. A laser scanner is included, too – Audi is the first manufacturer to make use of this sensor – to provide the information necessary for the vehicle to be aware of its environment.
All of this data flows into the brain of the traffic jam pilot – the central driver assistance control unit, or: zFAS. This computer, as big as a tablet, makes all of the decisions. What we all see of the technology: nothing. The car we’re in today is a prototype – an exception. For general road approval, Audi needs to observe legal requirements and meet standards that vary from country to country – standards that still have to be formulated. It will be some time before the traffic jam pilot in the A8 goes into production.
And what if Simon Ulbrich would start to nod off because his show on ZDF is too boring? The traffic jam pilot would notice. It keeps an eye on the driver's head movements and eyelid blinks using a driver monitor camera in the upper area of the instrument panel. And it reacts if the driver’s eyes close for a longer period – by prompting the driver to take back control or, when necessary, by stopping.
The cars in front of us start to accelerate, traffic moves faster and our digital speedometer shows a speed of more than 60 kilometers an hour. Time for the traffic jam pilot to get ready for the hand over. The display and the ai button blink red, a subtle tone is heard, and the tv program disappears from the on-board monitor. Simon Ulbrich takes hold of the sensor-equipped steering wheel. Now he’s back in charge of the driving. “The traffic jam is over,” he says. What a shame, really.
Germany's traffic jam picture
Where traffic jams most often occur:
In Germany in 2016, almost two-thirds of the total congestion length was located in three states:
- 28 % North-Rhine Westphalia
- 21 % Bavaria
- 13 % Baden-Wuerttemberg
694,000 traffic jams in Germany in 2016. Their length totaled some 1,378,000 kilometers.
418,757 hours of congestion was the total in Germany in 2016.
Friday is traffic jam day – on average, there are approx. 5,000 kilometers of congestion on this day.
- Photos: Audi AG, Roman Rätzke
- Photo: Audi AG