If you were on the highway somewhere between San Francisco and Las Vegas earlier this week and could swear some guy in a shiny new Audi passed you without even touching his steering wheel or glancing at a mirror, you may not have been dreaming.
During last year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Audi sent its new self-driving technology for a spin down a Las Vegas freeway, but the automated system — still under development at the time — failed, forcing the flesh-and-blood back-up driver to take over. Hoping to inspire more confidence than skepticism this time around, Audi took a gamble; rather than demonstrating its improved system with a quick trick like some of its competitors did at this year’s CES, the company decided to send a self-driving A7 on the 560-mile trek from San Francisco to Las Vegas.
And arrive in Vegas it did.
While not all 560 miles of the trip were driven entirely autonomously, the car did manage multiple solo stints of over 100 miles each. Fully equipped with radars, sensors, laser scanners, and cameras, the car can (and did) operate from 0 mph, to 70 mph without any driver interaction whatsoever. It can also change lanes and pass other vehicles at its own discretion. And when the car enters a situation in which it cannot operate alone, it identifies this, and informs the driver with multiple warning signals.
Impressive? Sure. But if the idea of a car “passing other vehicles at its own discretion” gives you the creeps and conjures images of Stephen King’s “Christine,” you aren’t alone; according to AutoTrader’s survey, 65% of vehicle owners said they believe self-driving cars are dangerous. Further, 61% would rather have individual autonomous features (like automatic braking, park assist, and collision avoidance) than fully automated cars.
Aware of this trend in consumer thought, Thomas Ruchatz, Audi’s head of driver assistance systems and integrated safety, said that full automation, with which “we can travel from our doorstep to our work and we don’t have a steering wheel in the car,” is not “going to happen just like that.” Instead, he says “We call it a revolution by evolution. We will take it step by step, and add more functionality, add more usefulness to the system.”