Whether the 2019 Audi A8 — making its U.S. debut at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show — can drive itself and monitor your surroundings in certain situations, as its capability suggests, remains up to an unknown quantity of legal and regulatory barriers. Audi is still in discussions to greenlight the redesigned sedan's Level 3 capability — a reference to SAE International's six levels of automation, which go from Level Zero to Level 5.
Related: 2019 Audi A8's High-Tech Luxury Coming to L.A.
Cars with no self-driving capabilities are Level Zero; by Level 5 they're effectively self-driving pods that shuttle you around. No current production car exceeds Level 2, or partial automation — a classification that even applies to Cadillac's Super Cruise system, which can pilot the car hands-free on certain roads. That's because Level 2 requires the driver to monitor the vehicle's surroundings and take over as necessary. Super Cruise even keeps tabs on drivers to ensure they're doing just that.
In Level 3, by contrast, SAE's widely adopted standard says the car performs so-called "object and event detection and response." That's an umbrella of driving tasks that include "monitoring the driving environment (detecting, recognizing, and classifying objects and events and preparing to respond as needed) and executing an appropriate response to such objects and events," according to the latest version of SAE's recommended classification. In short: Level 3 automation can drive and keep track of what's around you — with appropriate response, including telling you to take back over if necessary — under certain conditions. Accordingly, SAE calls it "conditional driving automation."
For the new A8, those conditions are at low speeds on highways with physical barriers that separate you from oncoming traffic. In such cases, the car's new Traffic Jam Pilot system can putter the A8 along at speeds up to 37 mph thanks to 24 camera, radar, sonic and laser sensors that create a picture of what's around you.
Driver Distraction? Depends
Does that mean you can take a snooze or catch up on "Game of Thrones" on HBO Go while those conditions are met? Probably not the first, but maybe the second. The A8 has up to three screens at the driver's disposal: One in the middle of the dashboard and another below it on the console, plus Audi's now-familiar Virtual Cockpit gauges.
"We would probably never say you should just go and do whatever you want," said Mark Dahncke, Audi's director of product, technology and motorsports communications, speaking at the L.A. Auto Show. "We would only be recommending to people, if you will, that they use the systems in the car — radio, nav, watch a video potentially."
That's because the in-car displays ensure drivers are "visually seeing the feedback from the system rather than just an audible" feedback, Dahncke said. Jump on a smartphone or tablet, by contrast, and you're one step removed. Such objects can also become a projectile in a crash, he added.
Liability Questions Remain
Whether any of that's even possible when the A8 goes on sale next fall is still to be determined. Level 3 "means that the car is responsible for the drive [task] at that time," Dahncke said. "This is when you get into the legal framework."
Those legalities are complicated. They've even prompted a few automakers to reportedly mull plans to bypass Level 3 altogether.
"Personally, I'd much prefer to see the industry skip Level 3," wrote David Sullivan, a manager of product analysis at AutoPacific, in an email. "I think it presents the most issues. It straddles the line of man versus machine."
Sullivan said he's confident Traffic Jam Pilot will make it here, even if it comes as a hardware installation alone for early sales of the A8 and gets activated later as Audi clears regulatory and legal hurdles. But conditional automation still "seems like a slippery slope," he warned.
"We still have not solved the issue with insurance companies as to who will be at fault with SAE Level 3," Sullivan said.
Asked if a hardware-first approach is a potential plan, Audi officials told us it's still up for debate. That became a familiar refrain at the brand's auto-show display: The new A8 has the chops to drive itself and monitor surroundings in certain situations, but obstacles remain before Audi can unleash such capabilities — and between now and the A8's on-sale date next fall, many specifics are still to be determined.
"Every iteration has to be thought through," Dahncke said. "We are ahead of legislation. We're ahead of legal framework in general. And that makes it such that we're trying to educate and work with everyone."