Audi’s showpiece event for CES 2015 was the Audi A7 Piloted Driving Concept, which was able to guide itself the vast majority of the way from California to Nevada in time for the show.  At the show, Daniel Lipinski, project leader for Audi’s automated driving projects, explained how his team developed the A7 Piloted Driving car, nicknamed Jack, and all the ins and outs of the technology under its skin.

Compared to a regular A7 that you or I can buy, assuming we had enough dosh or credit, of course, the semi-autonomous A7 is equipped with a clutch of extra sensors: a laser scanne embedded in both the front and rear bumpers, and mid-range radars at each corner of the vehicle. The lasers monitor goings-on in front and behind the car, while the mid-range radars keep track of what’s happening to the sides. Jack also uses the latest megapixel camera from the second-generation Q7, while some other devices have been upgraded to the latest available versions.

Unlike production vehicles, the network of sensors in Jack have been engineered to provide a level of redundancy. Lipinski says that “this ensures that even if one sensor fails [the car] can operate for the next 15 to 20 seconds, and give the driver enough time to take over”.

All up these perception units provide the car with a 360 degree view of its surroundings and data from them is fed into the car’s decision making module. Housed in computers located in the boot, the decision making engine knows where the car wants to go and the car’s dynamic capabilities. As such, it has to continuously determine whether to stay in the same lane, plan trajectories around other vehicles, see whether it should pull into the slow lane to allow other vehicles to pass and, generally, avoid crashing into things.

Currently Audi’s autonomous prototype vehicles don’t monitor the driver’s vital signs, although Lipinski believes that this will be necessary when this technology hits the market. Right now, if the car asks for you to take over and you fail to do so after a reasonable amount of time, the A7 will come to a complete stop, preferably after moving over to the shoulder first.

There’s no publicly stated target date for commercial availability of Jack’s Highway Pilot system, but it will hit the market well before Audi begins selling a fully automated car. It’s part of Audi’s “evolutionary approach” to self-driving vehicles, where less complex systems are completed and sold first. Over time all these systems will meld into one capable of piloting a level five or completely self-driving vehicle.

Until then, there are still plenty of challenges to be conquered, especially on urban and suburban streets where, Lipinski says, “there are so many unknowns” and a long laundry list of things that have to be worked on.

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