Most companies wary of getting ahead of regulations, market
German carmaker Audi is taking a lead in bringing more automated driving to the roads, but its rivals seem in no rush to follow while legal and regulatory uncertainties still cloud the prospects of the technology.
At the Frankfurt car show held between September 14 and this Sunday, Audi displayed the A8, which can drive itself under certain conditions, help the driver change lanes and does not require drivers to monitor the road although they must be ready to intervene at the sound of an alarm.
On a scale where zero is a fully manual car and five a fully autonomous one, the A8 is a level three, putting it ahead of level two features offered by Tesla and General Motors (GM).
Struggling to emerge from the shadow of parent Volkswagen's diesel emissions scandal, Audi needs a new prestige model and a marketing coup.
"It's gratifying that we are able to set a positive sign for real 'Vorsprung durch Technik'," said R&D chief Peter Mertens, referring to Audi's advertising slogan meaning "advancement through technology".
But with special approval still required almost everywhere to operate such a car and questions over how quickly the driver has to take back control - and who is responsible during handover - some rivals are skeptical the market is ready.
"Who will pay for something that they can use only in extremely limited conditions?" asked Didier Leroy, European chairman of Japanese carmaker Toyota.
"The fact that Audi is introducing this one now doesn't mean that we will rush in the coming months to say that we are able to do it too. That is not our logic," he said at the car show.
Among the A8's new features is the "traffic jam pilot," which can completely control driving at up to 60 kilometers per hour on a divided highway.
The German company expects customers will be able to use all the model's self-driving functions next year or in 2019.
It is applying for approval country by country, starting with Germany, a spokesman said during the show.
Audi thus hopes to leapfrog Tesla, whose Autopilot technology suffered a major blow when a driver using it was killed in a crash, and GM, whose Super Cruise feature to be offered this autumn will allow limited hands-off driving at highway speeds on limited access roads
In the wake of the crash, Tesla said the driver was using Autopilot in conditions for which it was not intended, and US regulators said automakers should take steps to make sure semi-autonomous systems are not misused.
Hands on wheel
Regulatory regimes vary widely across the world and, in the US, even from state to state, creating a headache for manufacturers. Some authorities would rather they held back.
"We're very concerned about the idea that drivers will be encouraged to pay even less attention than they already are and that manufacturers are rolling out these systems without existing federal standards," said Linda Bailey, executive director of the US National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Florida, seen as the least restrictive state, has essentially legalized all forms of autonomous driving without the need for a permit or insurance requirements. New York, at the other end of the spectrum, has a law that demands drivers always have at least one hand on the wheel.
Michael Jellen, president of Velodyne, which develops sensing technology that is used in autonomous cars, said the industry still had a long way to go.
"When they truly launch a hands-free, driver disengagement system, that's when we think [the industry] will have evolved," he said. "Today, when someone has their hands on the wheel and their foot ready to brake, I call that driving."
In Europe, Germany is the pioneer, having passed a law in May that legalizes autonomous driving in principle as long as a licensed driver is behind the wheel - although approval still has to be sought for individual models.