Between Silicon Valley’s disruption-happy tech giants and Detroit’s suddenly totally on board automakers, it’s easy to think of America as the center of the self-driving universe. And so it seems a bit backwards that Audi has decided to release the world’s most capable semiautonomous driving feature in … Europe.
When the 2019 A8 sedan hits dealer lots later this year, Europeans will have access to Traffic Jam Pilot, which will take control of the car on the highway at speeds below 37 mph; no need for the constant human supervision required by current systems like Tesla’s Autopilot.
On this side of das pond, however, as CNET reports, too many questions remain about laws that change from one state to the next, insurance requirements, and things like lane lines and road signs that look different in different regions. When the A8 goes on sale here, it won’t come with Traffic Jam Pilot. Audi’s bosses don’t want the drama, so Americans don’t get the freedom.
Audi’s cutting the US out of the self-driving party underlines how much trouble industry and government are having wrapping their heads around a technology that could be a boon for safety, convenience, and profit margins, but that upends much of the framework that has evolved to govern cars driven by good old fallible humans. Audi’s more capable system—which puts more trust in the computer than anything before it—threatens to turn today’s headaches into tomorrow’s scream-inducing migraines.
Audi will be the first automaker to launch what engineers call a “Level 3” system, which can safely control itself, but still needs a human available to take over if, say, the weather turns scary or the lane lines disappear. (Drivers using Tesla Autopilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, or Nissan Pro Pilot are told the watch the road at all times and remain ready to take over from one second to the next.) The difference is small but important. As Audi’s website puts it: “With Traffic Jam Pilot engaged, drivers no longer need to continuously monitor the vehicle and the road. They must merely stay alert and capable of taking over the task of driving when the system prompts them to do so.” If you’re on the highway and stuck in slow traffic, activate the system and feel free to look at your phone or even read a book. Just don’t fall asleep, get drunk, or cut off your hands.
This represents, then, the first time you can buy a car that is, in a real sense, self-driving. If you live in Europe. Because when it comes to the US market, Audi’s concerns include “uncertainty to consumer deployment (insurance requirements, local laws on vehicle design and performance, reporting standards),” a spokesperson told CNET. (Audi did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment.) Where Germany passed a law last year making this sort of thing explicitly legal, the US federal government hasn’t done much of anything.
“I think law gets blamed too often,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a legal scholar with the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies self-driving vehicles. Audi itself has pointed out that the lack of federal rulemaking means the this system is legal, by virtue of not being illegal. But in the absence of proactive, nationwide approval, the automaker seems worried that state laws will make for headaches. New York’s 1971 requirement that drivers keep at least one hand on the steering wheel could cause trouble, should anyone decide to enforce it. California’s new regulations for commercial deployment of robo-cars might subject Audi to a bevy of requirements, from customer education, including for those who buy the car used, to data collection in case of a collision. That law doesn’t apply to systems now on the road, but they might to Traffic Jam Pilot, since it reduces the human from overseer to backup driver. More power, more responsibility, you know?
Meanwhile, the less capable systems available today risk derailing the future before Audi can get there. The National Transportation Safety Board, which last year criticized Tesla’s Autopilot feature for allowing human drivers to abuse it, is investigating another fatal crash, this one in a Model X in March in Northern California. The hits keep coming: On Monday, the driver of a Tesla Model S claimed the car was in Autopilot mode when it crashed into a stopped firetruck—not the first Tesla to do that.
“I don’t think the crashes have changed the approaches of the developers or the regulators,” Walker Smith says, but it’s easy to imagine that increased scrutiny encouraged Audi to keep its new system out of the US—at least for now. Or maybe the Germans just need more time to make sure their system can handle particularly American difficulties, like lane markings that look totally different Montana from Mississippi from Massachusetts.
Whatever the answer, it’s a reminder that however fast the future of driving is moving, our understanding of how to deal with the cars that will get us there is lagging behind.