My son would love this. There's a dinosaur on the television between me and Simon Ulbrich, of Audi's automated driving function department. We're in the all-new for 2018 Audi A8, the first series production car, says its maker, to offer Level 3 Autonomy. For those of you not familiar with the lingo, that means hands-off, car driving itself, within a predetermined range of situations. Today that's on a motorway, specifically one with a central barrier, travelling no more than 60km/h in heavy traffic.
The new Audi A8 is so advanced, the legislators in most countries have yet to write the laws to allow it operate everywhere. Germany is enlightened enough to have done so, though the legal hurdles worldwide are mind-bogglingly tricky. That means Audi's 'AI Traffic Jam Pilot' won't be available immediately, and it'll need geo-fencing, so aspects of autonomy can be switched off as the car crosses borders (or State boundaries in the USA).
For this test drive, we're on an autobahn just outside Dusseldorf in Germany, on one of the most congested road networks in Europe. Over eight million people live around here, and the road network struggles to cope, so there are frequent and lengthy jams. It's exactly these situations Ulrich looks for, probably the only person in the world who'll actively turn around to join a tailback on the opposite carriageway. We're chatting about the huge complexity of the sensor technology involved, all while the A8 drives itself. Ulbrich can look at me while chatting or watch the television, safe in the knowledge the technology he helped develop will drive us along safely.
I'll admit that I'm something of a sceptic around the idea of automated driving. I've always considered it to be technology for technology's sake, and perhaps answering a question that nobody asked. Along with that, it's something of a vicious circle. As layers of control, via existing Level 2 systems such as lane-keeping assistance and radar-guided automated cruise control, are peeled away, there's more opportunity for distraction. With level 3 you're allowed to be distracted - hence that dinosaur on the central television as we drive along - though you need to remain aware, as if the traffic goes over 60km/h you're required to take back control.
That, says Audi's engineers, reduces the stress of driving and allows you the opportunity to catch up with work, take calls or watch television. Fine, perhaps, if it's the latter, but the idea that our congested commutes could be more opportunity to work might sit uncomfortably with some. Myself included.
There's no denying how impressive the A8's technology is and potentially helpful it can be. Indeed, Prof Dr Michael Schreckenberg, a physicist studying traffic flow, suggests that, if all cars had such systems, then traffic jams could be avoided altogether, as the ripples that cause jams are the result of the unpredictability of human responses. Systems like the A8's AI Traffic Jam Pilot could remove this. The benefits are plentiful, then, environmental and economic, Schreckenberg calculating that the cost of traffic jams in Germany alone is - conservatively - around €60bn annually.
Still, there are worse places to be sitting than in the new Audi A8 if you are in traffic. The cabin is a demonstration of cutting-edge luxury and technology, with a pair of screens dominating the centre console and Audi's Virtual Cockpit taking care of the instrumentation. The fit and material quality are exemplary, the ride comfortable and the engine and transmission as smooth as you could wish for. Only the smudges of fingers on those huge touchscreens and the weird upside-down door handles let it down, and in truth we're splitting hairs. But then if you're not distracted by actually driving it, what else are you going to do?