As a technology journalist, you have to be open to change all the time - but so-called ‘self-driving’ cars were something I was always a bit dubious about.
For many drivers, it's the pleasure of driving that counts - not when you're stuck on the M25 on a wet Friday afternoon, but on days when you're travelling along the country in the summer sun.
Moreover, robotic systems may be sophisticated, but can they really anticipate collisions like a human driver can?
As with anything, the only way to know for sure is trying it out yourself. So when an opportunity to try a piloted Audi A7 nicknamed ‘Jack’ came up, I jumped for it.
What is Jack?
Jack is a ‘piloted’ driving concept, approved for use on a motorway near Audi’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany.
Like many assisted cars now that help you with tasks like parking, the A7 Jack is loaded with sensors and cameras. These sensors are able to detect road markings, signs and of course, other vehicles, which Jack then interprets.
Jack falls into Audi’s ‘highly-automated’ category, because you can literally leave the car to its own devices on the motorway – but it still requires a licensed driver behind the wheel for all the bits in between, like getting onto the motorway in the first place.
Key where you want to go into the on-board computer and the system will calculate your route. The screen will tell you how long you will need to be in control of the wheel and alerts you as soon as Jack can take over.
So, how did my first ride in a self-driving car go?
As a non-driver, I’m sitting in the back of the motor, with a driver in the front, but the prospect of putting my life into the hands of a computer is still pretty scary.
After a few minutes on the road, a voice lets us know it’s time to surrender control. It’s the moment of truth.
There are two buttons to press on the steering wheel to tell Jack you agree to let it drive – of course, you don’t have to press them. Audi’s strategy is to ease people into piloted driving, not force them.
Jack is now fully in control, and already it’s accelerating all on its own while the driver has his hands off the wheel, feet away from the pedals and most shockingly – his back facing the road.
Jack knows the speed limit thanks to the mapping system, but the car is also able to read speed limit panels – and any panel for that matter.
We begin to catch up with a car ahead of us and the indicator begins ticking. Jack has decided to overtake, which is a nerve-wracking moment for me.
The Audi driver behind the wheel is at ease. I am incredibly anxious as Jack moves us into the fast lane. To my surprise it was really quite smooth: I expected it to be a bit jagged and stilted, but actually this felt really controlled.
We catch up with a lorry ahead and the fast lane is relatively busy. Jack doesn’t take the risks that humans might – jumping in quickly whenever we see a slim chance to pick up some speed, for instance. Jack stays behind and waits for the absolute safest opportunity to get ahead. It’s good that a machine doesn’t gamble with the life of its passengers, but on the other hand impatient drivers may not be too fond of waiting for their cars to make a manoeuvre when they could do it themselves.
Audi says the point isn’t to copy humans but to give drivers more time to do other things. The company expects the time in piloted mode to be spent replying to emails on your phone or other time-saving activities. Working on a laptop isn’t recommended at all because of the airbag, however, and nor is sleeping.
Jack only works on motorways at the moment, and the dashboard tells the driver how much time they’ve got left on the motorway before they have to take control.
Loud alerts inform you it’s time to take over, and don’t stop until you’ve click the buttons once again. Should you accidentally fall asleep at the wheel and don’t click the buttons, Jack will simply pull you over onto the hard shoulder.
Piloted driving: The verdict
Having taken a ride in an autonomous vehicle, I feel a lot more positive about self-driving cars. Once you get over the initial fear, you realise there’s actually nothing to worry about.
That said, there are many questions that need asking.
How will insurance work? Who will be liable and how do self-driving cars avoid collisions? And what about legislation? There are still a lot of issues to work through, but I think car manufacturers will get there.
The solution from Audi makes it a more natural transition for motorists – allow Jack to drive if you want, but take over whenever you like. Drivers aren’t being forced into giving up driving altogether, instead they’re being eased into it.
Would you trust a self-driving car? Let us know in the Comments section below.