For the frustrated commuting driver, there’s nothing worse than wasted hours spent crawling along in traffic jams - the petrol gauge ticking down, the cramped legs, and the continual braking, stopping and slowly moving again.

Imagine, then, an automated driving system that removes all the stress and boredom of jams, where at the touch of a button you can go hands free and your car does the braking and accelerating for you. Audi is making the idea a reality with is revolutionary A8 saloon, and its all-new Traffic Jam Pilot, which we got a sneak peak and test drive of  it in Germany.

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What do car automation levels mean?

Audi raised a few eyebrows when launching the Traffic Jam Pilot earlier this year in that it offers Level 3 automation.

Vehicle automation has been defined in six levels by SAE, a global organisation of automotive engineers and tech experts. Level 0 describes a car with no automation whatsoever, while Level 6 would be a vehicle requiring no human input at all during a journey – a truly autonomous, ‘driverless’ car.

Many manufacturers already offer cars with Level 2 automation, in which a vehicle can take over steering and speed altogether in certain circumstances, but the driver is still fully in charge of managing these systems and must remain aware at all times.

With Level 3 automation, Audi says the driver will be able to completely relax and even watch on-board television at speeds of up­­ to 60 kilometres per hour (just over 37mph) – though the company admits this will be contingent on national laws coming into force that allow motorists to take their hands off the wheel at speeds of over 10km/h.

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What is Traffic Jam Pilot?

The thinking behind the Traffic Jam Pilot was to allow drivers to use time spent in jams more productively but, more importantly, to maintain safe and regular-spaced distances between cars so that jams are slower to build and quicker to break up.

Audi engineer Steffan Rietdorf explains that the starting point in the creation of the new Level 3 automation was: assume the driver can’t take over straight away at any given point. Clearly this was a huge challenge, as safety regulations require a car to be ‘fail operational’ – in other words, if the technology stops working and the driver isn’t paying attention, the car would still need to stop safely.

Audi Traffic Jam Pilot screenshot

To that end, the A8 is loaded with an unprecedented amount of sensor equipment: 12 ultrasonic to detect other cars, objects and humans; four mid-range sensors for lane detection and scanning vehicles in adjacent lanes; and a long-range sensor which monitors the behaviour of as many as three cars ahead, in order to anticipate upcoming hazards or changes in driving conditions.

A front central camera also helps to monitor the driveable corridor and classifies vehicles moving around the A8, while a laser scanner – the first such to be included as standard on a production car – receives sharply-contoured images that define the size of obstacles ahead and differentiates between the moving and the static.

Test driving Traffic Jam Pilot

In the safe grounds of an aircraft field near Dusseldorf we got behind the wheel of the Audi A8 to try the technology.

You start by setting the level of speed at which the Traffic Jam Pilot can operate and, with the push of a button, it kicks into gear.  Take your hands off the wheel, and the car’s Central Driver Control Unit takes over – processing all the sensor information to ensure that we brake, stop, and accelerate away again smoothly and easily.

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When circumstances change so that it’s necessary for the driver to take back control of the car, the A8 will first give a warning tone and its dash display turns red. The driver then has 10 seconds to put his hands back on the wheel.

If for some reason the driver fails to do so, the car maintains control and automatically gives a couple of jerks on the driver’s seatbelt, as well as braking at short intervals, in order to attract their attention. If there is still no response, the car can bring itself to a complete standstill, switch on its hazard lights and make an emergency services call. Impressive stuff.

The proof of pudding will come in a proper traffic jam, so (for insurance purposes) Steffan takes the wheel and we head off into the melee of cars on Dusseldorf’s A52 autobahn. We’re soon stuck in stop-start, slow-moving early evening traffic, and the car automatically informs us that circumstances are right for the Traffic Jam Pilot to be available.

Steffan hits the button, and without skipping a beat the A8 takes control – slowing and stopping when cars ahead do the same, moving away again smoothly when they restart, keeping us perfectly in-lane, and even adjusting when another vehicle cuts into our lane ahead of us. Check out the video below to see it in action.

It’s a remarkably impressive piece of automation, and surprisingly we feel no concern that the car won’t behave perfectly – there’s no nervous hovering of the hands above the wheel, no feeling that eagle-eyed monitoring of the road, 'just in case', is necessary – it’s simply a comfortable, stress-relieving and beautifully-executed display of the car’s capabilities.

When will Traffic Jam Pilot be available?

Current laws mean that the technology is still illegal to use in most countries, but Audi are confident that this situation will change, if not by the time the car is on the road in 2018 then soon after; governments are keen to embrace any innovation that can reduce the massive cost to their economies of traffic build-up.

In the meantime, we’ve had an eye-opening introduction to the possibilities afforded by motoring automation – and we can’t wait to see how it develops further.

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