Every decision the car makes comes down to two questions: Is it possible (i.e., safe and legal), and is it beneficial (i.e., does it make the ride more comfortable)? Tuning the system to assess and balance these two things and speed up, slow down, change lanes, or make turns smoothly has been key to developing the technology. At one point during my drive, the A7 moved effortlessly into a relatively small slot in the right lane to make way for a faster car approaching from behind. It was seamless. That kind of decision making and maneuvering is quite advanced, yet needs fine-tuning before commercial production can begin.
As my excitement turned to boredom — I-5 just goes on and on and on and on — it became easy to see Highway Pilot as a feature drivers will embrace. And it suggests Audi and other automakers are on the right track, rolling out autonomous tech one or two features at a time. Knowing I can immediately resume control of the car, and feeling a conventional steering wheel in my hands and pedals beneath my feet, makes the transition to being chauffeured by a robot easier to embrace. It’s a more sophisticated version of the adaptive cruise control we’re already using. In that way, the A7 isn’t a self-driving car; it’s a luxury sedan that can, with my approval, make driving safer, easier, and more relaxing.
A piecemeal approach also is easier for automakers and regulators. Making one swift jump to fully autonomous driving, as Google is pursuing, requires perfecting all of the technology and considering every possible scenario. The car must know exactly what to do, everywhere, under every condition. It’s a massive undertaking, and it’s easy to see why the automakers want to take things one step at a time.