Why the 2019 Audi A8 won’t get Level 3 partial automation in the US

Pricing for the 2019 Audi A8 has just been announced ahead of its US launch, but when the German luxury brand’s flagship sedan hits dealers this fall, an important piece of hotly awaited technology won’t be available: Traffic Jam Pilot.

The automaker had been planning to sell its new full-size flagship in the United States with Traffic Jam Pilot, the auto industry’s first production conditionally automated Level 3 hardware. However, Audi says that a quagmire of legal, infrastructural and consumer issues in the States are hampering the rollout of this technology.

Traffic Jam Pilot, which combines the passenger car industry’s first production lidar scanner with next-generation sensor fusion and processing power (including key built-in redundancies in the event of component failures) would likely have been the most advanced partially automated-drive system on the market, besting systems like Cadillac’sSuper Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot.

As a Level 3 system, TJP provides a hands-off, eyes-off conditionally automated mode that allows the driver to focus on things other than driving under predefined circumstances, though the driver must be available to retake control when the vehicle deems it necessary. Instead of receiving TJP, which is able to negotiate traffic at speeds up to 37 mph hands-off in select situations, the A8 will receive a less-capable system.

Audi has always been clear that Traffic Jam Pilot would roll out in a market-by-market strategy as local conditions allowed, and right now, that means US-bound 2019 A8 models will ship without key hardware and software needed to achieve Level 3 functionality. However, even with such omissions, Audi’s Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series rival will still feature heretofore unavailable driver assist safety technologies that should put its new sedan squarely in any conversation around the industry’s most advanced automated-driving tech.

Despite not being a Level 3 system, US-bound A8 models will still offer industry-first lidar sensing, as well as the company’s zFAS processor, the nerve center of the car’s active safety capabilities. The full-size sedan will feature a hands-on, eyes-on Level 2 adaptive cruise control system with steering, acceleration and full braking support.

Indeed, like the development prototype I demo’d back in September, the A8’s driver assist tech will include an escalating series of warnings if it detects an inattentive driver while the cruise control is activated. Those warning cues will include audible, visible and physical interventions (brake taps). If the driver fails to respond to all of these alerts, US-market cars will still interpret this non-response as a driver emergency, and will be able to slow to a complete stop in-lane with the hazard lights on, whereupon it will initiate an emergency call.

The 2019 Audi A8 bound for American dealerships will also feature an industry-first predictive active suspension system that detects imminent side impacts, instantaneously raising the chassis over 3 inches for improved crash compatibility with the sedan’s frame rails. Intersection Assist, another new safety feature, will also be included. It curtails the likelihood of a driver inadvertently pulling into oncoming traffic when making a turn or leaving a parking space through the use of warnings and brake intervention.

The aforementioned quagmire of factors that have led to Audi’s decision to not bring Traffic Jam Pilot to the US includes foggy federal regulatory framework. Thus far, Congress has yet to enact legislative guidelines regarding autonomous driving technologies, and Audi says that a patchwork of existing (and sometimes conflicting) state-to-state regulations would make it difficult to sell a single-spec vehicle nationwide.

This legal situation has a variety of consequences, including “uncertainty to consumer deployment (insurance requirements, local laws on vehicle design and performance, reporting standards),” an Audi spokesperson said to Roadshow in an email.

In addition to potentially thorny legal issues, Audi says infrastructural differences are also playing a factor in TJP’s deferred rollout. In the US, items like signage, lane markings and road configurations themselves can vary significantly from state to state and region to region. One of the most time- and resource-intensive investments in developing self-driving technology is programming a vehicle’s various systems to be aware of, and account for, these sorts of roadscape variations.

Photo: Audi