At the end of last month German legislators brought in a law allowing drivers to hand over full or partial control of their vehicles to autonomous drive systems, as long as their cars have what are referred to as Level 3 or Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities. It now appears Audi is going to be the first manufacturer to take advantage of the new ruling with its all-new flagship A8 sedan.
Of course, most people will have no idea what Level 3 or Level 4 autonomy means, but basically Level 3 is a hands-off capability where the driver is ready and able to resume control at any time, while Level 4 is even more advanced and goes beyond that. Until this new law came into force, previous domestic legislation demanded that drivers' eyes had to be on the road at all times, even if assistance systems were in place to allow drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel for a period of several seconds.
It's particularly important Germany has passed this law as not only is it Europe's largest market for new cars with more than three million registrations per year, but it's also Audi's second-largest market after China.
While auto industry types often complain their technological developments outpace legislation, in this case it's the legislation that's ahead of the technology.
However, there is one sticking point in that the law only applies to drivers. It doesn't actually cover how a model with this Level 3 autonomy like the new A8 will be approved for the market. The result of this is that the new A8, which arrives at dealers in Europe in the autumn, will still require specific regulatory approval for its new Traffic Jam Pilot feature. Traffic Jam Pilot lets drivers remove their hands from the wheel and take their eyes off the road at limited speeds on one-way streets where pedestrians and cyclists are not present. Operation of the vehicle can also be ceded entirely, but only as long as the driver is still capable of taking back total control within a specific timeframe, potentially of 10 seconds or so.
Audi insists the A8's Level 3 autonomy lets drivers tend to other tasks while the car deals with stop-and-go congestion on highways, although what those tasks actually are is open to conjecture.