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Tesla and Audi move to autonomy at different levels

Autonomous driving is the Holy Grail of mobility, and OEMs are following different paths to get there. As demonstrated by two recent announcements by Audi and Tesla, it's all about which level of autonomy you're aiming for.

Audi, for example, seems to have aimed too high. Previously, the manufacturer said it would offer a set of Level-3 autonomous driving capabilities called Traffic Jam Pilot with its 4th-generation Audi A8 luxury sedan. However, now that this model has officially been launched, those capabilities are not being offered with it.

Step too far

Level-3 autonomous driving capabilities are designed to allow the driver to take their eyes off the road (e.g. to read or watch a movie), but remain alert to the possibility of taking over the wheel again in an emergency. 

For most regulators, that's a step too far, at least for now. And Audi's own legal team was less than happy about the prospect of assuming the liability for any accidents, which logically would shift from the driver to the manufacturer. 

So Audi is substantially less enthusiastic about Level-3 autonomy than it used to be. Others are skipping the level altogether. Volvo's CEO has even called the technology unsafe. Now it's up to other manufacturers with deep pockets and high ambitions in autonomy to deliver Level-3 capabilities – notably the next Mercedes S-Class and BMW's iNext. 

Different course

Tesla is following a markedly different course, focusing on pushing the envelope of Level-2 autonomous capabilities. Level 2 autonomy allows drivers to disengage from some functions, while still keeping their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, staying alert to intervene.

Following a software update last weekend, and a year after Tesla CEO Elon Musk first promised the feature, properly equipped Tesla cars are now able to autonomously recognise and respond to traffic lights (pictured) and stop signs. 

Called Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control (TLSSC), the feature is only available to Tesla Model 3 and Model Y cars with the most recent Hardware 3 package and the full-option Autopilot package. 

Although it is marketed with the as yet over-ambitious title 'Full Self-Driving', the new update means Autopilot-enabled Teslas are now better equipped to autonomously handle intersections.  

Intent to slow

TLSSC slows Tesla cars down when using either the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control or Autosteer functions. The car will slow down to a stop for stop signs and traffic lights (including green, yellow and switched-off ones), which it will identify using a combination of cameras and GPS information.  

Before the intersection is reached, the car signals its intent to slow. To cancel the slowdown and proceed beyond the stop line, drivers must press the gear selector or accelerator. 

The feature still requires tweaking: Tesla says it is set to 'conservative' for now, and that it will learn from real-world results, becoming 'more natural' over time. Also, Tesla points out that the stop sign and stop light visualisations do not replace the care an attentive driver needs to take when approaching an intersection.

Reverse summon

But Tesla's ambitions already extend beyond Level 2. Last week, Musk promised Tesla would launch a 'Reverse Summon' feature before the end of the year. This will let the driver and passengers leave the car, which will then autonomously find a parking spot. 

As the name suggests, it's the reverse of the 'Smart Summon' function launched last year, which allows drivers to summon their parked Tesla via smartphone to come to pick them up. 

Tesla warned that this feature should only be used in private parking garages. However, the feature was immediately used in public parking spaces, where it caused a few near misses...

Authored by: Frank Jacobs