The next-generation Audi A8 to launch in July is expected to be the world's first Level 3-capable production car to go on sale in retail channels.
But aside from demo drives scheduled for journalists and analysts Audi plans to organize this month, the model's advanced driving features will remain switched off. They will only become available when the A8 goes on sale in Europe later this year, pending legislation that will allow for Level 3 driving.
In other words, only those with advanced hacking skills who might seek to activate the system ahead of time will be able to take advantage of the A8's Level 3 features before they become fully available to private owners.
An Audi spokesperson did not specify whether the self-drive features will eventually be activated entirely over the air or if they will require a visit at an Audi service center. Drivers will not begin to experience the option until next year at the earliest when Germany is expected to become the first country to legalize Level 3 driverless capabilities.
Audi's A8 Level 3 self-driving is indeed advanced. Once activated along highways at speeds of less than 37 mph that are separated from incoming traffic, the driver can completely hand over the controls of the car to the artificial intelligence (AI)-controlled computer. This means that you can read, work on your laptop, or have a video call as the car drives itself. However, you can't take a nap because the driver has to be able to take over the wheel within 10 seconds when prompted.
Once activated, Level 3 driving will only work in regions where it is legal. When the car enters a zone where Level 3 is not legal, the system will no longer work, the spokesperson said. The GPS will detect once the car leaves a particular zone and, for example, will shut down once the car crosses the German border and enters France, which is not expected to legalize Level 3 driving before the end of next year.
A company spokesman did not offer many details about the new Audi flagship's self-drive components except to say Audi will pack the model with the requisite LiDAR (light detection and ranging sensors), radar, and other sensors; advanced GPS; and an onboard computer the German carmaker calls zFAS in abbreviated German for the central driver assistance controller.
Our new flagship, the Audi A8, will have its market introduction in Europe later this year and is being developed for conditional automated driving according to SAE Level 3. To achieve this we are using the latest technology for the first time in automotive sector: LiDAR technology to fully detect the car's environment and zFAS. Both systems are indispensable to ensure the necessary redundancy in hardware and software architecture of the car. This is of crucial importance for piloted driving functions at SAE Level 3 and above.
The zFAS system, which Bosch helped to design and integrate into the car with Audi engineers, will process the data sent from the sensors to control driving, braking, and acceleration. The system will rely on machine-taught AI to process the data and images of both static and non-static objects surrounding the car for classification in real time that it receives from the LiDAR, cameras, radar, and other sensors. The Audi spokesman did not provide further details.
The A8 will invariably serve as an attractive hacker target for both white hats who have the good intention of learning how Level 3 works as well as those who seek to create mayhem or monetary gain (although such a business model has yet to emerge). While it would be speculative, of course, to try to detail how the car's network might be compromised before the A8 is available, the telematics system will likely provide the entry point for over-the-air (OTA) attacks, which is how hackers have mostly compromised cars in the past.
As a precursor for what might be in store for Audi, the Tesla Model S was compromised with an OTA attack in 2015. A group of researchers showed how they were able to install malware OTS in the vehicle's telematics system to then remotely bring the car to a stop by turning off its ignition.
By exploiting a vulnerability in the controller area network (CAN) bus, a Chinese security firm was able to seize control of the braking, infotainment panel, door locks, and other systems on the Model S before Tesla patched the security hole with an OTA software update.
For A8 owners, the onboard diagnostic diagnostic port would provide a direct entry the car's system. Doing so would require getting past the car's firewall to access the camera and sensors and analyzing the underlying CPU's commands and addresses, among other things.
Successful OTA attacks and being able to comprise the car's driverless functions through the onboard diagnostic diagnostic port are certainly doable, but will represent a formidable challenge, Egil Juliussen, an analyst for IHS Automotive, told Driverless.
"It will be interesting situation and see what happens and it's certainly not going to be an easy thing to do," said Juliussen. "It can be done but will take some time."
Meanwhile, the Audi A8 is expected to become the most advanced self-driving car once its Level 3 capabilities can be accessed, as early as next year in Germany. Only BMW has announced a specific model that will offer Level 3 model when it introduces the iNext, but it is not slated for launch until 2021. Audi will thus likely become the driverless frontier runner in the private vehicle space, only it will not be legally road-ready until at least next year in Germany.