Anyone who is tuned into the news or has the faintest interest in cars will know that self-driving automobiles are very much on the way.

"Shock, horror, gasp," we hear you cry. And for good reason, too, because a robot will soon be trundling you up and down the motorways of this little island while you reply to emails, binge on Netflix, or catch forty winks uninterrupted by traffic jams or the need to navigate a roundabout.

Naysayers will suggest that it means the thrill of hustling a motorcar along a tricky B-road will likely become a thing of the past, with manufacturers of the future focusing more on comfort and in-car entertainment than driving dynamics.

But before petrolheads hang up their string-backed driving gloves for good, they can still enjoy an interim (and arguably glorious) period where high levels of autonomy take the strain out of irksome traffic situations, but full control is handed back to the driver at the press of a button.

Audi Traffic Jam Pilot autonomous driving image 2

Such a system will be found in the upcoming Audi A8 in the form of Traffic Jam Pilot: a highly advanced autonomous driving system that sits under the German marque's AI functionality that ushers in remote, hands-free garage parking and the ability to autonomously hunt out spaces in the supermarket car park.

It can tackle such sophisticated hands-free manoeuvres due to the sheer weight of technology that Audi has managed to cram into its uber premium saloon.

A multitude of mid and long-range sensors, external cameras and a new zFAS central computer board (complete with processors from Tegra and Nvidia) team up to build a comprehensive picture of the world around the upcoming A8 and, in turn, allow it to take over advanced driving duties.

You might remember that we were lucky enough to sit behind the wheel of an old A7 concept and let then-called "Jack" take control of driving duties.

It was all part of Audi's push for higher levels of autonomy - but one of the main stumbling blocks facing manufacturers has been the cost of the technology required to make such systems safe.

1/7 

Most notably, the LIDAR laser scanners used to build a more complete virtual picture of the outside world have been astronomically expensive, bulky and cumbersome.

"We've managed to strip the laser scanner back to its most basic functionality," explains Stefan Rietdorf, the Audi engineer in charge of the development of automated driving functions and the man hurtling down one of Frankfurt's autobahns in the upcoming A8 while speaking with Pocket-lint.

"It means we can keep the cost, size and weight down - but still benefit from the features that we need to achieve this level of autonomy," he adds.

1/6 

The system itself is extremely simple to operate and so long as traffic is not exceeding 60km/h (37.3mph) and the A8 can determine the road is a motorway via its plethora of sensors (no pedestrians and a clear safety barrier between oncoming vehicles), Traffic Jam Pilot will be offered to the driver via the new model's gorgeous high-definition virtual cockpit screen that sits where old instrument dials would have.

The driver then hits a shiny metal AI button on the centre console and virtual cockpit shows a graphic of the car from the rear and blurred markings on the road.

Once activated, the upcoming A8 will stay within its lane, brake and accelerate to keep up with traffic ahead, and apply any steering torque required to keep the car central.

Should traffic slow, the A8 gradually pulls over slightly to the side of its lane (apparently all Germans are taught this to allow the emergency services though) and then sets off again when traffic gets going again.

Audi Traffic Jam Pilot autonomous driving image 4

It's impressively smooth from the passenger seat, with no jerky braking or wild steering inputs, and it feels completely natural after a few minutes.

So much so, Rietdorf reaches for the infotainment system and starts watching a video.

We will admit that a mild sense of panic swept over us when the high-resolution screen started playing one of Audi's latest adverts (apparently Rietdorf hadn't heard of Game of Thrones) but our host assured us it was perfectly legal.

Well, in Germany.

Germany modified its regulations in late June 2017 to allow driving cars with conditional and fully automated functions "within the designated parameters for use" - which basically means it's ok to interact with the infotainment screen when Traffic Jam Pilot is activated.

Pocket-lintAudi A8 interior image 1

"We call this interaction 'side tasks'," explains Rietdorf. "And it means drivers would be able to answer emails, browse playlists and interact with a number of apps that are built into the infotainment system in those regions where it is legal," he adds.

That doesn't mean drivers will be able to get sucked into a game of Angry Birds on their smartphone, as they must be willing to take over driving duties at any given moment and the key way of notifying the driver is through one of the numerous screens found inside the A8.

This is the key difference that has allowed Audi to heavily lean on legislators in order to make this technology legal. In a word, it is safe.

Should Traffic Jam Pilot need to hand over duties it will first give a gentle visual and audio prompt to the driver, followed by increasingly more severe warnings.

Failure to take over - in the case of a medical emergency, for example - will lead to the A8 slowing down, dabbing the brakes, jolting the seat belt and finally bringing the car to a complete stop with hazard warning lights illuminated.

Audi Traffic Jam Pilot autonomous driving image 3

If there is still no response, the on-board system will automatically alert the emergency services with precise location data.

"We have also had to prove that our systems, both physical and software, are failsafe, which is why we have multiple braking systems, two individual steering systems and self-intelligence built into the software so it knows not to duplicate any mistakes," explains Rietdorf.

In reality, the system also errs on the side of caution, so if the laser scanner system feels it hasn't got a clear view of the road ahead, it will hand duties back over to the driver rather than solider on. We've seen similar from Toyota and Nissan in their Japanese on-road vehicles.

It might sound like a small step for mankind, but being able to preform "side tasks" while feet, hands and eyes are off driving duties is a huge leap for autonomous driving.

So much so, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has deemed this technology true Level 3 Conditional Automation, which would make it the first system of its kind to be offered to customers.

Audi A8 AI Traffic Jam Pilot image 2

Level 0 sees the driver responsible for longitudinal and lateral control.

Level 1 is deemed as driver assistance, where the driver is still in full control but is supported by something like Adaptive Cruise Control.

Level 2, the level that we have seemingly been stuck at for a long time, is described as "partial automation" and, according to the SAE, means the driver can delegate "continuous combined longitudinal and lateral control of the vehicle to the system but retains the monitoring and overriding function at all times".

Here, the driver always maintains responsibility. An example is the current Traffic Jam Assist from Audi, which assumes the tasks of braking and accelerating the car in slow-moving traffic up to 65km/h (40.4mph) and also takes charge of steering on better roads - but requires the driver to monitor at all times.

The Level 3, or Conditional Automation, means the driver no longer has to continuously monitor and can carry out other activities supported by on-board equipment.

Audi Traffic Jam Pilot Autonomous Driving image 6

But the system autonomously recognises its own limits and when the outside conditions no longer marry up with the technology's aptitudes, it will ask the driver to take over.

Dr. Wolfgang Schmid, the man in charge of government affairs, digital mobility and renewable fuels at Audi, claims that some governmental bodies are more open to higher levels of vehicle automation than others and his team are currently working to see Level 3 rolled out in as many markets as possible.

"We made great progress here in Germany - but it is a very complicated subject," he explains.

"We not only have to change laws regarding conduct and the way drivers behave when behind the wheel, we also have to adhere to technical legislation and prove that our systems are safe," he adds.

Audi A8 AI Traffic Jam Pilot image 5

As a result, Audi will only introduce Traffic Jam Pilot to those markets where it is legal to use to its full potential.

After all, who wants to be stuck in a traffic jam while the car does all the hard work if you can't indulge in a cheeky Facebook post or two? We certainly don't...