Audi is teaching its self-driving car human manners

Audi is teaching its autonomous cars some thoroughly human road-manners, acknowledging that safe self-driving is about more than just sticking to the Vehicle Code. The German automaker has been running real-world tests of its autonomous fleet for several years now, most recently taking a self-driving A7 – dubbed "Jack" – out onto the A9 Autobahn.

The primary goal of the test was to explore Car-to-X communication; that is, vehicles connecting wirelessly with other vehicles as well as road infrastructure around them, and sharing data about the current environment.

For instance, Audi is setting Jack up to automatically be notified about road or lane closures up ahead, beyond where the car's own sensors could immediately spot. Similarly, the car could automatically understand that a temporary lane has been opened up that it can use, or reduce its speed if congestion or an accident is reported by other vehicles further down the route.

It's not just Audi using the car as a test bed, mind. Road infrastructure manufacturers are also exploring new technologies, including posts and signs that are more reflective to radar and thus allow autonomous vehicles to better localize themselves at a greater distance.

Audi's latest navigation system allows Jack to prioritize routes which, though perhaps not the shortest or most fuel-efficient, do contain the longest stretches where piloted driving can be turned on.

What're particularly interesting are Audi's efforts to teach Jack how to better co-exist on the road with human drivers. The A7 now models more human behaviors in an attempt to drive "more naturally" the automaker says, including giving larger vehicles like trucks more of a gap as it passes them.

Some of the cues are so subtle you might only really notice them in their absence. Jack will now not only flip on its turn signal when it wants to change lane, but move closer to the edge of the current lane first: that's something human drivers do to also telegraph their intentions.

Different "driving profiles" can switch between a range of driving styles – an advancement, perhaps, on the current Drive Mode system in some production Audi cars, which changes suspension, steering, transmission, and engine response to different "Dynamic" or "Comfort" settings – and thus affect whether Jack accelerates or brakes when another vehicle wants to merge in its current lane.

Computerized cars that drive more like humans aren't an entirely new concept. Mapping company HERE – acquired by Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler – has previously argued that autonomous vehicles will need to tone down their precise road manners in order to avoid passenger discomfort.

That could even include a variety of personality profiles, that range from "taking grandma to church" caution through to "slept-late and need to get to work" aggression.

It's not just a theory, either. Using the same tracking data that it relies upon to identify traffic jams, HERE was able to categorize how different drivers – ranked from cautious through to aggressive – took the same corners, including when they started braking, what speed and line they traveled at while turning, and then when they began speeding up afterwards.

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The aggregate of such data could be used to teach an autonomous car how it could drive most palatably to flesh & blood occupants used to other human drivers.

Although we're still some way from a fully-self-driving Audi, the automaker has made some bold commitments recently as to when it expects to see cars that can drive themselves on dealer forecourts. The 2018 Audi A8, which should go on sale from 2017, will include piloted drive for use on select roadways, for instance, the company confirmed yesterday.