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The age of autonomy

Self-driving cars are nearly among us, and their arrival promises to bring one notable benefit: more time

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Rupert Stadler, the chairman of Audi, with the new A8.

Do you spend at least an hour behind the wheel every day? That is the time that Audi would like to give you back, effectively creating a 25-hour day for its customers. The thinking behind the luxury brand's "25th Hour" project is that its cars in the future will be able to free the driver from the hassle of paying attention to the road, freeing up time for other things.

That future isn't too far off, either. The latest-generation of Audi's A8, the flagship model that made its global debut last month, already has the Artificial Intelligence (AI) necessary to take over from the human driver. Its Audi AI Traffic Jam Pilot system works up to speeds of 65km/h, and completely takes over from the driver - acceleration, braking and steering are all handled by computer.

"Our customers will profit from piloted driving in the long term. We see the Audi of tomorrow as a workplace, as a place of relaxation and as a place of enjoyment," said Rupert Stadler, the chairman of Audi, at the unveiling of the new A8.

Audi is not the only carmaker racing to build cars that can drive themselves. Its chief rival, BMW, has also announced plans to put the iNext, a self-driving car, on the road by 2021. By the end of this year it will have 40 autonomous prototypes on public roads around the world, while Sweden's Volvo aims to put 100 self-driving cars on trial in Sweden in the same timeframe.

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What's at stake is an enormous prize. Goldman Sachs estimates that the market for autonomous cars could be worth US$96 billion a year by 2025, and US$290 billion by 2035.

BMW has been showcasing future technologies in its Vision Next 100 concept car, and if the BMW iNext is anything like the curvy concept, it will be able to pilot itself so well that the driver should be able to take a nap. This degree of self-driving ability is known as Level 4 autonomy, one above what the new Audi A8 offers. The car industry uses a scale of 0 to 5 describe cars' self-driving abilities, and many models today are already at Level 2, thanks to features such as cruise control, or automated steering to keep a car within its lane to provide assistance to the driver.

At Level 3, a driver is able to take his eye off the road while the car drives itself in certain conditions, such as during a traffic jam. A fully autonomous, Level 5 car would not need to be operated by someone with a driving licence. It might have a steering wheel and other controls, but it would never oblige a human driver to take over.

While carmakers largely refuse to commit to a date when Level 5 autonomy will hit the market, the car that can pilot itself well enough to free up time for the driver seems just around the corner. The technology is certainly maturing; as long ago as 2014, a prototype of a self-driving Audi covered 5,000km in a coast-to-coast drive across the USA, manned by engineers who performed only one per cent of the driving, or roughly 50km.

That car was built by Delphi, an automotive supplier that is running a robo-taxi trial in Singapore with three similar Audis. They have more than 20 cameras and sensors each, and use Intel microprocessors to crunch the huge amount of data needed to let them make sense of its surroundings and react to them.

By 2020, the company intends to operate a service that lets customers summon a self-driving taxi to their doorstep with their smartphones. "We're not doing it as a science experiment. We want to work with the Land Transport Authority to actually launch a commercial service," Glenn De Vos, the chief technology officer of Delphi Corporation told The Business Times (BT)at a conference organised by Intel in May.

Delphi has another prize in mind. It intends to pair Intel chips with a package of sensors and cameras to make autonomous driving systems that car companies can purchase off-the-shelf. Eran Sandhaus, vice-president of software and services for Delphi, told BT that such an autonomous driving kit could be ready as early as 2019.

It would add thousands (before import duty and other upfront taxes) of dollars to the price of a car, said Mr Sandhaus. But the money would be buying something valuable: time. "When the car of the future drives automatically, the people on board will be able to make good use of their time," said Audi's Mr Stadler. "When cars communicate with each other and with the infrastructure, people will also get to their destinations faster, and in any case more conveniently and with less stress. This will all save time. And time is the biggest present that one can give society, and thus the customer."

However long it eventually takes to become a reality, one thing seems clear: inside a car, "Hands-free" means free time.

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