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The next Audi limo will pay you back in time

Audi showcases a self-driving car simulation, alongside a model that is close to being one.

Audi's 25th Hour exhibit.

Audi Singapore managing director Jeff Mannering with the Audi A8 L.

WHAT would you do with an extra hour of your life every day?

You could finally finish reading The Lord Of The Rings, compose a symphony, waste even more time on social media, or just snooze away the extra time, blissfully paying down your sleep debt.

German luxury brand Audi knows where that extra time could come from, and is working on a way to unlock it.

Like everyone else living in modern cities, Singaporeans spend a lot of time on the road. According to a 2016 survey by insurance company Direct Asia, 77 per cent of us spend more than five hours a week behind the wheel.

But as part of its 25th Hour project, Audi is working on cars that can drive themselves so well, their owners will be able to simply sit back and do other things.

To illustrate the idea, Audi has an immersive simulation at the Singapore Motorshow 2018.

In it, a central four-person seating platform is surrounded by a 360-degree projection with overlaid data readouts to simulate the experience of commuting inside a completely autonomous car of the future.

Alex Lee, a public sector manager, 46, is an Audi driver who experienced the 25th Hour simulation on Thursday.

"If you're someone who loves to drive, then autonomous driving might not be for you," he said.

"But in Singapore, where we experience traffic jams daily, I think it will be an advantage. If I were stuck in a jam, then at least I will have a choice: I can clear my e-mails or spend time interacting with friends and family."

While such levels of autonomy seem faraway, Audi is also showcasing a car that is tantalisingly close to delivering that 25th Hour.

Its new flagship luxury limousine, the A8 L, is due to go on sale in Singapore in the first-half of the year. It embodies Audi's first steps in offering customers an autonomous car they can actually buy.

The A8 L can be equipped with more than 40 systems that help the driver do everything from parking to eliminating instability from road humps, but what Audi is playing up most is the fact that it is the world's first full-production model featuring Level 3 autonomous capability.

Level 1 is a conventional, human-driven car, while Level 5 represents full automation with no human intervention required.

Level 3 means 'conditional autonomy', where the car can handle all aspects of driving (turning, accelerating, changing lanes), but with a human overseer ready to take back control if necessary.

The A8's autonomous driving system is called Audi AI Traffic Jam Pilot. It requires the car to be travelling at less than 60km/h, on a highway/motorway, have traffic in front and behind it, and have a physical barrier between it and the traffic going in the opposite direction.

Once all the conditions are met and the systems is engaged, it leaves the driver free to take hands off the wheel and do other things.

In this regard, Audi's system is a step up from existing Level 2 autonomous driver assist systems currently available here from rival carmakers such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.

Various models from those brands can be fitted with systems that allow them to follow other cars in start-stop traffic automatically, or steer themselves within a lane. But those systems are meant to assist, not replace, the driver.

Before Audi's self-driving car goes on sale, however, it faces a hurdle.

"With the A8, autonomous driving is already a reality, but whether or not you'll be allowed to do it is the question," Jeff Mannering, managing director of Audi Singapore, told The Business Times.

The legislative barriers concern two areas: whether autonomous cars are allowed at all, and what drivers are allowed to do while the car drives itself. These are questions that all autonomous vehicles bring with them, as the technology is too new to suit existing laws.

"It doesn't matter which manufacturer or what your cars can do, the same discussions are happening everywhere else in the world," said Mr Mannering.

For Audi's part, the brand will be bringing an A8 L with autonomous systems to Singapore with the aim of seeking approval from the Land Transport Authority to make Audi AI Traffic Jam Pilot legal here.

If approved, the system will proliferate as it starts to become available in Audi's more affordable models. But that will take some time. Mr Mannering estimates that the A3 and A4, for example, will receive the technology only in a few years.

In the meantime, the A8 L puts Audi ahead in a race to autonomy that car manufacturers expect to be a long one. Until they reach the finish line, your symphony might have to wait.

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