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First self-driving Audi due in two years

Audi A7 autonomous car testing in China. It can be driven without hands on the steering wheel. (Photo: Supplied)

Autonomous cars are scary and amazing at the same time. As technology reaches new levels of accuracy, the industry is debating how much responsibility we should take away from drivers.

Look, no hands! German car-maker Audi has confirmed it will have an autonomous vehicle on sale within two years, beating industry predictions that self-driving automobiles wouldn't arrive until 2020.

It might not be legal to do so in some countries -- including Australia -- but drivers will, in theory, be able to keep their hands off the wheel and their feet away from the accelerator and brake pedals while the car guides itself in stop-start traffic.

The traffic law in most Australian states requires the driver to have “proper control of the vehicle”; for now it is unclear if the new technology will meet that criteria.

Audi's announcement at a consumer electronics expo in Shanghai overnight has renewed concerns about how much control should be taken away from drivers in cars of the future.

Audi says "piloted driving" systems will improve road safety -- even though the company controversially plans to use technology to encourage motorists to watch TV, check email or update social media while on the move.

The car is now the world's fastest and most powerful mobile device

"The car is now an interface between the driver and their digital life," said Audi chairman Rupert Stadler. "The car is now the world's fastest and most powerful mobile device."

The Audi boss said piloted driving "has the potential to improve safety" while also enabling "the safe integration of email and social media" into the car.

While road safety experts strongly oppose anything that increases driver distraction, advocates for the technology say automated assistance may be a safeguard against drivers who continue to break the law regardless of the potentially fatal consequences, or the hefty fines.

There have been at least two deaths in Australia in the past two years directly linked to drivers talking or texting on a handheld phone, but experts believe the real figure is much higher.

Australia has among the toughest penalties for distracted driving. In most states the fine for using a handheld mobile phone is three demerit points and more than $300. Victoria has the harshest fine: four demerit points and a ticket costing more than $400.

Audi is testing the technology in China because the traffic is more dense, driver behaviour is more sporadic

Audi insist it does not want drivers to pick up their phones, instead it wants them to access their digital devices via the screen integrated into the dashboard, and let the car do the rest.

Audi's experimental autonomous vehicle uses cameras, radar, and laser systems -- and 21 ultrasonic sensors -- to scan the road to "read" the traffic ahead, behind and in adjacent lanes.

Audi is testing the technology in China because the traffic is more dense, driver behaviour is more sporadic, and it is harder for the system to keep up with the unexpected changes in driving conditions.

"China has very dynamic driving, people cut in very early, brake very abruptly and drive bumper to bumper with a very small gap to the car in front," said Audi development driver Sebastian Klaas during a demonstration of the technology in Shanghai traffic.

"Those type of driving situations are still difficult for the technology to detect," he added after a taxi nearly crashed into Audi's laboratory on wheels and Klaas had to slam on the brakes because the technology didn't intervene in time.

Dr Bjorn Giesler, Audi's piloted driving expert who has overseen its development from the beginning, said once these glitches are sorted out the technology will be ready, even if the law isn't.

"We don't know the legal situation in Australia very well. But we are making it entirely possible for the driver to divert their attention from the driving task," said Dr Giesler.

When asked if drivers would develop a false sense of security, Dr Giesler said: "It's not a false sense of security, that's why we're starting with traffic jams. We need to guarantee the system is safe."

Audi pointed to a recent study that found automatic emergency braking reduced vehicle occupant injuries by 38 per cent since it became more widely available over the past five years.

"We have every reason to believe this is going to be more safe," said Dr Giesler. "There will always be freak accidents, that a human driver would be able to prevent but a system will not be able to prevent, so there is an ethical issue in there as well. Ultimately, we do think it will be more safe."

The industry is divided on how quickly cars will become completely autonomous.

For now, Audi can take the wheel at speeds up to 60km/h providing the road is relatively straight, the lanes are clearly marked and there are no sharp turns.

It's coming, no matter what

"The next step is 'highway pilot' at speeds up to 130km/h with automatic lane changes, and then after that we will go into the cities," said Dr Giesler.

How long will it take for the completely autonomous car to arrive in showrooms, one that you simply type your destination to the navigation unit and go along for the ride?

"Two years ago nobody talked about (autonomous cars), now every major car company has fleets of vehicles in testing," said Dr Giesler.

"The technology is accelerating so fast that I can't tell you if it's going to be 2020 or 2025 before we get full automation. But it's coming, no matter what."

The gradual automation of the automobile

Step one, what's already available?

First there was cruise control which set the speed of the car so the driver could focus on the road ahead and not glance at the speedometer constantly.

Then radar technology enabled a safe gap to be maintained with the vehicle ahead, matching its cruise control speed so the driver didn't have to touch the brakes if another car came into the lane.

The latest step is radar cruise control with automated stop-start -- using similar technology developed for automatic emergency braking.

The most a car can do today is stop and go by itself providing it hasn't broken the radar cruise control "beam" with the car in front. Available on selected luxury cars.

Step two, what's next?

Japanese car maker Nissan announced earlier this year it would have an automated car ready by the end of this decade, while Mercedes-Benz is already testing a car in Silicon Valley that can read stop signs, traffic lights and spot pedestrians -- as well as react to other cars around it.

The Mercedes-Benz driverless technology, also due in 2020, is more advanced and more capable, but the Audi will arrive in showrooms first.

Audi's piloted driving system is effectively like a radar cruise control with automatic stop-start technology. But the difference is that it will also steer itself and keep within the lane, even if the driver's hands are off the wheel.

Audi claims it will be the most advanced automated driving system in the world when it becomes the headline feature on its next generation limousine, the Audi A8, due in 2017.

Step three, when does the driver become a passenger?

The industry is divided on this but the best brains in the business say it will be at least 2025 or 2030 before completely automated cars can navigate our cities.

The reason car makers are focusing on freeway driving first is because the conditions are more constant and easier to process.

With city driving the car must take in traffic lights, bicycles, pedestrians and sudden unexpected movements of other cars.