My wife’s uncle is elderly, and his hearing and vision aren’t as sharp as they once were. He wants to buy a Tesla because he thinks it will drive him around just as soon as Elon Musk snaps his fingers and performs an over-the-air (OTA) software update in order to make it so.
“Do you want an electric car?” I asked him recently over dinner.
“No, I don’t care about that. I want a car that drives itself.” he replied.
After that clarification, I told him that no cars can drive themselves yet, but lots of cars offer both advanced driving assist systems (ADAS) and OTA software updates. Cadillac SuperCruise is leading the charge as far as ADAS is concerned, I told him, and companies like Toyota offer ADAS complete with lane centering capability as standard equipment on vehicles as affordable as the Toyota Corolla.
He had no idea. Such is the Cult of Tesla.
Then, following this discussion, we delved into the challenges associated with the weather in northwestern Indiana, where he lives. Snow, fog, and rain can render current ADAS inoperable, just when his fading vision and hearing might need it the most. I hated to tell him that his dream of owning a self-driving car that works in any kind of weather might still be years, if not decades, away.
After dinner, I took him on a test drive in a brand-spankin’ new 2019 Audi A7 equipped with the Prestige and Driver Assistance option packages. These upgrades equip the redesigned A7 with every ADAS technology that Audi offers except for Night Vision Assist.
As we worked our way through evening traffic in Los Angeles, Audi’s technology array impressed my wife’s uncle. But at the same time, it dismayed him because the latest Audi ADAS is still a long way from fully self-driving in terms of capability.
Audi A7 Driver Assistance Technology Highlights
When you buy an Audi A7, it includes the following ADAS technologies as standard equipment:
- Audi Pre Sense Basic – Prepares cabin for a frontal impact
- Audi Pre Sense Front – Forward collision warning and automatic braking
- Audi Pre Sense City – Pedestrian detection
- Parking System Plus – Parking assist sensors
- Reversing camera – Provides view to the rear of the vehicle
Optional for the standard Premium trim, and included with Premium Plus trim, the A7 offers Audi Side Assist (blind spot monitoring) and Audi Pre Sense Rear (prepares the cabin for a rear impact). Premium Plus trim also equips the A7 with a surround-view camera system with both a top-down view and a Virtual 360 view, and upgraded LED Matrix headlights with automatic high-beam activation.
Prestige trim further features a standard head-up display including driver assistance system information and laser-light headlights. Audi’s Night Vision Assist system is an exclusive option for the Prestige trim level. It installs an infrared camera that adds additional nighttime driving detail within the Audi Virtual Cockpit display. Thanks to thermal imaging, it includes pedestrian and large animal detection capability after dark.
What Does the Audi Driver Assistance Package Include?
A Driver Assistance Package is optional with Premium Plus trim and Prestige trim. It includes the following systems:
- Adaptive cruise control with Traffic Jam Assist and stop-and-go capability
- Intersection Assist with Turn Assist
- Active Lane Assist with Emergency Assist
- Traffic sign recognition
These are the technologies that most intrigued our uncle, so I demonstrated all but three of them during the drive.
Like other systems of its kind, the adaptive cruise control maintains a safe following distance to the vehicle ahead and automatically adjusts speed up to the velocity the driver has set. There are three settings that govern the following distance, and because we were driving in moderate to heavy traffic I selected the one providing the closest following distance.
The A7’s adaptive cruise control includes stop-and-go capability, bringing the car to a full stop and, within a few seconds of stopping, accelerating the car as traffic ahead starts to move. If the car is stopped for too long, a tap on the accelerator or using the cruise control’s Resume function re-activates the system.
Under approximately 40 mph, Traffic Jam Assist makes traffic less stressful by automatically steering, braking, and accelerating the A7. The only thing required of the driver is reactivation of the cruise control once stopped traffic starts moving again.
Intersection Assist and Turn Assist are designed to prevent collisions at and inside of intersections. Both systems work at low vehicle speeds. They can prevent a driver from advancing into an intersection when cross-traffic is approaching, or turning left across traffic as it approaches.
More than any other technology, the function our uncle wants most in his next new car is Active Lane Assist. This technology goes beyond lane departure warning and lane keeping assist by centering a vehicle in the lane of travel. Drivers can temporarily remove their hands from the steering wheel, too, but a warning to re-take control of the car appears relatively soon depending on conditions.
If a driver does not place his or her hands back on the steering wheel, the Emergency Assist system activates. It assumes that the driver is sleeping or suffering a medical emergency, and brings the car to a staged stop in the lane of travel with the hazard lights flashing. Once the vehicle is stopped, the system automatically places an SOS call using Audi Connect services, helping to get first responders on the scene as soon as is possible.
Audi Driver Assistance Technology Review
I did not sample the A7’s Emergency Assist, Intersection Assist, or Turn Assist systems during multiple test drives using the car’s ADAS. The other components worked to varying degrees of success and satisfaction.
Unlike most other vehicles equipped with these technologies, the Audi A7 does not provide controls on the steering wheel or buttons on the dashboard to activate the adaptive cruise control, adjust the following distance, and turn on the lane centering technology. Instead, a button on the end of the turn signal stalk turns on Active Lane Assist while a second stalk jutting out of the lower left side of the steering column operates the cruise control functions (see photo above).
Like most other vehicles equipped with these technologies, the Audi A7’s ADAS works accurately the majority of the time. Furthermore, it operates with a refinement and subtlety that many other automakers lack, ensuring a more sublime and effortless experience.
However, when the ADAS technology doesn’t work as expected, or has lulled you into a fog of trust, it can rudely remind you that you’re still the driver, and you’re still in charge.
For example, when using the adaptive cruise control in stop-and-go traffic, an older black Toyota Corolla sneaked into the gap between the A7 and the car ahead. That was fine. The Audi didn’t freak out about that.
Not soon after, however, the technology allowed for a wide gap as cars ahead suddenly accelerated. As the A7 gathered speed, that same Corolla slammed on its brakes and came to a dead stop. The Audi, operating on the shortest gap setting, didn’t see the bumper-sticker-covered Toyota soon enough, started braking too late, and I ultimately needed to apply braking pressure myself in order to avoid a collision.
But hey, this experience introduced me to Pre Safe, which cinched the seat belt to my body like a python while giving audible and red visual warnings.
In another situation, while traveling the 101 freeway southbound and exiting at Lost Hills Road in Calabasas, I was following an overloaded pickup truck in the right lane. When the exit lane became available, I signaled and changed into it, expecting the Audi to accelerate to the programmed speed.
Instead, the Audi momentarily slammed on its own brakes. I have no idea why. I was clear of the truck, and there was nothing in the lane ahead of me. The only potential explanation is that the freeway gently curves to the left at this location, and for whatever reason, there is a metal road sign located on the shoulder that is not facing the freeway, which means the Road Sign Recognition technology couldn’t read it.
Did the Audi think that metal sign was a stationary obstacle? Most likely. I’m just grateful nobody was behind the A7 at that moment. I didn’t want to unexpectedly test the Pre Sense Rear technology.
You Snooze, You Might Lose
Audi, like other car companies, continues to refine and perfect its Level 2 driving assistance systems. Those installed in the latest A6, A7, and A8 are the best ones yet from the quad-ringed automaker. And because they’re so smooth and effective the majority of the time, they easily lull a driver into placing too much confidence in their effectiveness.
However, they are not a substitute for an attentive driver. They’re called driver assistance technologies, not driver replacement technologies. If you use them, you still need to pay attention.
As for the latest A7, my favorite feature was the Audi Side Assist blind spot monitoring system. Lights mounted on the inside portion of the side mirror housing glow orange when a vehicle is in the blind spot, making it easy to see without looking away from the road. Signal a lane change while the orange light is on, and it flashes at twice the brightness to suggest that your intended action is a bad idea. Execute the plan anyway, and the steering gently tries to prevent the lane change, forcing a driver to take decisive action to move over.
During his time in the right front seat, our uncle never mentioned this system, easily one of the most useful safety innovations of the past decade.