Hands free driving's big test

Test driving Audi's autonomous A7
Test driving Audi's autonomous A7

When we pulled onto the highway in Palo Alto, California I knew this was not just another test drive.

After a few cars passed me and we merged into our lane, the Audi A7 test car let me know it was ready for piloted driving.

I pressed two buttons on the steering wheel, a green L.E.D. strip of lighting on the dashboard let me know the car was now in control of its steering and speed.

With that, I was seeing in real world traffic, not on a closed test track, how the next level of autonomous driving is closer than many thought possible just a few years ago.

What was it like?

Very normal and easy to use. As the A7 changed lanes on Interstate 580 outside Palo Alto, I was not holding the steering wheel.

Instinctively, I checked the side mirror and looked over my shoulder to make sure the coast was clear. It didn't matter, the A7 had already scanned the lane to my left and made the decision it was clear to move over.

Photographer | CNBC

After that, we moved along with the traffic without me having to actively drive the A7 while we were on the highway. When it was time to exit, I pressed the same two buttons on the steering wheel and took control again.

"The technology is coming along quickly," said Daniel Lipinski, one of several Audi engineers who developed the automaker's piloted driving technology. "You can see that this is a natural next step to the other driver assistance systems already being developed."

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Audi's system is intuitive, easy to use and in many ways does feel like what we'll expect from the next generation of cruise control.

20 sensors and cameras built into the A7 concept car let the car measure where other cars and trucks are on the highway, how fast they are travelling and when the Audi should lane change or alert you, as the driver, to take control of the car and resume manual driving.

"Our goal is to make driving safer," said Lipinski who has logged many of the 50,000 miles Audi has put into developing piloted driving software. "We need to show the technology is safe and is a benefit and show we can be ready under certain situations."

Audi allowed me and handful of other journalists to test drive the A7 with piloted driving technology only after we were licensed by the state of California for this one-time road trip.

Ultimately, it will be up to state regulators to determine when a feature like Audi's Piloted Driving technology is ready to be included in the cars and trucks we buy. Before that happens there will be a lot of debate about how much piloted driving on the highway will encourage drivers to pay even less attention when they're behind the wheel.

But already, industry veterans like John Krafcik, the President of TrueCar, see how systems that offer driver's the next level of cruise control will be in demand.

"I think car buyers are going to want this type of technology," said Krafcik. "Why not? If it can make driving on the highway safer and pay attention if you're not, a lot of people will find that appealing."

Questions? Comments?