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The next step for self-driving cars is a big one

Tesla is among car manufacturers pushing ahead with Level 3 autonomous cars.

Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Auto makers are split over what the next safe step is for self-driving cars. Regardless, the next step is coming, and soon.

This summer, Audi will announce a new A8 sedan, its luxury flagship, which will push autonomous driving technology into uncharted territory from a legal standpoint, as well as a technological one. The new A8 will be, to our knowledge, the first Level 3 autonomous vehicle available in Canada.

Volvo, meanwhile, doesn't see a way to make Level 3 vehicles safe.

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What do the levels mean? You'll be reading more about them as self-driving car technology progresses.

In a Level 3 car like the coming A8, you'll be able to take your hands and feet off the controls because the car assumes responsibility for driving in certain situations. But, you will need to take over when the car tells you to do so.

Level 4 cars assume driving responsibility in certain situations, and you will not need to take over when the car asks you to do so. The "driver" could safely fall asleep in a Level 4 car.

Level 2 cars – like the Tesla Model S and X, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class – never assume responsibility for driving, and require you to have a hand on the steering wheel at all times.

"With the new A8, we will launch – for the first time – a real autonomous car, a Level 3 autonomous car," said Dietmar Voggenreiter, board member for sales and marketing at Audi. "The car will take over responsibility, but you have to be prepared. ... No sleeping."

For example, the new A8 could drive itself through a traffic-jam on a busy highway, Voggenreiter said at the Detroit auto show this year. For many commuters who drive on Ontario's Highway 401 or any other clogged Canadian highway, that feature alone would be worth a significant amount of money.

The catch, however – and the reason Volvo feels it can't make a safe Level 3 car – is the transition: the moment the car tells a driver to take control.

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The new A8 will give a driver seven seconds to retake control of the vehicle, Voggenreiter said. The reason for the transition could be poor visibility, a system malfunction, a normal planned hand-over of control, or any number of other things.

It's unclear what would happen if the driver can't or won't take over.

Volvo's solution is to skip Level 3 and instead aim to produce a Level 4 car by 2021, according to Marcus Rothoff, a manager responsible for implementation of autonomous driving technology at Volvo.

"We just haven't found a solution to provide safety when we have this transition," he said. "You might not be ready to take over and we can't push our customers into that scenario."

If the driver can't or won't take over when requested, Volvo's Level 4 car would continue to take responsibility for driving while finding a safe place to stop. Volvo previously stated it will take legal responsibility for its cars when they're in autonomous mode.

Audi and Volvo are not the only auto makers trying to decide what the next safe step for autonomous vehicles will be.

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Ford and Google are thinking along the same lines as Volvo. Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer, recently outlined the company's plan to skip Level 3 and move straight to 4 in an interview with Bloomberg. But, at last count, Tesla, Mercedes, BMW and General Motors are, like Audi, pushing ahead with Level 3 autonomous cars.

Just because the technology is ready, however, doesn't mean the law is. Legislation on autonomous cars varies from country to country and even province or province.

"This is the big issue," said Voggenreiter. "We have the technical solution, but then we have to adapt it always to the legislation."

In Canada, the question remains about the legality of Level 3 autonomous cars. Cort Nielsen, spokesperson for Audi Canada, said, "At present we are looking into what the existing legislation will allow.

"We need clarity on the legality of Level 3," he added.

Will owners of Audi's coming A8 be allowed to take full advantage of the Level 3 autonomous system? At what level does it become okay to check your e-mail or take a nap?

By the time the A8 lands in dealerships in 2018, we should have an answer.

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