What Motor Trend Gets Very Wrong About Self-Driving Cars

Sometimes, legacy car media should stick to what they know.

Alex Roy/Motor Trend

Do you like driving? If you do, you should not read Motor Trend. Do you hate driving? If you do, you definitely should not read Motor Trend. Why? Because in a year ripe with the stench of self-driving clickbait, Motor Trend’s latest article about the Audi A8 is now my number one pick for the dumbest article of the year on self-driving cars.

To call this press release journalism is an insult to the clickbait mills regurgitating the #SelfDrivingTheater we see on a daily basis from Business Insider and Electrek. Motor Trend’s article is much worse, because it combines the veneer of a positive review with pessimism over the survival of human driving—upon which the publication’s very survival depends.

The article, “Patient Zero: Assessing The First Case In A Predicted Autonomy Epidemic,” also annihilates what little credibility on autonomy they had based on one half-decent article from last summer. That article, “Testing (Semi) Autonomous Cars With Tesla, Cadillac, Hyundai, and Mercedes,” was a serious effort to do instrumented testing of semi-autonomous systems, and defined them as such in the headline. When it came out in July of 2016, it was one of the first and best comparisons of its kind, but, just when their own findings indicated Tesla’s first generation Autopilot was the clear winner, they pulled a punch and the article ended. The Why behind that decision is worth an article in itself. This is not that article. This is about their latest offense, which doesn’t even go through the motions.

Alex Roy

How terrible is it? The Silicon Valley-based self-driving community erupted on Twitter with mockery (most of which focused on the closing paragraph). To truly understand why this article is so bad, we need to deconstruct it line-by-line.

Let’s begin.

Patient Zero: Assessing The First Case In A Predicted Autonomy Epidemic
Experiencing the 2019 Audi A8's Traffic Jam Pilot feature

WTF does this mean? It appears they’re referring to the new Audi A8 as “Patient Zero,” or the first victim of the illness that is autonomy, which clearly lines up with the position one would expect of an automotive publication launched in 1949. But, if Motor Trend wants to immunize their readership from this illness, they’re off to a wretched start. The only way to fight what they’ve defined in the first two words of the headline is to call it what it is, which they get wrong by the tenth, in which they conflate the Audi’s semi-autonomous system with actual autonomy.

Bad, Motor Trend. Bad.

The Audi A8’s Traffic Jam Pilot is, at best, a Level 3 semi-autonomous system, as loosely defined by SAE and the DOT. I’m not going to rehash the levels, which are dumb. Here’s a link. Autonomy starts at Level 4. Most new cars ship with some form of ADAS (or Advanced Driver Assistance System), which falls at or just below Level 2. Level 3 is the bear over which Silicon Valley and the entire car industry have been fighting to determine a reasonable definition of both real-world functionality and “safety,” neither of which SAE or the DOT have addressed in a meaningful way.

What is Level 3? Level 3 is where things are most likely to go wrong. It's the Level where human skill declines. It's when people place faith in technology whose limits they don't understand, their own skills are less likely to save them, and no one wants to go except for marketing purposes. It's a mistake.

No less then Sully Sullenberger, former NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart and ex-Googler Chris Urmson have spoken at length to The Drive about the folly of Level 3. Anyone with a nominal understanding of commercial aviation’s use automation and autonomy—which are not the same thing—will tell you that ground-based Level 3 is highly problematic.

Anyone reviewing automotive Level 3 without real knowledge does so at their reader’s peril.

We haven’t even gotten past the headline. Once we do, the article becomes even more confused.

"I’ve finally done it. I’ve been driven in a car that assumed full responsibility for my safety, freeing me to watch TV on the center screen or do nearly anything that leaves my head facing mostly forward and my eyes open."

No, you didn’t do “it.” The A8 does not assume full responsibility for your safety. If it did, Audi would not have installed a monitoring system requiring the driver to keep their head facing “mostly forward” with their eyes open. All it can do is assume temporary control under limited conditions.

"The Audi A8 chauffeuring me featured Traffic Jam Pilot, billed as the world’s first true SAE Level 3 autonomous driving system. This inevitable technical milestone could mark a more impressive legal miracle."

WTF is Motor Trend doing? On August 4th the same author published this about Cadillac’s Super Cruise:

Alex Roy

If Cadillac’s is effectively the first Level 3 system (still incorrectly billed as “autonomous”), and the same author has already driven it, and the Audi’s is the first billed as Level 3, and the author has presumably driven that, why doesn’t Motor Trend distinguish between them? Are they different? I know they are. And I—just like all of Silicon Valley and most of the car industry—know that the SAE Level definitions are vague, if not stupid. In that vagueness lie a thousand press releases meant to boost valuations. In that vagueness lies the danger of end users mistaking one set of functionalities and behaviors for another even within the same level definition.

If the author doesn’t know this, he should. He’s Motor Trend’s Technical Editor.

People have already been injured and killed because of such misunderstandings. What is Motor Trend, one of the largest legacy automotive publications in the world, doing about this? Contributing to it.

When Elon Musk says the media are killing people by not supporting self-driving cars, he’s half-right. The mainstream media are killing people by failing to practice rudimentary journalism, but we expect no better of them because we know they are whores, fools, or both. The specialty media? Guilty of failing to act on the knowledge they’re supposed to have.

Now check this out. Is the next paragraph quoted from a manufacturer press release? Or was it written from scratch? Hard to tell.

First the nuts and bolts. Level 3 autonomy requires all safety-critical systems to have backup. The brake assist and stability control/ABS provide braking redundancy. Electric steering is backstopped by the selective left- or right-side braking used in many lane-departure systems. Forward environmental sensing enjoys quadruple redundancy. A new zFAS central controller fuses data coming in from a high-definition forward-looking camera, a radar unit, ultrasonic sensors in the bumper, and the market’s first production laser scanner. The latter is located down in the bumper and aims a stationary laser at a spinning carousel of flat mirrors, each of which directs the laser beam through its 145-degree field of view. The sensor data gets overlaid on detailed GPS maps, and if one sensing system goes down, the driver is asked to take over. Oh, and the computing power of that Nvidia-based zFAS brain exceeds that of all the computers in today’s A8.

Yadda, yadda. Light nuts, plastic bolts. Someone in the Audi comms department should get a raise for getting this out seemingly verbatim. Not even a link to the zFAS product page? How about a Wiki? Here's a great link from a real publication doing serious journalism in the sector. Sorry, the above paragraph tells the average reader nothing of value other than that they may have to take over.

Wait. The user has to take over?

Talk about burying the lede. This is the crux of everything. That the user may have to take over is core of the biggest debate in self-driving cars, which is that of transitions. When and how transitions occur is the hinge upon which real-world safety will swing. It may determine whether Level 3 is legal—let alone deployable—in the United States. This is what the entire article should be about, and yet the word “transition” isn’t mentioned once. Sad!

Here’s how TJP works: When a nose-to-tail traffic jam slows you to below 37 mph on a multilane highway where opposing traffic is separated by guard rails or concrete, the cluster announces “Traffic Jam Pilot available.” Pressing the “Audi AI” button on the console then changes the edge lines on the instrument cluster from white to green, and you’re off duty. Steer or touch the pedals, and you’re back in control. You must remain ready to take over within 10 seconds, so the car monitors your head using an infrared camera. If it senses that you’re sleeping or nonresponsive—or if the end of the highway is approaching, or if a lane change becomes necessary (TJP doesn’t change lanes)—the system directs you to take over. First the cluster-edge lines change to red with a message, followed by a warning tone. The car then slows down, jabs the brakes, and tightens the seat belt. Finally it stops in the lane, engages the parking brake and hazard signals, unlocks the doors, and calls for help.

That’s not really how it works. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Functionality and behavior are not the same thing. Does it work everywhere? Does the system get updated? Does it need to be? If so, does one have to go to the dealer? Or is it wireless? Is there redundant Lidar? Cadillac’s Super Cruise doesn’t use Lidar. Audi does. Why didn’t Audi go out and map the interstates like Cadillac did? Or did they? Does that matter? There's AI inside? What kind? I can buy a car with AI today? Wow. Wish I could learn more about that. Does Audi assume liability if the system fails? Volvo says they will for some as-yet unreleased, geofenced L3/4 system. How does Audi’s compare to Volvo’s?

And we haven’t even gotten to that 10 second transition interval. Are the warnings good enough? What if music is playing? Do the warning tones supercede the stereo? Are they played over the same system? If not, are the transition warning system alerts played back through a redundant speaker? How does Audi’s transition warning system compare to Cadillac’s? Or Tesla’s? Or Volvo’s? Or an Airbus?

Whoa...the Audi will stop in its lane? Is that a good idea? Who made that decision?

So many questions. No answers from the venerable Motor Trend.

Sadly, you can’t buy a car with this system just yet. Audi and German authorities are working to amend UN Regulation No. 79 to raise the current limit for “automatically commanded steering function” from 10 to 130 km/h (6 to 81 mph). This amendment is expected any day, after which Audi should quickly obtain homologation for TJP in Germany, rolling it out to other countries later. Audi tech boss Peter Mertens says 81-mph Level 3 autonomy will follow in several years, with considerably more conditions and functions built in.

Is it sad? If Motor Trend thinks autonomy is an illness, then shouldn’t they be glad it’s not yet available in the US? 

China and the U.S. have no autonomous-steering speed restrictions, but state laws—such as a 1971 New York statute that requires drivers keep one hand on the wheel at all times—pose problems. Audi’s director of U.S. government affairs, Brad Stertz, says TJP is compliant with current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. He notes that bipartisan House legislation now being reconciled in the Senate will grant NHTSA authority over all future autonomous vehicle standards. As for TJP, Stertz says Audi is still tailoring the system to our unique urban highways and fine-tuning liability hedges such as event-data recorders. All 2019 A8s will ship with zFAS and the laser scanner (both enhance Level 2 adaptive cruise) but perhaps not the driver-monitoring camera or capacitive steering wheel. Without these, the cars won’t be flash-upgradable to TJP.

So Audi may remove two critical driver safety monitoring features—including one Cadillac deemed essential for Super Cruise—before selling the A8 with this system in the USA? Why isn’t entire article about that? Is Cadillac wrong? Is Audi? Tesla? Does Motor Trend care? Should its readers?

The system works great, but because full autonomy will ultimately decimate whole populations of automobile critics, you’ll forgive me for curbing my enthusiasm.

The system works great? Is that all the Technical Editor has to say? Has he even driven it? Is there any evidence in the article he did? Did I miss something? Whose hardware does Audi use? Is it Mobileye? Tesla used to use that. Stock prices rise and fall based on such information. What software? Was it built internally? It works great, but he’s not enthusiastic? If he knows his job is in danger, why is he hastening it with this pap?

What is going on here?

What’s going on is the death knell of legacy automotive media, totally aware of their ignorance in the face of autonomy, yet doing nothing. Motor Trend and other outlets have a choice. If they want to defend against the inevitable rise of full autonomy, they need to raise the flag of information and education. They need to fight to raise drivers education standards. They need to protect us from bad autonomy. They need to report on augmented driving systems. They need to dissect every semi-autonomous system and do so with real understanding. They need to give enthusiasts reason to believe human driving will survive, explain how it might be protected, and why it deserves to be.

Based on what I’ve seen here, Motor Trend has already given up.

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver, has set numerous endurance driving records in Europe & the USA in the internal combustion, EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.