The dashboard is also, disappointingly, normal. This car looks nothing like the machine of your sci-fi fantasies.
The A7 is designed to offer driverless mode when it's on the highway but traveling less than 40 mph — a feature Audi calls "traffic jam pilot." In this case, a police cruiser in front of us provided the sub-40 traffic speed. Another officer behind made sure oncoming traffic didn't come up behind us too quickly. While the police escort in this case was to enable a traffic-specific feature, driverless car testing laws vary widely; only a handful of states currently allow the vehicles on their roadways.
As we pulled onto the highway, the A7 recognized its surroundings, and a dashboard alert informed the our driver, Kaushik Raghu, that conditions allowed for a computer takeover.
Once we settled in behind the lead car, Raghu pressed the button on the steering wheel to activate automated driving. The feature requires the driver's go-ahead before it kicks in. A graphic changed on the car's dashboard, and Raghu took his hands off the wheel. The robot car took control.
The A7, as programmed, maintained pace with the car in front. When the police car sped up, it gradually closed the gap. As it slowed, the A7 followed suit to keep a safe distance. The steering wheel turned, unguided by anything but a computer, to navigate the highway's slight turns (the pedals remained motionless, much like a car in cruise control).
After a few minutes, the stable speed and gradual turns began to seem almost boring. Audi says that's by design. Boring, in fact, is the word engineers say will show their product is successful. After all, persuading people to put their lives in the hands of a robot will come a little easier if they're not on the edge of their seat the entire time.
Other robot-car pioneers, like Google, are testing cars that can handle more driving situations. Those are further from commercial readiness. For now, Audi's engineers are convinced the robot car revolution will start with cars that do simple things — and do them well.
In our first test, the car was even more boring than advertised. Failing to pick up the vehicle in front, it gradually reduced speed until Raghu retook control. After a couple of more unsuccessful attempts, we went back the the police station to reboot the computer.
The second attempt went off without a hitch. That is to say, not very exciting. No sharp turns, no lane changes, no rapid acceleration.
Then the test took an unexpected turn. One would expect, bracketed by a pair of police cruisers, sirens flashing, that dealing with outside traffic would be something of an afterthought. That would overestimate the awareness of Virginia drivers.
As we passed an entrance ramp, a rogue car squeezed in ahead of us, apparently oblivious to the fact it had joined a slow-moving police escort. The driver who cut us off also separated us from our pace-setting police car. It was the type of scenario that would send the average driver into road rage.