Nvidia is powering the world’s first Level 3 self-driving production car

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Audi announced Tuesday that its forthcoming A8 would be the first production vehicle to ship with a Level 3 self-driving feature onboard when it goes on sale next year, and now we know that Nvidia’s technology will be helping power the vehicle’s ‘traffic jam pilot’ autonomous capabilities. Nvidia’s going to be powering a lot in the new A8, in fact – the car has six Nvidia processors helping power not only traffic jam pilot, but also its infotainment system, virtual cockpit instrumentation and headrest tablets for backseat passengers on fully equipped models.

The introduction of Level 3 autonomy on the A8 will mean that drivers don’t have to pay attention to the road in certain conditions – specifically in this case when the car is driving 37 mph or under on a highway with a physical divider. If the vehicle meets those conditions, and local laws allow, drivers can do whatever else is legally allowed behind the wheel, and the system will let them know when it’s time to resume manual control.

That’s a step further than current highway driving assistance features like Tesla’s Autopilot, which is classified as a Level 2 system and requires a driver to be paying attention and ready to resume control at all times. But it’s also designed primarily for sitting in traffic, whereas Autopilot is designed for a range of speeds in highway driving scenarios.

Nvidia’s processor is the “brain” of Audi’s zFAS system, which is the computer that handles driver assistance onboard the A8, and that takes sensor data gathered from the vehicle’s radar, camera, laser scanning and ultrasound sensors to create a fused picture of the road with a range of different types of data. The zFAS decides how the car behaves when traffic jam pilot is engaged, processing data at a rate of 2.5 billion inputs per second.

Level 3 autonomy is somewhat controversial in the self-driving world because it both allows a driver to relax their attention and yet also can’t handle driving operations of the car entirely, as a Level 4 vehicle could. Audi must be very confident in the A8’s abilities with traffic jam pilot to bring this to market, and Nvidia’s tech has a lot riding on a smooth deployment once it does go to market.