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Audi takes pole position in race for fully autonomous cars

Still not autonomous, but A8 is the most advanced to come out so far

Audi's A8 sedan will be the first "level three" self-driving vehicle to hit the mass market.

BARCELONA, Spain -- Audi will debut this fall the first vehicle in the world to let the driver take hands off the steering wheel and watch television or do something else other than driving while on the road.

The Volkswagen luxury unit said Tuesday that it will be rolling out the A8 sedan, the first-ever "level-three" autonomous vehicle, this autumn.

Of the five levels of autonomous driving, level three is clearly distinct from the step before. Advanced driver-assistance systems employed in Nissan Motor's Serena minivan and Tesla's electric vehicles are categorized as level two, where the primary responsibility falls on the human driver, who must keep hands on the steering wheel at all times while the system assists in acceleration and turning.

Level-three autonomous vehicles, in contrast, take charge of such tasks as turning and stopping, letting the driver remove hands from the wheel. The driver puts hands on the steering wheel only when the system asks for an intervention. At level four, vehicles would drive themselves under most situations, only requiring the driver's involvement from time to time. Level-five vehicles would be truly autonomous and not require a driver.

The level-three A8 sedan will be available first in Germany and then later offered elsewhere. The starting price will likely be 90,600 euros ($103,537).

For the time being, the fully autonomous mode will be limited to driving on a divided highway at up to 60 kilometers per hour. Germany is currently the only market where laws specify such conditions for level-three autonomous vehicles. Applicable situations would include commuting in mild traffic. The A8's onboard system requires the driver to take control in any other situation.

U.S. technology giant Google and others are all racing to develop advanced autonomous vehicles. Toyota Motor and Honda Motor plan to roll out level-three self-driving vehicles around 2020.

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