SHORTLY after Thomas Müller eases his Audi A7 into the flow of highway traffic heading towards Shanghai, a message on the dashboard indicates that “piloted driving” is now available. Mr Müller, an Audi engineer, presses a button on the steering wheel and raises his hands. The car begins to drive itself, the steering wheel eerily moving on its own as the traffic creeps over a bridge towards the city centre.
This is, admittedly, a limited form of autonomy: the car stays on the same road, using cameras and a “LiDAR” scanner to follow the lane markings and maintain a constant distance from the vehicle in front. But this is how the world’s carmakers see the future of self-driving technology: as driver-assistance features that gradually trickle down from luxury vehicles to mass-market cars, just as electric windows and power steering did before them. Autonomous driving will, in this view, make motoring less stressful—drivers “arrive more relaxed”, says Mr Müller—but people will still buy and own cars just as they do today.