THE RACE to autonomy has kicked up a gear, with Audi laying out plans to leapfrog archrival BMW by offering a ‘highly autonomous’ car by next year.
Revealed to Wheels recently as part of an Audi Technology Summit in Barcelona, the new, fourth-generation A8 will be the first production vehicle to deploy level-three autonomous driving capability, and it’s set to arrive next year, three years before BMW’s fully autonomous iNext (see Wheels August).
Highly autonomous, or levelthree capability, will take the next-gen A8 beyond current level-two cars, with the ability to assume control of safety-critical functions, allowing the car to drive itself, with a human placed to take the wheel when required.
Yet it’s Ingolstadt’s next chapter that is truly compelling.
According to Audi’s vision, the infant stages of level-four selfdriving production cars will be emerging inside four years, with full, level-five autonomy to follow soon after.
But while the forthcoming A8 will be the first to provide tangible evidence of progress towards a fully autonomous future, both German brands are fighting to be the first to make another significant breakthrough in the race towards full autonomy. The projected timeline for this is around 2021.
To earn its level-three credentials, the Audi AI ‘traffic jam pilot’ system in the A8 must be able to maintain control even if the driver is incapable of taking over, which requires a level of redundancy for all critical safety functions, not unlike those engineered into passenger aircraft.
Despite the data-gathering and computing going on in the background of such a system, its operation will be seamless.
Two electrical systems – one 48V and one 12V – mitigate against a complete electrical failure, while hybrid powertrains will allow uninterrupted drive if either combustion or electric power fails. Dual braking circuits are backed up by dual power supplies, and a camera monitors the driver to evaluate if they are capable of regaining control. The company’s zFAS central control system is designed with a main computer and a secondary smaller version, which constantly monitor each other for faults.
Audi’s multifaceted view of the future converges in an ambitious project – The 25th Hour. An autonomous car ‘driving’ simulator may seem as useful as a white crayon, but the 25th Hour lab provides a high-definition preview of Audi’s interpretation of a fully autonomous car and the clearest view yet offered of what it will be like to ride without a driver.
The 25th Hour project paints fully autonomous vehicles not as recognisable three-box, two
‘Multi-system redundancy’ features heavily throughout for added safety
Ultrasonic sensors and midrange radars keep watch from each corner
A camera monitors the driver to ensure the human is capable of retaking control
Long-range radar works with a laser scanner up front
row vehicles (minus the steering wheel), but as an artificially intelligent cocoon that can sense and adapt to your demands.
If that distant concept is hard to fathom, the Audi RSQ concept’s cameo in the 2004 feature film iRobot offered a glimpse.
According to Audi, the concept is no longer a far-fetched Hollywood fantasy. “Back then this was science fiction, but fiction will soon become reality,” Audi AG technology development board member Peter Mertens said.
Audi’s autonomous fleet will reflect the electric RSQ reflect the electric RSQ with a growing number of EVs that are set to join Audi’s ranks. With its e-tron plug-in hybrid brand firmly established, fully electric Audis are next, and they’re just around the corner.
Next year, the e-tron standalone model will silently roll out under battery power to claim the very specific mantle of “first highperformance, fully electric SUV by a premium OEM with a 500km range”. As the first CO2-neutral car to be built by the company, it will be the most environmentally friendly Audi to date.
After that, the e-tron Sportback will arrive in 2019, and a will arrive in 2019, and a third, as-yet-unnamed all-electric vehicle will follow in 2020. By 2021, the car maker says at least one variant in each model range will be electric.
The 25th Hour project leader Christian Gunther told Wheels monitoring the brain activity and stress levels of simulator occupants has highlighted critical driverless car features, such as windows that can turn opaque to reduce distraction without causing motion sickness, and the correct colour of ambient light to promote concentration or relaxation.
“The car should become a membrane. It should connect you to the city but at the same time it should know when you want to be in a controlled mode, or a productive mode, and help you to block out this information flood – an intelligent filter,” he said.
How will the vehicle ‘know’ your mood? Just as your employer can establish whether you really are sick, or are just at a music festival, by scanning social media. A new My Audi customer profile service will feed the vehicle information about the owner’s day-to-day life. With this insight into a typical day, the car will predict where the customer wants to go, when they want to be there, and the best route to take.
But if that’s somewhere other than the office, don’t worry, it won’t tell your boss.
The gen-four A8 has been developed to drive by itself under certain freeway conditions, but there is a catch. Until even one global region comes up with the critical legislation to allow the technology’s use on public roads, the groundbreaking features will remain switched off. Audi is confident Germany will be the first to authorise level-three autonomy, but while the various car makers continue to develop autonomous technology, the regulations lag behind.
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My Audi customer profile service will see the A8 show genuine interest in your day
Singlehandedly taking on the project of developing a completely driverless car is too large even for one of the world’s biggest car companies, so Audi has enlisted the help of numerous suborganisations, suppliers, and experts to get the job done.
The subsidiary Autonomous Intelligent Driving was forged to accelerate targeted research into self-driving cars, the advances from which will be applied to each Volkswagen Group brand.
Global computing giant Nvidia, which had a hand in Audi’s Virtual Cockpit display, is lending its expertise to develop a scalable AI controller, and Israeli tech leader Mobileye is developing the vision-based driverassistance systems including the cameras and the software to run them.
California’s Stanford University was handed a role in advancing Piloted Driving and helped Audi win a 240km autonomous challenge.
Audi has also teamed up with arch-rivals BMW and Daimler to acquire ‘Here’ – a mapping data provider – which will provide info for autonomous cars.