Piloted driving takes centre stage at Audi’s CES presentation
"Jack", as the electronic chauffeur of the A7 piloted driving prototype was nicknamed, can autonomously change lanes and pass other cars. Its radar, lidar and optical sensors enable the vehicle to identify its position in relation to other traffic participants. The two-day ride from the Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab in Stanford (Volkswagen is Audi’s parent company) to the fairgrounds in Las Vegas has been conducted for the first time under "customer conditions", as Audi Board Member Ulrich Hackenberg put it.
Though still a prototype, the sensors used were near-series versions: Two long-range radar sensors (associated to the ACC) observe the area in front of and behind the vehicle, assisted by two mod-range radar sensors each to both sides which complement the 360° all-round vision. The two laser scanners in the radiator grille and the rear apron provide redundant information – necessary to gain a complete, detailed multi-source 3D image of static and dynamic objects. A high-definition 3D camera at the windshield and four additional cameras at the front and rear corners of the vehicle provide additional information about the near surroundings, and all these information is blended in a complex multi-step data fusion algorithm that eliminates false echoes and identifies speed and direction of moving objects.
All data related to the vehicle’s environment detection and automated driving functions run on a computer called zFAS, the German acronym for zentrales Fahrerassistenzsystem or central driver assistant system. In future versions, these environment data will be transferred through an ultra-fast data link to a cloud-based IT backend. There they will be proceesed by Machine Learning and artificial intelligence algorithms and fed back to the vehicle. Thus, the vehicle will constantly be learning to improve handling and driving style in complex situations. At the same time, the expertise gathered will be shared with other drivers.
zFAS, Audi’s central driver assistance system runs the essential algorithms for piloted driving.
The CES presence of the carmaker is focusing on the connected car; in addition the company shows several innovative assistant systems such as something Audi calls Predictive Efficiency Assistant – probably the company’s expression for Continental’s "electronic horizon" which feeds topographical data into systems relevant for speed control. Such a system, for example, takes virtually the feet off the gas pedal ahead of a decline and thus help saving energy.
As to the connectivity, Audi shows a module that connects the vehicle with the internet via the LTE mobile radio infrastructure. Inside the vehicle this module appears to its passengers as a WiFi hotspot, offering connectivity services to the passenger’s smartphones and tablets as well as to the vehicle’s online and infotainment services. The system also automatically updates the navigational map.
In-car WiFi hub connects to smartphone; to the outside world it communicates via LTE
In the dashboard, Audi long-term partner Nvidia plays a key role with its T30 quad-core processor that powers the virtual tachometer: It computes the image of the RPM needle 60 times per second, enough to make it appear smoothly and without jolts. At the same time, the processor powers the central navigation display with three-dimensional map and other details.
Virtual dashboard instruments, powered by Nvidia
An important building block in Audi’s hardware strategy is the Progressive Semiconductor Program (PSCP) set up in 2010. Under the program, Audi directly involves not just its system suppliers but also semiconductor makers. It is a key factor for future innovations. As in hardware, so Audi develops solutions of its own in software – a task falling mainly to its subsidiary e.solutions GmbH.
In vehicle electrics, Audi has developed a scalable architecture, the 48V onboard partial network. It will soon complement conventional 12V power network and permit deployment of a new generation of high-power electric components. These will include an electric compressor as a supplementary turbocharger or an extra-strong generator capable of recuperating a higher amount of kinetic energy and, when used as a motor, transforming the car’s powertrain into a mild hybrid.
Though piloted driving (Audi speak for automated driving) has been discussed over the past months as a feature for next decade vehicles, it actually might be closer than it appears. At the fair, the carmaker announced to make these technologies available to buyers already in this decade.