Audi's contribution to the self-driving-future:
When Volkswagen announced in the beginning of 2016 that it would (finally) start focusing on building a self-driving car, its daughter company Audi just celebrated their 15th anniversary of driverless research. In these fifteen years Audi has accomplished a lot – did you know the five first licensed piloted car drivers in the US were Audi drivers? - and there is more in the pipelines. Until today the German car manufacturers is one of the top contestants on the self-driving leader board.
Together with Stanford University, Audi started testing the first Audi self-driving car, a ‘driverless’ Audi TTS in the year 2000. Of the results little was marketed and the first findings were only showed ten years later. Implemented in an Audi RS7 and publicly broadcasted, the technology Audi has created made the car fly at 140 mph over Hockenheim’s race track, beating amateur touring class champion David Vodden’s in a race. The pace had been set but not all of the knowledge had been shown. In 2015 Audi engineers said they had done more than 50,000 miles of testing on public roads in America and implemented their ‘Audi Piloted Driving’-technology in the A7 and later in the Q7.
Volkswagen is pro car-ownership and pro driving-choice. According to CEO Rupert Stadler Audi will never build robot cars, but instead will always put the driver in the focus of its decisions. Completely driverless cars are not in VW’s roadmap in general and their strategy is to support the driver, not to replace. Therefor Piloted Driving is a tool you can select when you want to want to change to adaptive cruise control on the highway. Or when you want your car to drive off, self-park and pick you back up on location. Or when you are in a traffic jam and want you vehicle to automatically change lanes. In a lot of these tools Audi has been first and best. Now these advancements have also been implemented in the new Q7, which has raised Audi self-driving car count to four.
Volkswagen believes in building new technology in-house, in their little quoted Electronics Research Laboratory in Silicon Valley, where Volkswagen is solving UX problems that Tesla and Google have not come close to cracking. One example is the Piloted Driving feature that communicates to a driver when the driverless feature is driving safely but also when it might need the driver to take over in the near future, avoiding possible articles like ‘Tesla Autopilot tried to kill me’.
Partnerships with Delphi & Nvidia
But although Volkswagen builds a lot itself, it also believes in buying the right attributes. Audi’s first important partnership is with Delphi and has little to do with Delphi self-driving Roadrunner car. Together they are developing a central driver assistance controller (zFAS).
At the moment, most driver assistance systems are managed by separated controllers. These sensors need this software tool, others another. Mobileye’s camera-based ADAS system for example has been implemented by most car manufacturers, but stands completely parallel to their in-house systems. In the future, Audi will be the first automobile manufacturer to implement all driverless hardware and software in one central platform.
The zFAS will equip both the EyeQ3 mobile processor from Mobileye and the new Tegra K1 from nVidia. The board is currently the size of a compact laptop, made ready for sale on a large scale, possibly making it the ‘driverless module’ of the future car. The zFAS will also make Machine Learning a lot easier. All data will be coming and going through one place and would be transferred via a cellular phone network.
This phone network Audi acquired from Nokia’s Here, together with Mercedes and BMW. Besides sending communication from the zFAS to the server, it sends information back to the car. High-detailed maps for example. Accurate vehicle positioning is a critical component of autonomous driving. Navigation systems are only accurate within 10 or 20 feet, but through cellular networks (or through Google / Baidu mappings) we can start talking about a few inches, meaning the car knows precisely where it is in relation to other cars, lane markers, pedestrians. When mapping technology becomes hyper-accurate the car will know when its human driver should take control and will alert the driver 10 seconds before entering regions that require human attention.
Audi’s next step is completing the development of the zFAS and integrating this incredibly massive amount of incoming and outgoing data into a cloud-based system. Here the German manufacturers (Volkswagen, Mercedes and BMW) are now working hand in hand under in believe that "in the future all kinds of vehicles will communicate within a shared cloud via a common data standard.” Together they are working on a common data platform which is required for piloted driving. This means your car will cruise on its own by using information passed down from the central cloud and from surrounding vehicles. But maybe it will not even be your personal car. Looking at collaborations between GM and Lyft or Toyota and Uber, Volkswagen also decided it was time to jump on the autonomous fleet- bandwagon and invested $300 million in Gett, a NYC black ride-sharing company.