When Audi released the video of its self-piloted automobile in action at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it garnered attention from your oil-stained gearhead uncle, your grocery-toting mother, your gadget-obsessed younger sibling and everybody in between. The vehicle--often referred to as the self-driven car--was a glimpse into the future of the German automaker and what many perceive to be the future of all automobiles.
Above all other natural inquiries about how the cars worked and what the timelines were for this type of technology, there was one basic question at the core of the project: Why would a manufacturer that is known for designing high-performance, fun-to-drive cars make a vehicle that doesn't even require a driver?
Rest assured, Audi has no intention of taking away from the experience its customers have come to know and love. Rather, the company's goal is not out to strictly make a self-driven vehicle; the aim is to make technology that is capable of taking over in times that drivers don't enjoy being behind the wheel like bumper-to-bumper traffic or driving in a straight line down I-70 when the cops are out in full force at the end of the month.
At the 2013 show, Audi's project car looked like a special project car. The trunk was FILLED with the tech that made its autonomous brain tick. Over the past year, a major goal was to make the car more normal.
Come back to present time, to the 2014 show, where we were able to see the display in person, and you have a car looks exactly that. Audi is now using an A7 that has large, but simple, text across the doors and the hardware is dramatically smaller and more manageable, thanks to the NVIDIA Tegra K1 mobile processor. Audi calls it zFAS (all functions, one unit). The new tech is closer to the size of a lapton than a generator. Instead of just looking, oooing and ahhing, we were fortunate enought to get an invite from Audi to take a ride and see just how the car feels in action. Hint: It was a garbled mixture of Incredible and creepy.
The 10-mile run started at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, where we hit the strip accompanied by trail cars and two Nevada State Troopers, headed for highway 15. The police officers were there to create a mini-traffic jam, which is the ideal scenario for piloted driving as the current technology only allows for speeds up to 40 mph and travel in one lane.
Once the driving scenario was set up, the Audi engineer who was driving the A7 followed the car's visual steering wheel prompt that alerted him that assisted driving was available (when the car reached an mph above 40, the steering wheel prompt changes colors to alert the driver that driving assist is no longer available). He took his foot off of the gas and hands off of the steering wheel and the car didn't miss a beat. There was no physical difference between the ride with a human or the automated pilot.
There was no physical difference between the ride with a human or the automated pilot.
The function is similar to adaptive cruise control with some steering assistance thrown in. The difference is that while ACC uses radar, Piloted Driving uses a laser scanner. It provides highly precise data at a range of more than 260 feet. The laser diode emits nearly 100,000 infrared light pulses per second, which scans a field of view of 140 degrees with a resolution of 0.25 degrees over four different levels.
The feature is ideal for safety, so sleeping, reading a novel, or clipping your toenails is not suggested; but it's technically possible. In order to prevent a driver from nodding off, the pre-production A7 is fitted with two cameras that measure the driver’s movements to determine if he or she is coherent. When my driver feigned being asleep, the car gave an audible beep, followed by gradually louder beeps before finally coming to a complete stop and turning on the hazard lights when there was no driver response. In a real life situation, the car would automatically alert police and have an ambulance sent to the scene (kind of scary, right?).
Piloted driving was not the only potentially game changing technology that Audi unveiled at CES 2014. It also introduced Online Traffic Light Information. The tech works by syncing the automobile with the cities' Central Traffic Control Computer, which controls the traffic lights. OTLI informs the driver of the mph they should drive to make the next green light. It also tells the driver how long it will take for the red light they are sitting at to turn green. Audi has partnered with various cities around the world to turn the tech into a widespread reality.
This technology could theoretically be in a production automobile in the next two years.
In January, there were about 50 lights in Las Vegas that were synced with Audi's pre-production A6. The OTLI supposedly has the potential to save up to 15% carbon emissions. However, American drivers tend to rush to lights, slam on the brake, then floor it off the line, so that percentage might drop a bit on these stateside streets. Audi says it will be the first to market with this technology, so we should see it in cars by summer 2014, as it is fully expandable to all upcoming Audi models.
Although the chauffer of the future video shown at Audi's CES keynote would have you believe that drivers in the future will no longer have to, well... drive, the piloted tech is actually a driver assist that is as on target as a CP3 dime. We're a long way from the Audi RSQ, made famous in the Will Smith film I, ROBOT, but maybe that's a good thing. Audi's cars are still way too much fun to slam to their limits.