Audi used the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to demonstrate two features designed to take over from a human driver when he or she doesn't feel like driving. The automaker recently won a license to operate autonomous vehicles on roads in Nevada, but the features shown here only take over for limited periods of time.
In fact, Audi executives go to great pains to point out that these semi-autonomous driving features are only for use when the driver is bored. "One thing still remains important for Audi," says company electronics head Ricky Hudi, "When I want to have fun, I drive for myself." The name "Piloted Driving" is used because Audi thinks of these features as driver aids, more like an airplane's autopilot, than a replacement for driver intervention.
Piloted Driving For Parking Maneuvers
How often have you squeezed your car into a teensy space, only to be unable to open the door and exit the car? It may not happen as often here in the U.S. as in cramped European cities, but Audi claims to have a solution nonetheless. The piloted driving software lets the driver get out and direct the car into a tight spot or garage. The car uses the aforementioned sensors to creep into the spot, then shuts off the engine and locks the doors. When the owner is ready to depart, the Audi performs the opposite dance, exiting the parking space automatically.
The next step will be wirelessly connected parking garages that help guide the car to a parking space. Audi envisions a giant parking lot where the car's occupants exit, and the car automatically finds a parking space by communicating with the parking garage. Such a feature would require that the garage be equipped with a WLAN wireless connection; the lot's computer would transmit a route and map of open parking spots to the Audi's computer. A driver leaving a hotel could summon his car by smartphone, and have it waiting at the curb when he exited.
Audi demonstrated this feature with an A7 at a Las Vegas hotel parking lot. The setup used special laser sensors (at left) positioned around the parking lot which determine the car's position and relay it to a central computer, which in turns uses an automotive-grade wireless network to instruct the car where to drive. The car can't use GPS because the signals don't generally work inside concrete parking structures; moreover, Audi engineer Dr Christina Simon says the self-parking software needs to measure distances in inches, rather than feet, for safe and accurate maneuvering. The car itself has no extra sensors -- the built-in parking sensors only check to make sure the A7 doesn't bump into obstacles -- just unique software to follow the central computer's commands.
The demonstration worked flawlessly: when Dr Simon tapped an iPad app, the car started itself and slowly drove out of the parking space. In jerky motions reminiscent of a novice driver, the A7 steered itself out of the space and out of the parking garage's exit. Later, the car returned to the garage under its own power, positioned itself next to an open spot, and slowly reversed into position.
Piloted Driving In Traffic Jams
Audi also announced an extension of its adaptive cruise control that can steer and drive a car under certain circumstances. It only works at speeds below 37 mph when the computer detects heavy traffic -- for instance, a backed-up highway. A veritable arsenal of scanners and sensors monitor the cars path: two radar sensors scan 820 feet ahead, a video camera monitors lane markings and looks for obstacles, a 140-degree laser scanner precisely measures obstacle distances, and eight ultrasonic sensors on the car's front bumper provide even more information.
With the system activated, the Audi will automatically stay within its lane, allow other cars to merge in front of it if necessary, and keep a safe distance from other cars. Once the traffic jam ends, the system prompts the driver to take over control.
Close To Production?
Audi, of course, is cagey about when these technologies will hit the market -- but they are definitely headed to mass production. Dr Simon says that the self-parking feature is at least a decade away from commercialization.
"These technologies are within the reach of Audi, and of course within the reach of our customers," promises Audi of America president Scott Keogh, but he declined to name a date.
That's not to say that Audi can't make self-driving cars. "It's no longer a matter of showing that the car can drive from point A to B," Hudi says, but rather one of getting the technology ready for mass production. For instance, all the requisite sensors and computers must be shrunk so they fit in an ordinary car. Audi is developing a compact laser scanner the size of a pile of CDs, which will fit behind the car's grille and is "far, far cheaper than the big sensors you can see on the prototype cars", as well as a smaller and cheaper computer control board.
After that, Audi and other automakers must convince customers and lawmakers that autonomous cars are safe. "The first thing we have to look at is the legislative environment in the United States," Keogh says. Fortunately Audi is ahead in that regard -- it already won permission to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in Nevada.
Nonetheless, company board member for technology Wolfgang Durheimer predicts it will be Japan, not the U.S. or Europe, that first adopts self-driving technology on a wide scale. Immense congestion and limited urban parking, Durheimer predicts, will force the small Asian country to adopt semi-autonomous cars as soon as possible.