CES 2013: Audi Executives Discuss Autonomous Cars, In-Car Electronics

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A few miles away from the loud music and bright TVs of the Consumer Electronics Show, we joined a group discussion with Audi electronics chief Ricky Hudi, and board member for technology and development Wolfgang Dürheimer. The pair of executives talked about Audi's plan for future in-car electronics, as well as the hurdles facing autonomous vehicles.

Both Dürheimer and Hudi stress that Audi will keep investing heavily into more in-car electronics, continuing a trend that is already underway. "Within the last decade, the car got connected," Dürheimer said, citing the introduction of safety features like ABS and stability control, as well as the introduction of navigation and Bluetooth phones. "It's our mission and our mantra to lead technology on the automotive side."

Autonomous driving, or at least semi-autonomous features like self-parking and traffic jam assistance shown here in Las Vegas, are Audi's next major goal. Dürheimer sees autonomous driving technology as a big step forward "on the level of a new car," although he stresses that much of the necessary hardware is already fitted to modern Audis.

"Our Piloted Driving system is an add-on to existing technology," he said. "It builds on the infrastructure that is largely available in the car already," like parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, and electric power steering.

Yet one obvious question remains: why would a company like Audi, with a range of sporty and involving cars, want to take the driver out of the equation? Hudi and Dürheimer stress that autonomous cars won't take over completely, but will make driving less of a chore and help out for certain activities.

"We created this vision: whenever I don't want to drive, in boring situations, I let the car drive for me. But when I want to have fun, and that's most of the time, I drive for myself," Hudi said. He insinuates that Audi will never stop building sports cars that can be driven by humans -- "But be honest, where is the fun in parking the car in a parking garage?"

In fact, Hudi characterizes Audi's Piloted Driving technology not as a replacement for human interaction, but an extension of existing active-safety gadgets. "It doesn't override you, never ever. This is another intelligent driving assist system," he said.

"We're not getting into competition with the railroad industry," he joked.

Barriers To Entry

The biggest barrier to launching these features on the road isn't a concern over safety. Dürheimer notes that "there are already several levels of interference" between the driver and a modern car, citing advances like ABS, stability control, and lane-keep assist. He says that Audi has developed rigorous test procedures to ensure those features are safe, and the same is true of autonomous technology. "We take our job very seriously."

A more pressing problem is a lack of infrastructure to keep up with self-driving cars. Audi's self-parking demo, for instance, requires that a parking garage be wired up with laser sensors and a bank of computers. While the company will fit those systems to several parking lots in Germany later this year, launching it on a more widespread basis will take time. "We are not in the position that we'll tell every parking garage in the world to do," Hudi concedes.

As for cars driving themselves on public roads, Audi says that vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications must be in place first. "We could go live as soon as the infrastructure is ready," Dürheimer said, but governments "need to respond and get active" in updating roads.

The biggest hurdle of all facing autonomous cars, Audi believes, is legislation. And more importantly, Dürheimer says, the U.S. government causes problems by enacting vehicle regulations that are dramatically different from those in the rest of the world.

"The Asians are adopting much faster and much easier to the European standards. The Americans, from my point of view, are staying pretty much the same," he said. "This costs us a lot of money," due to unique fuel-economy, crash-test, and lighting requirements. The clever Matrix LED headlights previewed at CES, for instance, would never pass American new-car laws.

"One of the reasons why we're showing our lighting technology here is that we want to grow an appetite in the U.S. market for these intelligent systems," Hudi said. "It's really a pity that a lot of intelligent lighting systems that we have already in Europe, we can't offer to customers in the United States."

"Encourage the politicians to not make it into a disadvantage for your [the American] market," warns Dürheimer.

Weight Watching

With all the focus on keeping modern cars as light as possible to reduce fuel consumption, it seems odd that Audi would add so many sensors and computers. Yet even with the addition of autonomous driving technology, the automaker always meets a goal of having new models weigh five percent less than their predecessor. Switching to a new bus-type wiring system in its cars, for instance, Audi already cut the weight of its in-car electronics by 30 percent. Keeping to weight targets is important "Otherwise we would end up with tanks and not reasonably drivable cars" after adding more technology, said Dürheimer.

Ultimately, Audi promises that we'll see even more new features both in the cabin and under the skin of its new cars. "We are investigating very carefully what's happening in consumer electronics," Dürheimer said, which may lead to the company copying smartphone or laptop features in its future cars. "It's our solid interest to remain a leader in technology."

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