How Audi and VW Will Bring Electric, Autonomous Cars to Market

The keys to putting self-driving EVs in driveways.

"Our core products will be fully connected, electric, and capable of driving autonomously," proclaims Ricky Hudi, Audi's executive vice president of electronics development.

It's a goal nearly all automakers are pursuing, as battery technology and self-driving software finally mature to the point where they could conceivably start to take over the car industry. For Audi and Volkswagen, nothing is more top of mind than bringing these technologies that were once the realm of concept cars to our driveways. Here's how the brands will reach that goal.

Autonomous driving will only come when the technology is ready...
Despite all the buzz about Tesla's AutoPilot and similar systems, Audi is keen to warn that fully self-driving cars that need no human intervention won't arrive for several years.

"Based on the assumption that you'll have still have cities with mixed scenarios -- you have old cars, new cars, autonomous cars -- I think the first cities where it would work will be the end of the next decade," says Thomas Müller, Audi's head of driver assistance systems. "Most people would be scared to jump into a car next Monday that tells you it can take you anywhere."

...But self-driving cars will be better than humans
When a teen driver first hits the road, says Audi, he or she is encountering many complicated driving scenarios for only the first or second time ever: Who goes first at a four-way stop? How do I merge onto the highway? But an autonomous car can build on the massive machine-learning database accumulated by test cars that have driven thousands of miles, so it has an incredible level of "experience" in each driving situation.

"With every mile a car drives, the database is getting better and better," explains Hudi. "In the near future, the automotive industry is able to detect situations better than a human being."

That's partly why Audi is working with mapping company Here to build an incredibly detailed virtual map of the entire world. By complementing the car's sensor readings with a precise knowledge of the surrounding environment, Audi expects autonomous cars will be better, safer drivers than humans.

Technical challenges remain
For now, one of the biggest hurdles is having autonomous cars recognize when they need a human to take over. Current cameras and other sensors don't work well in snow and rain, for instance, and must have built-in algorithms to detect when the lens is obfuscated by dirt or ice.

Audi is not particularly interested in vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technologies because it sees them as a band-aid rather than a primary fix. While information from other vehicles could help -- Audi likens it to having someone warning where you might trip when you're walking -- it would only be useful if every vehicle on the road reported that data; drivers of older cars are unlikely to retrofit V2V tech. So high-quality mapping data and accurate sensors are a bigger priority for Audi's engineers.

"It [V2V] could help, it could improve some dedicated situations, but it's not the solution of the equation," says Dr Peter Steiner, Audi managing director of electronics.

Longer-range electric cars will speed adoption
First announced in October 2015 and on display for the first time under the Budd-e concept, MEB -- for Modular Electric Toolkit -- is significant because it will be used for most of the company's future all-electric cars. However, MEB does not include provisions for a range-extending engine, meaning it won't evolve into a Chevy Volt-like plug-in hybrid, making huge battery capacities critical.

That's why Volkswagen will use advanced, high-capacity lithium-ion cells so the cars can have similar driving ranges to a gas or diesel car. While some drivers in urban environments won't mind having a short driving range, most shoppers will need to go farther per charge before an EV can become their primary vehicle.

"You definitely have to offer a car with more than 500 km [about 310 miles] in order to push electromobility forward," says Volkmar.

VW currently sources its electric-car batteries from outside suppliers, but Volkmar says this could change if EV sales take off: "It might make sense to produce battery cells by our own if this becomes true."

Higher-speed charging
With a much bigger battery to fill, future Volkswagen electric cars will also need faster charging systems; it's no good having a big battery if it takes an entire day to recharge it. For cars on MEB, VW may turn to the 800-volt/150-amp charging system that sibling brand Porsche is already developing for its own high-power plug-in cars. The goal is to make recharging an EV battery barely any more time-intensive than refueling an internal-combustion one.

This also means that Volkswagen won't put much attention on wireless inductive charging, as the technology simply can't approach the speed of plugged-in systems. "If you run really high-power quick charging, you have to keep with conductive charging," says Volkmar.

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