Virtual tech for real Vorsprung

An exclusive look deep into the bowels of the automotive giant allows us to sneak a peek into the future of Audi and indeed of the automobile

As a fitting tribute to the 21st century, driving a modern car requires more of computational power than horsepower and more IT skills than driving technique.

Audi has been at the forefront of this revolution, and while they don’t skimp on horsepower, their technology is getting better and more connected with every new generation. We were invited to spend a day with their tech wizards and the opportunity was too rare and too exciting to pass up, even though it meant flying half a day halfway across the world, only to spend a day at the airport.

That’s right, situated right outside Munich airport, the Audi Forum houses a creative showcase of all things that drive the brand - tech, design and, of course, merchandise.


Paging Krypton

While we’re all familiar with the Audi MMI system and, more recently, the Virtual Cockpit Concept as seen on the Q7, TT and A4, the future is even more intuitive with more screen real estate than ever. A total of three Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode (AMOLED) screens will replace the bulk of hard keys on future Audis, and use what they call the Virtual Dashboard. It’s currently in prototype form, but Audi spokespeople on hand confirmed that some of this will undoubtedly be seen in a distilled form on next year’s A8 sedan.

There’s haptic feedback on the two screens on the dashboard and they will be interlinked to reflect changes made to one on the other; for instance, changes to climate control, text input via handwriting recognition and other contextual data. Although the haptic feedback is destined to make it to an Audi sometime next year, the curved AMOLED digital instrument cluster is still some time away, as engineers find a way to improve its temperature resistance and longevity.

Well, hello, Jeeves!

Another new innovation is the PIA, or the Personal Intelligent Assistant. As the name suggests, it is a reactive and proactive system that suggests route changes, fuel stops, traffic alerts and other contextual suggestions based on data from the car, internet data and even Audi’s Car-to-x communication - a method by which the car can smartly communicate with traffic lights, helping reduce fuel consumption and, consequently, emissions.

Hosted on the Audi Cloud server and accessed via the Audi Connect app, the PIA system can make active suggestions like parking spots on a rainy day, calling a colleague or family at a specific time every day, distance to keep from the car in front on the highway, etc. The system will constantly be learning from the driver’s habits and thus, always keep evolving.

While most of these finer nuances will see the light of day by the end of the decade, Car-to-x and swarm intelligence are slated to be headlining technologies in 2017 model year Audis. It works by creating a mesh network amongst different Audi models to exchange vital information about the car and road conditions, plugging in the gaps for piloted driving too. Already some amount of data collection has begun on the European versions of the A4, A5 and Q7 models, which will be fed back to the cars by the end of the year.

The data transfer for the Car-to-x services is handled by the Audi connect SIM, which customers acquire with the Audi connect package. The Audi connect SIM is what is known as an embedded SIM (e-SIM) that is permanently installed in the car with a plan that is optimised for cross-country travel (through Europe) so users need not worry about expensive roaming charges.

The Mothership

To put most of these technologies in action, Audi has created the Audi Autonomous Driving Cup, with 1:8 scale cars that are fully kitted out and can reach speeds of up to 40kmph. As with the production cars, it detects the road surface, traffic signs, obstructions and other road users in front of the model cars. It is supported by 10 ultrasound sensors: five at the front, three at the rear and one on each side. Its large coverage range of two to 400 centimeters (0.8 to 157.5in) enables the precise detection of the surroundings, even at high speed.

An acceleration sensor registers changes of direction by the model cars and, like all other systems, sends this information in real time to the central on-board computer with a high-speed quad-core processor. The on-board computer is in contact with the laptop at the side of the track via Wi-Fi, very similar to how cars from Audi are connected to the cloud server via the cellular phone network.

With car systems this advanced, using the existing map data was simply not accurate enough. So Audi, along with BMW and Daimler, bought out a company known for its HD maps, HERE. HERE HD Live Map describes the traffic space as a three-dimensional model with unprecedented precision. It is accurate down to the centimetre rather than the metre, and dynamic rather than static. And it is extremely well connected. It uses roughly 80,000 different sources worldwide to continuously update its map material.

The HERE HD Live Map has three layers - the first contains a static digital image of fixed traffic objects/signs and environment, the second is a dynamic layer with live information on obstructions, traffic alerts, etc, and the third layer supports piloted driving and enables the autonomous driving car to adjust the driving style that’s suitable for the owner. Upto 200 countries have been currently mapped by HERE in SD and the HD mode with its 3-layer approach is still under construction.

The tools to test out these new concepts already exist with Audi AG as they demonstrate the Virtual Driving Experience - a 2016 A4 rigged out with an Oculus Rift headset. Candidates enrolling for the training drive the car on a real track but in a virtual environment that introduces pedestrians, obstacles and such, to test out Audi’s emergency braking assistant and the Audi ‘pre sense’ city technologies.

The entire sensation is quite surreal and it’s hard to describe the feeling of being in control and still not. The car intervenes by actively braking when you spot a jaywalking pedestrian via the high-precision differential GPS. The trunk holds all the exotic hardware necessary to make this training tech work, without putting any real humans at risk.

The Virtual Engineering Terminal is another such milestone in R&D. It allows Audi lighting engineers to virtually “see” the effects of the Active Matrix headlight beam before even installing it on a real car. Simulation through VR and assisted technology thus becomes a huge part of the future of engineering.

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The savvy shopper

Selected showrooms will be upgraded with a HTC Vive VR headset which customers can adorn to experience the shiny new R8 they want to purchase along with all the options in a virtual gallery. The graphics are spot on and accurate down to the ISOFIX hooks on the seats.

And just for fun, Audi engineers have even programmed in a lunar surface so you can select your desired wheels in the virtual world where the earth’s soft blue reflection is shown in real time as you move around in the car, absorbing every tiny detail. Zoom in to a metal part far enough and it even allows you to go through it and see the engine nuts and bolts at work. Or peek behind the wheel to check out the carbon ceramic brake option you just checked on the order form. Without a doubt, this technology will trickle down to more accessible and mainstream levels soon. But until then, Audi seems to have a head start on the competition as far as merging the real and virtual worlds together goes. It’s certainly helping them make better cars, and us, safer drivers. Now, where’s that amphibious vehicle that is long overdue?