INTERVIEW: Why Audi’s ‘autonomous’ cars will always have a steering wheel


Udo Ruegheimer, head of communications for technology and innovation at Audi, speaks to Guy Cressingham about the recently revealed R8 e-tron piloted-driving prototype, and explains why their current vision of the future of automotive transportation doesn’t involve taking the driver out of the picture altogether

What makes the autonomous R8 e-tron stand out from other prototypes/R7D out there?

The R8 e-tron piloted driving combines the many attributes of the world-renowned super sports car with state-of-the-art BEV and piloted driving technologies – as a concept, uniting all these aspects, it is currently unique.

Are you committed to a fully autonomous vehicle, or do you see a driver-role as part of the driver-assist package for the foreseeable future, and if so what?

We do not intend to develop and build any robotic cars. Our aim in piloted driving is to protect drivers in continually better and more efficient ways and to reduce their workload in stressful situations – not to replace drivers.

What makes it different from the standard non-autonomous R8 e-tron car?

Over and above the ‘standard’ R8 e-tron the piloted-driving concept is able to relieve the driver of driving duties. It uses various production-ready sensors as well as sensors integrated into production vehicles today to detect its surroundings with exceptional accuracy. It also uses laser scanners to provide additional detailed recognition of static or dynamic objects. The information gathered by all these systems is processed by what we call a central driver assistance controller (zFAS), which will essentially form the basis for all future systems for piloted driving under development by Audi. Around the size of a tablet computer, this unit uses cutting-edge, high-performance processors to absorb and act upon the wide range of sensor information. It is thus the central interface for all piloted driving functions.

Is this a prototype for an envisaged likely (or planned) production vehicle, or a showcase for a number of driver-assist features, which may or act in concert, independently, or in a variety of combinations not fully autonomous?

At the moment the R8 e-tron piloted driving is purely an embodiment of what is technically possible in the field of piloted driving and also in the application of contemporary EV technology at super sports car level. It is a testbed, which like our A7 Sportback and RS 7 Sportback piloted-driving prototypes, is yielding a vast amount of useful information that will flow into series production models in the longer term.

Do you have autonomous fueling worked out?

Audi has been working intensively on contactless charging via induction, known as Audi wireless charging (AWC). Our aim is to introduce this technology initially for private residential and corporate use, but there is certainly potential for the technology to be integrated into the public infrastructure in the future.

In AWC technology, energy is fed from a plate in the ground, which is connected to the power grid and can sit on the tarmac or be embedded in it. A primary coil and an inverter (AC/DC converter) are integrated into this plate. When an Audi e-tron is positioned above the plate the coil becomes active, inducing an alternating current across the air gap in the secondary coil integrated into the car. The inverter then rectifies this and feeds it into the high-voltage on-board network, where it can charge the battery and at the same time power devices such as the heater or the air-conditioner.

What has been the testing and what testing challenges do you envisage before a production vehicle is a reality?

Every journey undertaken requires an Audi driver to assimilate, process and act upon hundreds or even thousands of fragments of information delivered by the infrastructure and by other road users, and as the weather, traffic density and driving patterns of surrounding cars are constantly changing no two journeys will be exactly the same. In much the same way, a piloted vehicle developed for use on a global scale must therefore be able to recognise, correctly interpret and react to millions if not billions of possible scenarios.

Given that identifying and adapting to these situations involves processing a multitude of data captured by a network of sensors throughout the car, the ability to quickly and efficiently gather and channel that data is also of paramount importance. These are the fundamental development challenges, but with the help of the central driver assistance controller (zFAS), developed by Audi in conjunction with its project partners TTTech, Mobileye, Nvidia and Delphi, our engineers are making excellent progress towards the first series production deployment of a fully fledged piloted system.

How committed is Audi to sustainable transport and the place of its vehicles in an intelligent traffic environment?

Now and in the future the key priority of the automotive industry will be to shape the future of mobility. We are making a significant contribution to this aim by developing products that are efficient, sustainable, connected and intuitive. We are pushing the boundaries of connected reality with high-performance assistance systems, connected infotainment and car-to-car communication. Piloted driving and parking offer considerable gains in terms of traffic safety, driving convenience and efficiency.

The global population will grow by around 1.2 billion by 2030, and people are increasingly migrating to urban metropolitan regions. By 2030, there will be 40 per cent more smart phones on the market than today. Consequently our endeavours to connect the car seamlessly with the internet, the owner, the infrastructure and other cars are becoming more important with each passing day.

We have already piloted an online traffic light information system which connects car drivers with the transportation system and pre-warns them about upcoming traffic light phases to streamline traffic flow. Other future development opportunities include services that provide transfer points to local public transportation or pre-compute available parking spaces along a road.

Moving further down the line, we are also looking at swarm intelligence and Car-to-Car communication, whereby cars will be able to warn one another of hazards such as obstacles, accident sites or icy conditions. Our underlying target is to create ever more intelligent cars which could help to bring about substantial time-savings and minimise risks.

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About Author


Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).