Human, machine

Admittedly, the first impression is fascinating and puzzling at the same time, similar to when you sent the very first email, back then in the early days of data. You sit in an Audi A7 and experience how the vehicle turns on the indicator, independently overtakes a slow-moving car and then goes back to the right lane, keeping a good distance. In the meantime, no hand touches the steering wheel, no foot an accelerator pedal or the brake, and no human eye looks into the rearview mirror.

Almost every major automobile manufacturer is currently working flat out on what would be called “the next big thing” in Silicon Valley, the mother ship of new technologies and applications. Autonomous driving as a pioneering developmental leap has a different name for every car manufacturer; at Audi, the term piloted driving was chosen. The Audi A7 Piloted Driving Concept makes a long-distance drive on public roads from Menlo Park near San Francisco to Las Vegas, where it will make its grand entrance after around 900 kilometers in time for the start of the CES electronics fair.

If there is one thing that the two project managers Daniel Lipinski and Bernd Rösler are certainly not aiming for, it is that in the future, people will completely leave their responsibility for the traffic situation to the driving machine. With highly automated driving, as it is called at Audi, the driver can surrender, but must be able to take over the command again immediately at any time. That is not part of the philosophy of the fully autonomous car that Google is currently developing. At least the latest prototype of the data collector, which is currently unwinding test miles on California's roads at the same time as the A7, is said to have received a steering wheel after all. One of the central points of this human-machine interface is the psychological component “mode awareness” - knowing at all times whether you are in autopilot mode or not. In the meantime, the engineers know from tests with test persons that this transition from piloted driving to making decisions and intervening again - Lipinski speaks of “retrieving” here - can usually take between eight to ten seconds.

When you get behind the wheel, the controls in the A7 concept are not different from the conventional model at first glance. However, when the system is activated, the central panel of the instrument cluster will initially indicate that the process is starting. If you press two buttons in the lower steering wheel area, the steering wheel will retract (also to avoid accidentally touching it while driving). In addition, an LED strip appears on the back edge of the dashboard. If it glows green, you are in the mode piloted driving, yellow marked as at a traffic light, the transition, red signals quasi the reentry into classic self-acting of the driver.

If people do not respond at the latest, for example by pressing the buttons on the steering wheel or the handle on the steering wheel and an additional acoustic signal, the ZFAS - the central driver assistance system - will independently initiate countermeasures. It should then steer the vehicle safely to the edge of the conveyor belt and come to a standstill. For the test, this computer unit still fills the entire A7 trunk. When piloted driving becomes a reality at Audi in four to five years, the electronic brain is only the size of a tablet.

What seems to be happening as if by magic is the interaction of well-known driver assistance systems from the series such as the automatic distance controller with stop & go function (ACC) or the lane change assistant (ASA) and new sensors that are close to series production. Radar sensors work at the front and rear, which complement the 360-degree all-round view. Laser scanners are installed in the radiator grille and the rear apron, which continuously provide information on the detection of static and dynamic objects while driving. The high-resolution 3D camera, which is mounted on top of the windshield and looks forward at a wide angle, is brand new - you will also be able to encounter it in the new Audi Q7 in the future.

The transition to this future increasingly assisted driving will be accomplished in several steps. The latest state-of-the-art, as experienced as a co-driver in the A7 concept, can relieve the driver on motorways at speeds in excess of 110 km / h. The first standard use of piloted driving will probably be a stowage pilot here. Thereafter, the arrangement of the various assistance systems should allow the completely self-parking car.

On the first trip, the fully electronic driver can only take command on the highway. Tasks such as getting on or off a highway or from the US Highway are far too complex to handle the processed data, as well as the movement on rural roads or in cities with oncoming traffic, intersections and passers-by. Subsidiary Audi is itself something of a test vehicle for the future of autonomous driving in the VW Group. The efforts will be shared as joint research between Ingolstadt, Wolfsburg and Audis Future Lab on California's west coast.

“In a certain way, we simulate the human brain,” says Alejandro Vukotic, Head of Driver Assistance Systems at Audi, explaining the challenge of imitating an evolutionarily highly developed intelligence with increasingly sophisticated technology. A driverless RS7 was on the racetrack in Hockenheim at around 240 km / h. But to grasp the complexity of everyday traffic situations like a human and then make decisions is not in the stars, but according to the experts, the developers will not have reached this goal for ten to fifteen years.

The fact that Audi's piloted driving concept is initially on the road in the USA also has to do with the changed legislation there. Where the legal definition of this new driving style and questions of accident liability for individuals are still being discussed in Europe, US states such as California, Nevada and Florida have already given the green light for autonomous travel on public roads, but with the stipulation that an experienced human “Autopilot” sits behind the wheel. And the fact that the CES in Las Vegas was selected as the destination of the long-distance journey marks an essential stage for the company in the networking of the car into the “smart car”. A few years ago, manufacturers such as Mercedes, BMW and Audi presented themselves at the fair with visions in the field of infotainment and sought proximity to innovators from high technology. In the meantime, with their autonomous driver assistance systems, they are increasingly confidently claiming the stage. The old term automobile - the self-driving car - seems to be slowly but surely arriving at itself.

Author: Alexandra Felts / SP-X

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