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The Audi Connect Piloted Driving system can take over in slow-moving traffic conditions.

Audi pushes next-generation auto electronics

Audi arrived at the recent 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas ready to showcase a wide array of new electronics technology for its next-generation car models. Among the automaker’s introductions were a downsized, near-production-ready computer to run its semi-autonomous Piloted Driving functions, a traffic-light alert system, an automotive-grade in-car tablet, a high-resolution digital cockpit and customizable human-machine interface that will first appear in the 2015 Audi TT 3 sports coupe, as well as laser headlights whose high beams reach out five football field-lengths ahead.

“The speed of innovation in the electronics industry is much faster than that of the auto industry,” noted Audi Chairman Rupert Stadler at the company’s CES reveal, “so we’re working hard to more closely match up the production cycles and to enable easier integration of new electronics and software into existing products. Our goal is more functions with less distraction.”

Driver-assist technology

One of the more notable developments is Audi’s latest Piloted Driving system, a bundle of driver-assistance features that constitutes a step up from current adaptive cruise control functions toward fully autonomous driving. The Traffic Jam Assist system, for example, can safely take over driving duties in heavy, low-speed highway traffic that moves at less than 37 mph (60 km/h).

The demonstration cars, A7 sedans, use forward-looking radars and a laser-ranger to monitor traffic ahead, a windshield-mounted camera to follow the lane lines, and a rear radar to detect cars advancing on either side to keep the vehicle in lane at a set distance from the one ahead. Audi engineers mostly hid the miniaturized sensors in the bodywork, avoiding the large, rotating sensors that sit atop Google’s and others’ autonomous driving demo vehicles.

A liquid crystal display on the instrument cluster shows a representation of the traffic around the vehicle. In this version of the Piloted Driving system, the A7 employs two cabin cameras and recognition software to tell if drivers have closed their eyes for more than ten seconds to determine if they are paying attention to the road or nodding off, and if not, to issue a warning sound.

“At CES one year ago, the trunk of the demo cars were still full of cables and electronics,” said Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi’s board member for technical development. In this year’s version, the brain for autonomous driving functions is a single circuit board the size of a laptop that is slotted into a finned heat sink tucked away in a side bin in the trunk. The company calls the control unit zFAS.

Brandishing the zFAS board on stage, Jen-Hsun Huang, Nvidia’s President and CEO, explained that it features his company’s Tegra-family system-on-a chip processors. “The car has now become the most advanced mobile computer in the world,” he told the CES crowd.

“The prototype period is almost over,” Hackenberg said. “Now it’s time to get ready for series production.” The company hopes to put its driver-assist technology on the road within the next several years, assuming that regulatory hurdles in Europe and the U.S. can be overcome.

Traffic-light alert

Another interesting function is a vehicle-to-infrastructure system that links the car’s computer to a city’s traffic-light control system to tell drivers when upcoming lights are going to change. A traffic light icon and a timing counter appears in the central display that shows the number of seconds before a light will change from red to green or vice versa. Thus the warning system can alert a driver who is speeding too rapidly toward what will soon be a red light to slow down in time or to know just how fast to approach an intersection to avoid stopping fully, saving fuel in the process.

Several European municipalities, including Ingolstadt, Berlin, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and Verona, are testing prototype connections, said Audi engineer Michael Zweck.

Essentially, he explained, independent content providers are being hired to cull through the historical traffic-management data of participating cities to provide enough information for the system to accurately estimate traffic-signal timing and the degree of certainty of the predictions. If the data is deemed unreliable, the system defaults to providing no information. “Right now,” Zweck said, “we’re building the content-data network and trying to convince city traffic management officials to join in.”

In-car tablet computer

Audi also launched at CES a new category of in-car mobile device that it calls a Smart Display. This dockable, multimedia Google Android OS tablet not only provides rear-seaters with access to applications, music, and so forth, it seamlessly integrates with the car’s MIB infotainment system via Wi-Fi to manipulate climate-control and navigation functions. Powered by an Nvidia Tegra 4 processor, the device would, for instance, allow a passenger in the back seat to search for destinations on the navigation system and then send directions to the car’s infotainment system so the driver can access them.

Chairman Stadler said that the Smart Display meets all occupant-impact and safety requirements with its chunky, rounded aluminum case and 10-inch Corning Gorilla Glass screen. The tablet computer has been hardened to withstand temperatures from -40° to +176°F (-40° to 80°C) as well as road shocks and vibrations.

This Internet-surfing capability comes courtesy of Audi’s onboard 4G LTE data connection, a high-speed link supplied by AT&T, said Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America. “With the introduction of the new 2015 A3 family, Audi is offering drivers a 4G LTE connection that will provide the fastest in-vehicle connection available and significantly enhance the infotainment experience,” he said.

Laser headlamps

The company also introduced laser headlights on its Sport Quattro Laserlight concept car. They produce high beams that are three times stronger and twice as far-reaching as their LED-based counterparts, according to Ricky Hudi, Chief Executive Engineer for Electrics/Electronics.

The new headlamps cast light out to 500 m (1640 ft), “but don’t dazzle oncoming drivers,” he noted. The compact light fixtures contain laser diodes that operate at wavelength of 450 nm, a bluish light that excites adjacent luminescent materials to emit 1200-lumen light beams. Hudi added that Audi’s LeMans e-tron Quattro prototype is equipped with the laser headlights for testing in the demanding 24-hour racing environment.

Noting that “90% of today’s automotive systems are related directly or indirectly to electronics,” Hudi said that he and his engineering team are focusing on five technologies that “are increasingly important to everyday driving: lighting, connectivity, infotainment, human-machine interfaces, and driver assistance.”

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