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Audi's "hands and feet off" Piloted (autonomous) RS7 at speed with the author aboard on the Castelloli race circuit near Barcelona. 

Why Audi boss Stadler believes in a hands-off future

Braking a 412-kW (552-hp) lightened Audi RS7 very hard from 210 km/h (130 mph) deep into a downhill tight corner on a racetrack—with feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel—may seem to have little connection with parking in a traffic-thronged city center. But it has.

The link is autonomous driving technology.

To make the point, Audi Chairman Prof. Rupert Stadler and his specialist teams recently demonstrated their company's capabilities and R&D programs in the automated/autonomous arena to select media, including Automotive Engineering, at the Castelloli circuit near Barcelona. These technologies are now proving their potential not only to take human error out of high speed travel but to bring significant convenience and cost benefits to urban transport and the development of “smart” cities.

Audi is committing the financial resources to prove it. “In the next five years we will invest probably 24 billion euros, with 70-80% directed to technology and product,” Stadler explained. A large proportion of both will pave the way toward systems and vehicles that will deliver mobility on a different digital level to anything available today.

But to see the potential fulfilled will require the auto industry to widen and deepen its integration with disciplines that until now have been way outside its immediate ambit. Stadler calls them “context driven innovations” and they include not just transport infrastructure and highway engineering to achieve intelligent traffic management, but also urban area planning and even architecture, together with local and national government administrations. It all adds up to smart city development.

Next A8 capabilities

Audi is a pioneer in anticipating this. In 2010 it launched the Audi Future Initiative to help prepare for the transport needs of a burgeoning global metropolis landscape, in the knowledge that there could be no smart city without a smart mobility system because mobility is at the core of urban life. Even at that early stage, connections were made with leading architects who could envisage how cities would look by 2050.

A challenge, though, for the auto industry is that every city is different but, stated Stadler, that brought more opportunity than threat for designers and engineers. He is confident that CO2-neutral mobility will become a fact. “It is only a matter of time and of completing the right feasibility work,” he asserted.

If Audi is in the position to offer the right technologies like autonomous driving and parking (the company calls it “Piloted” driving and parking to emphasize the driver's ultimate responsibility for vehicle control and safety) via digitalization, incorporating sensor control, cameras and laser solutions, it could offer a major contribution to improving quality of life for urban dwellers.

Audi will need to connect “with the right partners," Stadler admitted. He is not concerned that by mid-21st century 70% of the population of many countries are estimated to be city dwellers that may walk, cycle, and use public transport rather than cars. He is confident that cars, including premium brands, will continue to be in demand.

"For example, in China, car ownership is 'a symbol of freedom.' I am absolutely convinced that with new digitalization technologies there will be a much better connectivity of different sorts of mobility—and those who try to get into it now will be in first place,” he said.

The next generation A8 will incorporate both piloted parking and autonomous highway driving capability in countries that permit such technologies and have required infrastructure support. Other models will follow in 2017-18, he confirmed. Eventually a driver would be able to step out of a car and allow it to find its own parking space or to park away from a busy city center.

Such technology provides the opportunity for much narrower parking bays, as no access to a vehicle’s interior would be required. City planners see this capability reducing parking space required by up to 60%, he explained, freeing up real estate use for other purposes.

“There will be a broad spectrum of models in those car parks, not just city cars,” believes Stadler.

The role of Big Data

Audi is involved in several “smart city” schemes, one of them at Somerville City near Boston. Late last year Boston Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone and Stadler signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreeing close co-operation in developing a new mobility strategy for the city’s Union Square area: “We plan to develop an urban concept that serves as a blueprint for smart cities of the future,” Stadler said.

The agreement is one that takes Audi into a realm that would once have been considered laughable but it's the way the company, and the industry, must move, believes Stadler.

“Some people don’t consider cars to be a smart solution in cities anymore, causing traffic jams and costing precious time. In fact with our new solutions, the car will reach a totally new level of being ‘smart', he said. In Audi's vision, individual mobility becomes the source of social benefits, rather than costs, with the strategic goal of "removing the urban footprint of cars, both moving and parked."

Stadler argues that in traditional business, high quality leads to a high segment share. But in a network or platform logic, it's the other way round: "Big data is a condition for precise information and more participants lead to a better service level and market acceptance. So far, the car industry is a traditional business but step by step we will turn it into a platform business,” he pledged.

Audi, together with Mercedes-Benz and BMW last year bought the digital mapping company HERE from Nokia. The companies want the platform to stay open to others, including cities.

He stated that swarm intelligence would “change the face and motion” of cities: “Some say that urbanization is the dead-end to individual auto mobility. I say that it’s a trigger to a smart future mobility system.”

But autonomous cars have to be as utterly dependable and trusted to operate on fast highways, ultra-low speed city streets, and in densely packed car parks.

So that is why there is a link between a robot hurling an RS7 round a 4.1-km (2.5-mi), 13-corner racetrack and, eventually, a car that will safely obey orders in the traffic maelstrom of any city in the world. 

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