Audi pushes its AI for IAA Level 4 and 5 concepts
The Aicon is a full Level 5 technology demonstrator with no steering wheel or pedals, while the Elaine borrows heavily from the Shanghai e-tron Sportback concept but adds highly automated Level 4 capabilities.
At the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show (aka IAA), Audi debuted three cars that focus prominently on autonomous driving. The new A8 (http://www.autonomousvehicletech.com/articles/136-the-new-audi-a8-reaches-level-3) is the first production car to permit conditional automated driving on public roads, claims Audi, with drivers able to completely turn over the task of driving in certain situations. The SAE automated Level 3 production car was joined by two concepts—the Elaine and, the star of the show, Aicon—showing how the brand intends to further develop autonomous driving—and the Audi AI (artificial intelligence) brand, hence the letter sequence “ai” in both concept’s names.
With the Elaine electric “SUV coupe” concept, Audi is previewing its upcoming 2019 production car for which highly automated SAE Level 4 driving will be possible—at times without a driver on board—with help from AI. For instance, a driver could park the vehicle in a designated area or “handover zone” and from there the car could drive itself into a parking garage to be washed, filled with packages, or charged. The other, more advanced concept car, the Aicon, is a Level 5 four-door technology demonstrator that has no steering wheel or pedals and combines innovations relating to drivetrain, suspension, digitalization, and sustainability.
“Everybody is talking about robot taxis nowadays,” said Rupert Stadler, Chairman of the Board of Management of Audi AG, in introducing Aicon at the IAA. “Those are specialized to meet the needs of city traffic. Today, we are going to show you a vision that goes above and beyond. A car that can adeptly navigate all traffic situations—not just one. That is Level 5 of automated driving. The Audi Aicon—this is our vision—drives totally autonomous[ly], always and anywhere.”
The Aicon is electrically powered. “In 2025, every third delivered Audi will be electric,” said Stadler. “And even before that date, we will offer more than 20 fully electric and plug-in-hybrid models—spread over all segments and all concepts.”
The concept vehicle gets to know drivers and their individual preferences by continuously learning. The company is employing AI to automate the driving task and give back its customers “the most valuable of goods—time,” said Stadler. On average, an Audi customer spends close to an hour each day behind the steering wheel, he added.
To go along with its sleek exterior, designers created an interior with a new sense of space and a very modern digital user experience, providing occupants “with an additional living room, a second office, or an extra area for wellness and relaxation,” said Stadler.
If produced, the Aicon would be Audi’s largest sedan, 240 mm (9.4 in) longer than the longest new A8 at 5444 mm (214.3 in). Other key dimensions of the D-segment car are a width of 2100 mm (82.7 in), a height of 1506 mm (59.3 in), and a wheelbase of 3470 mm (136.6 in). The car’s significantly convex side windows have a distinct edge, which would seem to make opening them complex. Strongly flared wheel wells are meant to emphasize the link with Audi’s quattro DNA and house large 26-in wheels. The trademark hexagonal Singleframe grille, in this case blanked out, will be a typical feature of upcoming Audi electric cars.
Instead of conventional lighting, the front and rear have digital display surfaces with hundreds of triangular pixel segments. The large surfaces and high pixel count enable graphics and animations in any color to warn pedestrians or cyclists of dangerous situations and to communicate driving modes such as platooning or slow urban driving. Horizontal stripes of light move from the bottom up when the car accelerates, and they move in the opposite direction during braking, their speed increasing or decreasing in sync with that of the car.
Audi says the Aicon’s laser and radar sensor system “sees” in the dark, so there are no long-range headlights for the passengers. They are freed to use myAudi services or even close their eyes for a while. When passengers exit the Aicon in the dark, a “light companion” (a mini-drone with a flashlight) safely illuminates their path.
The two opposed side doors open from the center, “suicide” style, with no B-pillar to ease passenger ingress and egress. The minimalist interior has no steering wheel pedals, buttons, or instruments, and there is a shelf and a central display below the windshield instead of a traditional instrument cluster. The lack of a steering wheel and classic instruments create a sense of openness for the 2+2 interior.
The two front seats slide up to 500 mm (19.7 in) fore and aft on a carpeted platform, on which the passengers’ feet or legs (in elevated height) can rest. The front seats also swivel up to 15 degrees, outward for ingress/egress and inward for passenger interaction. Positionable touch-sensitive control interfaces in the encircling door rail move with the front seats. The rear two-seat bench is integrated into the rear panel.
When entering, passengers are greeted by an LED display and a welcome message. An “empathetic” electronic vehicle assistant recognizes passengers by phone and activates their personal settings for air conditioning, seating position, interior light color, and infotainment system layout—and the navigation system awaits destination instructions.
The glass roof panels can block out sunlight, transparency levels changing upon application of electrical current. Classic restraint systems are absent since they are no longer needed, claims Audi. The use of electric drive means there is cargo storage front and rear, with a combined capacity of about 660 L (23.3 ft³).
The Aicon’s electric drive features a motor per wheel to enable variable quattro all-wheel drive. The floor-mounted batteries of undisclosed chemistry are said to have considerably more energy capacity than current lithium-ion batteries. The motors produce a total of 260 kW and 550 N·m (406 lb·ft), but maximum acceleration plays second fiddle to maximum efficiency and range. Targeted lightweight construction of the multimaterial body and optimized aerodynamics help achieve a 700 to 800 km (435 to 497 mi) range on a single charge. Charging of the high-voltage (800 V) battery pack can be done to 80% capacity in less than 30 min or inductively/wirelessly—both without human assistance.
The fully active suspension is designed for comfort, with pneumatic spring/damper units, and electric actuators actively counteract body lean when cornering, accelerating, or braking. Braking is primarily by way of recuperation to recharge the batteries, and the secondary disk brakes are repositioned from the wheels to near the drivetrain to improve vehicle aerodynamics and reduce unsprung mass. The steering shaft and hydraulics have been eliminated, and the all-wheel steering system allows the long-wheelbase car to have a turning radius of just 8.5 m (28 ft).
The highly automated Elaine is a more familiar concept, in that it borrows its body and electric drive from the e-tron Sportback design study and technology demonstrator of the 2017 Auto Shanghai show (http://www.autonomousvehicletech.com/articles/47-audi-e-tron-sportback-concept-previews-2019-all-electric-model) that is a precursor to the second production electric car coming from Audi.
Setting the Elaine apart from the e-tron Sportback is its greater autonomy, enabled by a much more advanced zFAS controller. The new-generation rear-mounted processor has more computing power and refined sensors with greater range and precision, enabling highway pilot—an extension of the traffic-jam pilot in the new A8—for automated driving at speeds from 60 to 130 km/h (37 to 81 mph). When active, the highway pilot can change lanes automatically; it can initiate and complete passing and returning to the original lane without any driver involvement. Additionally, in specially designated areas called Audi AI Zones, the Elaine can perform a variety of tasks autonomously while the driver works or engages in leisure activities.
The Elaine also features an artificial-intelligence PIA (personal intelligent assistant) that fuses data from the car, about the driver, traffic jam reports and traffic projections, and information from the internet to communicate autonomously and adaptively with the user. PIA applies machine-learning methods to gain insights and adapts the car’s functions—navigation, music selection, desired Audi connect service, climate control, parking space selection—to the behaviors and needs of the driver.
The Audi Fit Driver can monitor fitness levels and actively improve the health and well-being of the Elaine driver. A wearable device on the driver’s wrist provides the data, collecting and transmitting information about important vital signs such as body temperature and heart rate. If the monitor detects increased stress or fatigue, for example, the vehicle systems adapt themselves accordingly to relax, revitalize, or protective.