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Audi boss Rupert Stadler speaking about the future of piloted driving, the crucial importance of high-precision road maps and the secure management of customer data.
Mr. Stadler, are you already looking forward to the self-driving car?
Stadler: What I’m looking forward to first is the piloted car. We will take a major step forward in 2017 with the next generation of the Audi A8. This will be followed in 2018 by our electric SUV, likewise with piloted functions. If required, the Audi A8 will be able to drive piloted at speeds of up to 60 km/h, thus relieving drivers from often stressful stop-and-go and convoy traffic. Beyond that, the person at the wheel can get more out of active driving, because driving pleasure increases overall if the car takes on most of the tedious, annoying situations.
But that’s just a first step toward autonomous driving.
Stadler: But a big step on a road we embarked upon a long time ago with our extensive array of assistance systems. Piloted driving is currently the most complex stage in the digitalization of the car. Its backbone is an environmental recognition system made up of a vast number of sensors. There’s a decision-making entity with enormous computing power known as the central driver assistance system. It also requires active lateral and longitudinal vehicle control, usually via gas, brakes and steering, and a manmachine interface to serve as an operating concept. It’s basically one step after another. Over the years to come, the car will master ever higher speeds and an increasing number of scenarios. Our aim is clear: Audi will continue to maintain its position at the forefront of this technology.
What is your vision of an Audi for the year 2030?
Stadler: Imagine you come out of your office and your Audi drives up to you, without a driver. You can leave a bit earlier today, because you’ll handle the last video conference of the day from the car. Afterward, you lean back and flick through the newspaper. Your car guides you serenely past all traffic congestion and you arrive home quickly and unstressed. Your Audi simply parks itself into a tight parking spot in the underground garage. You get out of the car before it parks. It could well be just like that in 2030.
But will the car still retain to its emotional meaning?
Stadler: The car is synonymous with freedom, and will remain so. Whether it’s for sport, vacationing or covering short distances, the car offers unparalleled transport flexibility. Obviously, the place of the car within society will change, with sustainable CO2-neutral mobility being the ultimate objective. But the car will still have a great deal of meaning in the future, too. This applies especially to ever-increasing networking in the internet of things, i.e. the networking of cars with one another and with the infrastructure, too.
Will an Audi still have a steering wheel in the year 2030?
Stadler: I’m absolutely certain of it – even if our products have one day taken the step from piloted to autonomous driving, i.e. when they’re able to operate entirely without a driver. We will never incapacitate our customers, but always provide them with assistance where they want it and make the job easier for them. All assistance functions are aimed purely at bringing comfort and safety to a whole new level. With piloted driv ing, however, the enormous potential lies in situations where the driver is distracted, over-challenged or under-challenged. More than 90 percent of accidents today are caused by human error. We therefore have a chance to reduce the number of accidents to ten percent – not by ten percent, but to ten percent!
Some of the world’s biggest IT companies have also taken a keen interest in the car and autonomous driving. You’re amassing a whole new set of competitors for technological leadership.
Stadler: Audi lives and breathes the promise of “Vorsprung durch Technik”, which is why we will shape this development from the driver’s seat. The IT companies are clearly our partners, and our cooperations with them are becoming increasingly intensive. But we’re not letting go of system control, of access to the car’s safety-relevant systems – from steering to engine control to brakes. We’ll not permit access to our cars’ operating systems. We owe that to our customers – they trust us. Our customers value our experience and they know that our technical expertise and the quality of our products are not easy to replicate.
HERE is forming the basis for
new assistance systems, ranging all the way
to fully automated driving.
It’s helping us further expand our leadership
in the field of piloted driving.
Yet we’re witnessing a power struggle between cell phone companies and automakers. Will Google, Apple, Baidu etc. have control over the data in future – and therefore over the customers?
Stadler: Definitely not. The automobile will play a special role in the networked world of the future, because its refined sensor systems mean it possesses its own sense. It is equipped with everything it needs to calculate a complete model of its surroundings wherever it is and in real time. There is no computer that can do that, never mind a smartphone. Only a piloted car has radar systems, video cameras for 3D reconstruction, ultra-sound sensors and a laser scanner delivering highly precise data on objects in front of the vehicle. We can identify everything, from cross traffic in the blind spot to all kinds of dangerous situations. Our principle is – if the sensors are in the car, then the intelligence for assistance systems and piloted driving have to be in the car, too – and not on the servers of international IT companies and data gatherers. As I said before, we see the big IT companies as partners, but we are the only ones able to guarantee our customers’ privacy.
These “data gatherers” would also end up knowing quite a lot about the driver.
Stadler: There’s a lot at stake – our customers’ personal data and therefore a big part of their life. The car is a private space, much like a second living room. The movements of my car are nothing less than a movement profile of my day. We therefore have a very clear position at Audi – the data from the car belongs to the customer. They alone decide what happens to it. We adhere firmly to European data protection standards. More than that, we invest a lot of money in our own infrastructure which ensures our customers’ data is secure. And we are also committed to full transparency in what happens to this data – without any loopholes. As far as the internet of things is concerned, you’ll see that the word “privacy” will keep gaining in value.
You joined with your colleagues at BMW and Daimler to buy Nokia map service HERE. What role does that play in your strategy?
Stadler: Real-time maps and location-based services will be the foundation for tomorrow’s mobility. Together with BMW and Daimler, we are ensuring that HERE remains an open, independent, value-creating platform for one of the best map databases in the world. It’s forming the basis for new assistance systems, ranging all the way to fully automated driving. It’s helping us further expand our leadership in the field of piloted driving, increase road safety and open up new opportunities for the development of new mobility services and other services for our customers. Access to it assures that we as automakers have the autonomy crucial to the development of importantfuture technologies. It provides us with long-term independence, particularly in the face of major IT companies.
But why is the map issue so important to you? Our world is already perfectly well digitalized. Navigation systems already know even the tiniest path.
Stadler: We’re dealing with a whole different dimension. Current maps with resolution measurable in meters are good for navigation, but autonomous driving needs completely new data fundamentals on the centimeter scale. Perhaps the word map is a little misleading, because we’re no longer talking about classic road maps. We’re talking about a three-dimensional model of space. It has to be incredibly precise, all the way down to the condition of the road surface. And it has to be alive, it has to update itself literally every second, using anonymized data from our cars, with all the information on the traffic situation, on the weather, on accidents etc. HERE is also an enormous database of information on hotels and businesses, on parking spaces and events.
But won’t cars be able to use their own sensors to recognize and “read” their surroundings?
Stadler: Absolutely right, but the image only becomes complete when this current model of their surroundings is continuously compared against the stored model of the road space around them. Using the live data from HERE, the car knows what to expect on its route. It makes the evaluation of every change and every movement, as well as the identification of potential dangers, disproportionately faster. Plus, the sen sors in our vehicles will provide anonymized feedback in real time, not just about the current traffic situation, but also about changes such as road conditions, detours or other disturbances. This is swarm intelligence. It constantly keeps the data up-tothe-minute.
So HERE is an investment in the future of piloted and autonomous driving.
Stadler: It certainly forms a significant basis for it. But it also provides benefits from which we will very soon be profiting. Here’s a simple example: You’re driving on the A9 toward Munich one Friday afternoon and it starts to rain. The rain sensor activates the windshield wipers. This information is sent from your car into the cloud, and from there to the vehicles behind you and to the traffic control center. The information is available in real time for all road users and leads to warnings or speed recommendations. When the traffic starts to slow down, drivers following behind receive an alternate route suggestion. If it happens more frequently, the system can act predictively. The knowledge that rain on the A9 on a Friday afternoon results in congestion 95 percent of the time means that an alternate route suggestion can be provided right at the start of the journey – and not just any old route, but the best one. Within the swarm, we generate an enormous amount of combined knowledge that we’ll use to the benefit and safety of our customers.
But the fish in the swarm also have to be able to communicate with one another.
Stadler: In some situations, the swarm has to be even faster than the cloud, which is why the ultimate goal of car-to-car communication is also part of our concept. We often hear on the radio about objects lying on the autobahn. A piloted car identifies the danger with its sensors and can immediately warn other cars nearby. By the time this information has been uploaded to the cloud, processed and downloaded by the next car, it’s possibly too late for the traffic following behind. Or think about emergency braking in convoy traffic. Those further back in the line can only find out about the heavy braking through a signal received directly from the sender. Direct communication is therefore essential in some safety-relevant applications. I’m certain the networked car will also be a major part of a future smart city. Take the straightforward example of stoplight sequencing. Our for th coming electric SUV can start recuperating energy early if it knows the next light is go ing to be red. This information holds enormous savings potential, and not just for electric vehicles. Above all, though, information available in real time will help traffic flow far more smoothly.
But the swarm surely needs an awful lot of fish for that to work.
Stadler: Audi’s not keeping this all to itself. HERE may well belong to a consortium of German manufacturers, but the company will generate the standard independently and keep it open for new customers from the automotive industry and other sectors. This means the number of fish will soon grow and the quality of the services will get ever better. However, the authority over personal data still remains with the customer. This distinction is incredibly important to us.