Audi pushes toward fully autonomous cars

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Hackenberg discussed development of self-driving vehicles and the potential effects of falling oil prices with Automotive News Europe Editor Luca Ciferri last month on the sidelines of the International CES in Las Vegas.

Q: An Audi A7 Sportback recently drove itself almost 560 miles from Palo Alto, Calif., to Las Vegas. What message does that send about the potential mass production of autonomous vehicles?

A: It depends on your definition of autonomous driving. A vehicle capable of driving itself with no need for any interaction from the driver, even in critical situations, is probably 10 years away. If you mean what we call “piloted driving,” which is a car that can drive itself but still calls on the driver to intervene in critical situations, the technology is already here.

We used standard-definition maps for the drive from Palo Alto to Las Vegas, but we used high-definition digital maps to have our autonomously driven RS7 top 240 kph [149 mph] on the Hockenheim race circuit last October.

What is the biggest hurdle slowing the launch of fully autonomous vehicles?

By far it’s legislation. Nowhere in the world are there laws that permit cars to autonomously drive on public roads. Even in California and Nevada, where Audi was among the first automakers to get a permit to test autonomous driving, the law requires that a test driver always is at the wheel, ready to intervene if needed.

What redundancies are required to make sure self-driving cars are safe?

A number of redundancies are required. Some systems are duplicated and others need three units, for example, when two sensors provide conflicting information. In piloted driving, the driver is required to make a decision that overcomes the sensor discrepancy. In fully autonomous driving, the third redundant system must determine what to do.

What is Audi’s plan for launching autonomous driving?

By the end of next year, piloted driving will be available on the next-generation A8. [It will drive the car] at speeds up to 60 kph [37 mph] on major roadways. From there, we will progressively expand the system’s range of usability, which is mainly a software matter.

How much do falling oil prices affect customers’ car-buying decisions?

If differs. In the U.S. there is direct correlation between gasoline prices and sales of our clean diesels. If gasoline prices go up, our diesel sales go up and vice versa.

Audi offers an array of low-emission vehicles that includes gasoline turbos, clean diesels, plug-in hybrids and soon a full-electric R8. From an engineer’s perspective, which offers the best solution?

From a pure engineering standpoint, the best solution is a plug-in diesel hybrid if you’re talking about the ideal balance between high performance, low fuel consumption and long range. This is because you couple the advantages of the diesel with those of a plug-in hybrid powertrain.

And commercially?

Considering the cost of a plug-in diesel powertrain, the winning solution for the marketplace would be a plug-in gasoline hybrid. Future emissions standards are significantly increasing the cost of compliance for diesels, which in turn increases the burden on a plug-in diesel compared with a plug-in gasoline.

The new Q7 will be Audi’s first plug-in diesel hybrid. Will it debut this year?

Not this year, but in the near future, and it won’t be our only plug-in diesel. We will have more of them, also on smaller models.