Audi R8 e-tron Piloted Driving: Self-driving gets sporty
Elon Musk has a lot to answer for. Long before the automotive world was willing to accept that electric cars were the future, Musk championed Tesla’s belief in a solar-electric economy – a future in which all cars are electric, all power renewable. The result? Tesla has grown to become a $25 billion business, and sent shockwaves coursing throughout the sector. Now, automotive giants such as Audi are looking to stake their claim in the all-electric, autonomous future of the automobile.
It’s not inconceivable that Tesla’s success served as the inspiration for Audi’s 2008 concept car, the R8 e-tron – perhaps the German manufacturer wanted to show that Tesla wasn’t the only company that could imbue electric cars with high-performance, high-end cachet.
And not to be outdone by news of Google’s driverless car experiments, Audi has moved one step further in 2015. Fusing an advanced version of its 2008 R8 e-tron concept with the latest in self-driving technology, Audi unveiled its most ambitious project yet: the R8 e-tron Piloted Driving.
Driving with eyes closed
The digital eyes, ears and brain at the heart of the self-driving R8 e-tron are the product of a collaborative, multidisciplinary effort. Marshalling a team of specialists from Nvidia, Delphi, TTTech and Mobileye among many others, Audi brought together the hardware and software components required to create the Piloted Driving engine, dubbed zFAS.
Although it might look like a standard PC motherboard, it’s nothing of the sort. Instead, the components lashed together on the zFAS PCB are tasked with converting the vast amount of data that is streaming in from the myriad sensors dotted around the R8 e-tron’s chassis – the depth-sensing cameras, laser scanners and ultrasonic sensors – as well as dealing with more mundane computing tasks, such as feeding data from the GPS receiver and the car’s always-on LTE mobile connection.
Details are frustratingly scarce on the specifics of Audi’s efforts, but with the CPU and GPU tech lurking at the heart of zFAS delivered by Nvidia’s Tegra K1 – a chip better known for packing a daunting amount of processing power into Android tablets – it’s fair to assume that there’s power enough to handle hands-free driving as well as the demands of Audi’s digital heads-up display system. Sadly, Audi wasn’t allowing anyone to sit in the driver’s seat, but if the fully digital dashboard on its demonstration unit is anything to go by, you can expect to have control of everything from GPS to your music playlist without lifting your hands from the steering wheel.
Teaching the blind to see
But how hard is it to make a car drive itself? The margin of error, after all, is tiny. One mistake, and at best you’ll be taking several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of concept car to the paint shop. At worst – it doesn’t bear thinking about. Given that current regulations require a driver to be present, if not actively in control, there is virtually no margin for error whatsoever. After all, it’s one thing to have a car race its way around the Hockenheim race track unaided, it’s entirely another to navigate the M25 at rush hour.
The sheer number of connections dotting the edge of the zFAS board hints at the vastness of the hardware and programming challenge involved. In addition to the twin Ethernet sockets and what looks like the telltale thread of a wireless aerial connection, the other 13 connections are entirely unfamiliar to a PC enthusiast.
Not that you’d be able to distinguish the R8 e-tron Piloted Driving from a standard model just by looking at it – at least, not at first glance. It lacks the brutish, oval, twin exhausts at the rear of its petrol-powered stablemates, and the muzzle of carbon-fibre replacing the air intake of the V8-and V10-powered models is another dead giveaway, but there’s no outwardly obvious sign of the sheer amount of technology that lurks within Audi’s latest concept: the R8 e-tron looks exactly like a sports car should, all perfect curves resting on squat, muscular haunches.
The death of the petrol engine?
Looks aren’t everything, however. Indeed, petrol-head purists addicted to the guttural rasp of a V8 might still scoff at the prospect of an electric sports car, but in terms of pure performance numbers the R8 e-tron is a potent advert for all-electric tech.
“Twin 170kw motors combine to deliver 0-62mph times of 3.9 seconds, 0.9 seconds faster than the original model.”
The electric drivetrain of the R8 e-tron has been given a number of significant upgrades since it made its debut in 2008. The former model’s 280kw power output has been eclipsed by twin 170kw motors which now combine to deliver 0-62mph times of 3.9 seconds, 0.9 seconds faster than the original model. Top speeds remain identical: with the speed limiters disabled, the R8 e-tron tops out at 250km/h – outside of a race track, you’re unlikely to find the R8’s limits.
Audi has steadily made advances with the lithium-ion battery technology, too. Where the earlier models made do with 50kWh of reserves, the R8’s T-shaped battery pack almost doubles in size to 92kWh, an advance which now gives it a working range of up to 450km.
In fairness, though, Audi’s petrol-powered R8 GT still has the edge over its electric stablemate. With its 5.2-litre V10 generating a brutish 552bhp, the V8 GT reaches 62mph just a fraction quicker, in 3.6 seconds. The all-electric R8 e-tron is gaining ground rapidly, though, and with Audi’s drivetrain technology advancing dramatically in the past few years, the gas-guzzling model’s superiority may soon come to an end.
Are enemies electric?
In fact, Audi would probably rather we didn’t mention its most unforgiving adversary – and there are no prizes for guessing who. Tesla’s tight focus on electric drivetrain technology has provided it with no small advantage in the field.
What’s more, the company has already deployed semi-autonomous driving technology in its line-up, something it calls AutoPilot. And with all models since September 2014 equipped with windscreen-mounted cameras, radar and ultrasonic sonar sensors, Tesla only has to deliver an over-the-air software update to activate the technology in its latest models.
One thing is clear: Tesla and Audi (and Google and Apple, too, if reports are to be believed) are locked in a battle to secure the future of autonomous vehicles. With Musk himself stating that autonomous driving tech will be ready for the big time around 2020, albeit subject to governments thrashing out the necessary laws, and Audi confidently stating that its zFAS technology will be ready for series production by 2017, the race is most certainly on.