“You can only take a big step in design when you have a big step in technology,” said Stefan Sielaff. Until recently Head of Audi Brand Design and now Head of the Volkswagen Design Center with responsibility for interior design across the VW Group including Audi, Sielaff and his teams are not short of opportunities for change.
Big technology steps include alternative powertrains and structural materials, but increasingly also cover the accumulative and combined effects of the ever-broadening spectrum of systems that make vehicles safer and easier to drive.
Audi has an increasingly comprehensive portfolio of active safety technologies, some in series manufacture, some being developed for next-generation models, and others that, although much further out, are regarded by the company as very likely to make it to production.
Particularly significant are active safety systems that assist the driver without taking over or, as Audi engineers put it, “patronizing” him or her. The mantra that the driver, not a vehicle’s systems, must remain in ultimate control of a vehicle, remains paramount.
However, the gap between those two positions may narrow. Christian Hilpoltsteiner, in charge of active safety systems at Audi, stated that 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by human error. So there is, without doubt, a strong case for greatly broadening driver-support systems.
For Audi, that spans sophisticated technology from hands and feet-off controls in slow moving heavy traffic, to a driverless car able to park itself, and a trailer that can be reversed without the driver touching the steering wheel.
Reducing workload is central to Audi’s R&D. To that end, its Traffic Jam Assistant (TJA) has been in development for three years. It is now in transition to series production, which means that it could be fitted to various models including the next-generation Q7.
Driver-activated in slow moving, dense city traffic, the technology includes a wide-angle camera, ultrasonic sensors, and a 77-gHz radar system operating with adaptive cruise control over a 0-60 km/h (0-37 mph) speed range and with limited steering assistance. Hands-off steering is used, but the driver must make regular inputs to “reassure” the system.
To facilitate an offset with a vehicle immediately ahead, steering capability is wider than lane-defining white lines. If that vehicle makes a significant maneuver, the TJA is sufficiently intelligent to also monitor cars farther ahead and can then compute a column path.
Experiencing the system on a test area near Munich, this AEI editor found it convincing but sometimes jerky in operation. However, specialists are confident of overcoming this and say the system will offer a choice of dynamic and comfort modes.
Development of full automatic braking at higher speeds—above 65 km/h (40 mph)—is also on Audi’s agenda. Regarded as an “add-on” to the company’s current production Pre-Sense system, it includes a wide field of view laser scanning to the front and flanks of the vehicle. If a static object in the vehicle’s path is detected, the system computes the possibility of the driver taking evasive action; if it deems it impossible, maximum braking is initiated to reduce impact forces.
The system is probably two model generations from production. One area of required development is the in-service robustness of the laser scanner and its ability to deal with the effects of snow or water, although it is expected that its performance and signal-processing ability will eventually be equal to, or surpass, that of a camera.
Audi safety specialists are also working on crash-adaptive restraint systems that anticipate likely impact severity and, when appropriate, reduce seat-belt restraint forces and those of airbags to lower the risk of their creating unnecessary thorax injury. The company is collaborating with suppliers on the development of suitable sensors.
A further detail aspect of seat-belt development is the use of small motors to extend the buckle section of rear seat belts to ease—and encourage—use.
Driver and passenger safety is also likely to be enhanced via warnings sourced from radar signals when opening a door in the path of an oncoming vehicle including a motorcycle or bicycle. An audible alert is backed up by a bright red LED strip close to the inner door handle. A complementary haptic warning signal via the handle is under consideration.
The use of a simple red LED light strip is also used to assist the driver at limited vision intersections; side-impact collision is currently the second most common cause of traffic deaths in Europe. The Audi system comprises two radar sensors in the primary role and a video camera with 180° lens to provide reference data, scanning to the front and sides.
The red warning strip is mounted on the top of the dashboard and reflects in the windshield. It is similar in form to a high-level brake light and is designed not to overload the driver with information. Also under consideration if a side impact risk is detected, is an armrest that could be moved to increase the gap between a vehicle occupant and intruding structure. Car-to-x communication could enhance the efficacy of the system further. Much of the side-impact protection system uses regular hardware.
As sensor and data processing capability progresses and achieves ever better economies of scale, so the subtlety of the assistance they can engender expands. Audi is taking seriously the ability of a driver and passengers to exit a car and allow it to self-park in narrow spaces, using its Piloted Parking system, which is now under development.
The car can be controlled from either a smartphone or fob switch and uses mainly untrasonics (cameras would provide additional accuracy and may be used) to position it in a garage or parking space. The whole system facilitates the car’s transmission moving from Park to Drive, with Park reselected, park brake applied, windows shut, and doors locked on completion of the maneuver.
The development vehicle can detect an object in its path and stops. Audi Piloted Parking is probably three to five years from a production application. By-wire transmission and electric steering are necessary. Eventually the system could be developed to such a pitch that a car might be able to find its own parking slot on different floors of a public car park, although that capability is many years away.
Electric steering is also essential for a piece of technology that would be welcomed by any driver who has tried to back a trailer, particularly one using a short drawbar and with only two wheels.
The Trailer Maneuvering Assistant (TMA), which includes a sensor and serrated rubber ring in the towball, is a hands-off steering wheel experience. The car’s MMI rotary controller, used for navigation, suspension settings, etc. becomes a “steering wheel.” The driver can back and turn the trailer without the usual problem of having to steer in the opposite direction to normal, the pivot angle between tow vehicle and trailer remaining steady.
In order to prevent contact with the towing vehicle, the pivot angle cannot exceed pre-set maxima. This also prevents the jack-knife effect that is a common problem when backing a trailer. TMA is speed limited and it adjusts automatically to different trailer sizes and short drawbars. At present, Audi is revealing relatively few details about the system.