Several news media have reported that Stefan Moser, Audi Head of Product and Technology Communications, has announced that the next generation Audi A8 (expected by 2017) will be able to drive with full autonomy. Mr. Moser emphasized that Audi wants to be first to bring a self-driving car to market. He explained that the car will be equipped with cameras and LIDAR, that the car will drive much safer than humans could, and that their system will be based on a redundant hardware architecture where all computing will be performed by at least two independent processors. He also cautioned that legal hurdles remain for fully autonomous driving which could delay the availability of these features.
This announcement shows that car makers increasingly want to be seen as innovation leaders in the autonomous driving space. Audi has a mixed record in this area. They have have been very active in the field of driving dynamics – i.e. racing a self-driving car up Pikes Peak or around the Hockenheim race track. But the sensing and route planning algorithms of these prototypes are still quite primitive – they rely mostly on differential GPS supplemented with custom-built 3D maps for navigation. Audi has made great progress in autonomous racing on empty tracks but driving in a dynamic, changing environment with other vehicles, pedestrians, etc. is a different ball game. It does not help that Volkswagen’s CEO Martin Winterkorn remains quite sceptical about fully autonomous technology (Audi is a subsidiary of Volkswagen). On the other hand, Audi has established itself as a technology-leader with respect to the computing platform for driver-assistance systems via its partnership with NVIDIA.
We hope that Mr. Moser’s statements are an indication of a change of heart within Volkswagen and that they will aggressively tackle the challenges of autonomous urban and highway driving. This requires an extensive program of computer-based learning and optimization and needs millions of kilometers of test-driving with autonomous car prototypes on regular roads.