Monthly Archives: April 2017

New Audi A8 creates a brilliant tech and luxury

After months of teasers and information trickles, the all-new, fourth-generation Audi A8 has officially arrived. The high-tech sedan becomes the first production car to include Level 3 autonomous capabilities, and it also has an intelligent active suspension, heavily digitized cockpit with new MMI infotainment engine, and all-wheel steering. Buyers in this segment who weren’t thinking Audi before might just want to wait a few months and schedule an A8 test drive.

Audi revealed the all-new A8 at the Audi Summit in Barcelona on Tuesday, focusing in on the German version, which will launch in late 2017.

Autonomy reaches Level 3

There’s a lot of technology going on under the gently massaged skin of the new A8, the most newsworthy being the advanced piloted driving functions. Audi has been one of the world leaders in testing and demonstrating autonomous tech, and it’s now cashing in by making the A8 the first production car with Level 3 capabilities.

That means the driver will be able to take hands off the wheel completely, for extended periods of time, under specific conditions. It provides a “flipping through a magazine or reading email” level of disengagement, though naps are out since Level 3 requires that the driver be prepared to take over when conditions begin to exceed autonomous system capabilities.

Level 3 autonomous driving is achieved under the push-button Audi AI traffic jam pilot system, which operates in slow moving traffic up to 37 mph (60 km/h) on freeways with a barrier separating the two directions of traffic. Once the button is pushed, the car takes over all starting, accelerating, braking and steering functions, freeing the driver to do something else entirely.

“They can take their hands off the steering wheel permanently and, depending on the national laws, focus on a different activity that is supported by the car, such as watching the onboard TV,” Audi explains.

It might be tempting to catch some shut-eye, particularly if things are deep bumper-to-bumper with no signs of free-up, but the driver monitoring system is there to keep the driver awake. A camera does the monitoring, and the system issues alerts should it sense the driver becoming drowsy or sleeping, because the driver will have to take over when things start moving back up toward highway speed. When that time comes, the A8 will inform the driver with a multistage alert, and should he or she not get the memo, the car will brake itself to standstill.

The description of the system’s operation brings to forefront of mind the debate about Level 3 driving. Some automakers and industry leaders believe that Level 3 systems should be skipped all together due to the uncertainty surrounding the pass-off between car and driver.

Even if the driver tries to maintain full attentiveness, it will prove difficult when not actively driving. Will he or she be ready to take over when the time comes? How long will the car give the driver to take over? What happens if the driver does not respond?

Audi explains that the A8 will brake to standstill, but will it pull over safely to the shoulder? What happens if there isn’t a shoulder to pull onto?

These are questions that Audi and regulators within prospective launch markets will need to address before this Level 3 tech rolls out, which will happen gradually as the regulations catch up to the technology.

“The introduction of the Audi AI traffic jam pilot means the statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market, along with the country-specific definition of the application and testing of the system,” Audi recognizes. “Audi will therefore be adopting a step-by-step approach to the introduction of the traffic jam pilot in production models.”

The new A8 also marks the launch of the Audi AI remote parking pilot and remote garage pilot systems, which allow the car to park itself in a space or garage with the driver outside the car. The driver can step out, start the parking procedure from the accompanying myAudi app, and switch over to a live feed from the car’s 360-degree cameras. He or she can reverse the procedure from the smartphone app as well, and the car will maneuver out of the spot for pickup.

Audi intends to begin production of these advanced driving and parking pilot systems next year.

Supporting technological cast

The new A8 features a standard 48-volt electrical system for the first time. In addition to running the usual 12 V electrical equipment as a subsystem, the 48 V platform powers new features like the available Audi AI active suspension system. This electromechanical suspension takes adaptive air suspension to new heights, using data from the front-facing camera to detect changes in the road surface and adjust the suspension settings at each individual wheel to match.

Audi says that drivers can expect the system to virtually eliminate bumps and jolts while still delivering precise, dynamic handling. It can also enhance safety by working with the pre sense 360° monitoring system. The active suspension can lift the side of the car body by up to 3.1 in (18 mm) in the event of an impending lateral collision. The side sills and floor structure take on a greater portion of the collision force, helping to cut up to 50 percent of the loads on occupants.

The available dynamic all-wheel steering system helps the A8 find a balance of stability and quick-reacting handling. The system adjusts front-wheel steering ratios and manages rear-wheel steering, all according to speed. At medium to high speeds, the rear wheels turn up to 2 degrees in the direction of steering for enhanced stability. At low speeds, they turn up to 5 degrees against the steering direction, shortening the turning circle by 3.2 feet (1 m), down as low as 37.4 feet (11.4 m).

Situational awareness

Below all that autonomous rolling, ducking and weaving, the A8 relies on 12 ultrasonic sensors spread around the car, four 360-degree cameras, a front camera on the top edge of the windscreen, four mid-range radars at the corners, one front long-range radar, one front infrared camera and a front laser scanner.

The front bumper-integrated laser scanner is the new highlight of the package, sending pulses of near-infrared light out across multiple vertical planes. The light spreads about 145 degrees and travels out about 263 feet (80 m) deep, bouncing back off of objects in front of the car in less than a microsecond. The light is captured by photodiodes and used to create a contoured image that combines with data from other sensors into the detailed imagery that underpins the car’s autonomous features.

In place of multiple function-specific control units, the A8 has a central driver assistance controller (zFAS) that processes imagery and controls the car’s autonomous functions. This advanced controller is about the size of a tablet computer and includes Nvidia Tegra K1, Altera Cyclone V, Infineon Aurix and Mobileye EyeQ3 hardware.

Engines and hybrids for every taste and situation

Audi will offer a full lineup of V6, V8, W12 and hybrid powertrains with staggered launches. The first two options available to German buyers will be a 335-hp 3.0-liter V6 turbo and a 282-hp 3.0-liter turbo diesel, both reengineered for the new model. A pair of 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8s will follow, a 429-hp TDI (diesel) and a 453-hp TFSI (petrol).

In the future, Audi will add a 577-hp 6.0-liter twin-turbo W12 to the top of the line and an e-tron quattro hybrid, both for the long-wheelbase A8 L trim. The L e-tron will combine a 3.0-liter TFSI engine with a 14.1-kWh lithium ion-powered electric motor for up to 443 hp. It will offer about 31 miles (50 km) of all-electric driving and will debut the option of Audi Wireless Charging.

Whatever engine the buyer chooses, a newly developed eight-speed Tiptronic transmission handles power and torque delivery. The standard quattro permanent with self-locking center differential routes torque at a standard 40:60 front/rear split. When needed for better traction, the system can direct up to 85 percent of torque to the rear or 70 percent to the front. A sports differential, available with the V6, V8 and W12 engines, adjusts torque delivery between the rear wheels to enhance cornering capabilities.

The 48-volt electrical system and its belt alternator starter bring another interesting advantage to all engine levels of A8. The mild hybrid technology allows the car to cruise engine-free at speeds between 34 to 99 mph (55 to 160 km/h) for about 40 seconds, helping improve efficiency and briefly cut emissions. The belt alternator starter ensures a quick, smooth engine restart.

A new wardrobe

The fourth-generation A8’s styling is more an evolutionary update than a complete makeover from the gen-three, but Audi stresses that it’s the start of a new brand-wide design era. Following the Prologue concept car, the A8 wears a sharper-cornered hexagonal grille set between a new set of glaring eyes, split down the middle by the daytime running lights. The HD Matrix LED headlights include Audi’s laser spot technology, putting plenty of light where it’s needed without dazzling oncoming drivers.

The front-end flows more seamlessly back into the fenders than the current A8, thanks to the loss of the creases outside the headlights. From there, Audi describes all measures of “fluid, muscular” proportions and quattro-hinting wheel arches, but the A8 really looks like a basic sedan profile, not all that far advanced from the outgoing version.

In back, the reshaped OLED taillights are joined by a thin lighting strip extending between their upper edges. This helps lend a wider, thinner look to the subtly tipped-forward rear-end.

A cozy tech cocoon

Audi didn’t assign all its tech geeks to the A8’s advanced sensor-backed intelligent drive systems; it also put some on the interior design and engineering. That team spent much of its time pulling out most of the A8’s physical buttons and dials, replacing them with a sleek, horizontal digital interface centered around a two-level, dual-screen control hub.

The upper 10.1-in screen controls infotainment, while the lower 8.6-in screen is dedicated to climate controls and text inputs. A 12.3-in TFT digital instrument panel shows key information in full HD, front and center, and the driver can cycle through menu options using controls on the steering wheel. An optional head-up display provides another digital information layer.

The cockpit design is definitely cleaner than the mix of touchscreens, pads, buttons, switches and dials on the outgoing A8, but we’re not sure every A8 driver will like having to rely so much on touch technology. Audi tries to address the issue with its new MMI touch response system, integrating tactile and acoustic feedback into the console touchscreens. An electromagnetic pulse serves as tactile feedback when the driver successfully pushes a touchscreen option, and a “click” sound played by a small speaker provides an auditory cue.

A new voice control system provides another control option, promising more natural, conversational speech. The system works with navigation, air conditioning, media, and some telephony and Audi Connect features.

Moving back from all that digital display glass up front, the interior gets a little roomier thanks to the new A8’s stretched dimensions. The standard A8 is 1.5 in (37 mm) longer than the outgoing model and the long-wheelbase A8 L is 5.1 in (130 mm) longer. Each model is roughly half an inch (13 mm) higher than its predecessor. Both long and standard wheelbase A8s add 1.3 in (32 mm) of interior length, and the A8 L has more head, leg and shoulder room.

Audi takes advantage of some of this space by offering an optional relaxation seat, Audi’s take on the Chinese market-influenced VIP rear-seat trend we’ve seen Volvo and Varsovia explore in recent years. The reclining relaxation seat comes with a footrest, an electric-adjustable head restraint, and a multi-mode foot massager/heater integrated into the back of the front seat … not a bad way to spend a road trip.

Audi also offers rear passengers an OLED touchscreen remote housed in the center armrest for controlling lighting, climate, media and other settings. A pair of seat back-mount 10.1-in Audi HD tablets are available in the rear seat entertainment package, and an available 1,920-watt, 23-speaker 3D Bang & Olufsen premium sound system brings serious audio. Other options include a rear wireless-charge phone box, digital audio and TV tuners, an LTE Advanced data transmission module with Wi-Fi, and a clean air fragrance/ionization package.

Bottom line

The German-market A8 will start rolling out in late 2017. Both the A8 and A8 L will be built at Audi’s Neckarsulm site and will start at €90,600 and €94,100 (approx. US$104K and $108K), respectively.

See what Level 3 life will look like in the first video below and jump to the second for more action-oriented footage.

Prepare Your Car For Winter

Rain, snow, ice, fog… in winter, weather conditions make the roads dangerous and there is also less light. That is why it’s important to properly prepare equipment before facing the bad weather.

When we’re preparing a vehicle for winter, we often think more about wheels than lights. Yet powerful and good quality lighting is essential to better anticipating hazards. The key to safety is reaction speed: designed for optimal visibility and performance, Philips X-tremeVision vehicle lights allow driver reaction times to be reduced by two seconds. 130% brighter than the competition (with a color temperature that can reach 3700K), these are the most powerful lights on the market. Their light beams can reach 130 meters, which is 45 meters more than standard lights.

As a reminder, it is dipped headlights that are most frequently used in bad weather, in snowfall, rain or even fog (with the fog lights in addition or instead).

And so you can be better prepared:
Winter checklist

If you’re driving during winter, you should check certain things before you set off.

  1. Lighting: replace faulty bulbs, clean your lights and check adjustments
  2. Battery status: your battery is put under heavy demand in winter because it is used to power the lights, the electric defroster, the headlights and the heating. This means that its effectiveness can fall by a third at temperatures below 0°C
  3. Levels: check your oil level and fill the reservoir between the two notches on the dipstick without exceeding the maximum; check the level of engine coolant liquid when the engine is cold; and add antifreeze to the windscreen washer fluid
  4. Tyre pressure (including the spare tyre): it is recommended that you increase the normal usage pressure by 0.2 to 0.3 bar when the external temperature is low
  5. Tyre wear: check the tread depth using a depth gauge. It should be at least 1.6 mm over the entire circumference of the tyre
  6. The heating system: check the liquid refrigerant level in the air conditioning, and replace the liquid every three years (to be carried out by a mechanic). Check the condition of the cabin air filter and the receiver/drier
  7. Wiper blades: they must be clean. Check the condition of the rubber too.

Using New Technology to Make Older Cars Safer

LIKE many parents of young drivers, Shane Coulter wants his 16-year-old daughter’s car to be as safe as possible when she takes to the road. But like many older vehicles, the 2008 Jeep Wrangler that he bought for her lacked many high-tech safety features, like a rearview camera, that are increasingly found in newer cars.

But that didn’t mean he had to be left out of the technological revolution. Audiovox makes a rearview camera that can be added on.

“I actually put it on my daughter’s Jeep,” said Mr. Coulter, who lives in Warner Robins, Ga.

The rearview camera is one of the most popular of a growing list of add-on devices and services that promise to bring modern features to aging jalopies.

“Lane departure and collision warning, pedestrian warnings, high-beam control and traffic sign recognition — all of those can be retrofitted in a customer’s car,” said Elad Serfaty, a vice president at Mobileye, whose technology is built into a variety of vehicles from BMW, Volvo and other carmakers that offer collision detection and prevention.

A warning and monitoring system that can be added to older vehicles, like the Mobileye 660, costs roughly $1,000 including a professional installation, Mr. Serfaty said, but he pointed out that the benefits could outweigh the costs. A Highway Loss Data Institute study of Honda Accords and Crosstours equipped with lane departure and forward collision warnings, for example, found a 14 percent reduction in damage claims compared with models without the systems.

Consequently, many car accessory companies are joining the driver assistance trend. Garmin, hoping to resuscitate flagging sales of portable navigation devices, has incorporated such technology in its $400 nüviCam LMTHD. The navigation device has a built-in video camera that scans the road ahead, offering not only directions but also chimes and yellow icon warnings whenever a driver drifts out of the lane or starts tailgating.

Usually cited as a major distraction to drivers, smartphones are also being enlisted to create alert systems. One of the earliest and most extensive driver assistance apps was iOnRoad, now owned by Harman International. Using a smartphone’s built-in camera, the app monitors the car’s speed and distance from the vehicle ahead, sounding a loud alarm if the distance shrinks too quickly or the driver fails to brake sufficiently.

Using the app can feel like having a digital back-seat driver that chides you every time you drift too close to the fog line. But iOnRoad’s constant pings can work to adjust driving habits, like improving driver alertness and increasing the following distance between cars.

“If you have a teenage driver, the app will allow you to analyze driving habits,” said Alon Atsmon, vice president for technology strategy at Harman. “It can log events, such as tailgating and lane departure warnings, then score his driving compared to other drivers around the world.” The basic app is free; a premium $5 version adds dashcamlike video recording and speed limit sign recognition.

Many customers decide to upgrade the older family car when it gets handed down to a new teenage driver, according to Keith Imbriglio, the manager at Long Radio, an installation firm in Hadley, Mass.

Among the most popular add-ons, he said, are rearview cameras like the one Mr. Coulter installed on his daughter’s Wrangler. They all but eliminate blind spots behind vehicles.

The Audiovox ACA900, which Mr. Coulter purchased, is a $129 wide-angle backup video camera with an ultrasonic sensor. It mounts in a rear license plate bracket and sounds proximity warnings and displays a picture in a dashboard LCD screen or replacement rearview mirror.

When the car is put into reverse, the rearview picture appears, including distance and parking guidelines. If the driver gets too close to a pedestrian or nearby obstruction, the system beeps loudly and powerfully and shows a red “STOP” alert on the video monitor.

The biggest problem with the systems, Mr. Imbroglio said, is that they take a lot of time to install. Labor can add $70 to $100 to the price for consumers, many of whom may balk at sinking more money into an aging vehicle with tens of thousands of miles on it.

So some drivers opt for do-it-yourself tracking and car monitoring devices that simply plug into the onboard diagnostic or OBD-II port under the dashboard of cars built from 1996 onward. The proliferation of OBD II devices include models like those pitched by insurance companies promising to lower rates for good driving habits or those from Silicon Valley start-ups looking to capitalize on the connected car trend.

Taking connected car apps to the next level, Viper, which makes car alarms, has just introduced software that works with Apple and Android smartwatches. The Viper SmartStart 4.0 app can remotely start, locate and unlock a car from a compatible watch. The forthcoming Android app will even obey voice commands, like “O.K., Google, start my car,” according to the company. A typical Viper module package costs $399, installed, with geofencing alerts — which let parents know when their child strays outside a preset zone — available for an annual fee of $99.

William Stewart of Brooklyn was persuaded.

“I could be anywhere in the world and I can lock and unlock the car,” said Mr. Stewart, who had a Viper system professionally installed in his 2014 Lexus RS350. Initially, he was interested in adding a remote start feature for cold weather days, but liked the additional features. “And when the alarm triggers, it gives you a notification on your phone.”

For all the technical sleight of hand, there are limits to what aftermarket upgrades can bring to a car. Unlike built-in options in new cars, none of these systems can automatically brake a vehicle to prevent a crash or steer a car toward the center of the lane when the driver wanders. And none of the upgrades will stop a car remotely like OnStar can in the event of a theft.

Toyota Invests $1 Billion in Artificial Intelligence in U.S.

Calif. — Silicon Valley is diving into artificial intelligence technology, with start-ups sprouting up and Google and Facebook pouring vast sums into projects that would teach machines how to learn and make decisions. Now Toyota wants a piece of the action.

Toyota, the Japanese auto giant, on Friday announced a five-year, $1 billion research and development effort headquartered here. As planned, the compound would be one of the largest research laboratories in Silicon Valley.

Conceived as a research facility bridging basic science and commercial engineering, it will be organized as a new company to be named Toyota Research Institute. Toyota will initially have a laboratory adjacent to Stanford University and another near M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass.

Toyota’s investment invites comparisons to earlier research initiatives, such as the Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, created by Xerox in 1970 to help the company compete with IBM. Xerox was never able to find a strategy to make it a significant player in computing, but the technologies invented at PARC during the next decade were used by Apple and Microsoft to completely remake the computer industry.

The new effort by Toyota is also the latest indication of a changing of the guard in Silicon Valley’s basic technology research. Last year, for example, Microsoft closed a satellite laboratory of its Microsoft Research division in Silicon Valley and laid off about 75 researchers.

Corporate research done by Internet companies like Facebook and Google has generally focused on things that can be turned into a product or service, breaking with the traditions of industrial laboratories run by AT&T and IBM, which focused on basic science.

International corporations like General Electric; Baidu, the Chinese search engine; Samsung, the South Korean conglomerate; and all the major automakers have been establishing research outposts in or near the region to take advantage of its engineering talent.

Artificial intelligence technologies were disappointing for decades, but they have finally begun paying off, leading to systems such as Siri, the personal assistant from Apple, and rapid improvements in self-driving vehicle technology.

And in recent years, there has been a rush to recruit talented researchers in so-called machine learning, many of them produced by Stanford and the nearby University of California, Berkeley. Toyota plans to hire 200 scientists for its artificial intelligence research center.

“The density of people doing this kind of work in Silicon Valley is higher than any other place in the world,” said Gill Pratt, a roboticist and former official at the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, or Darpa, who will lead the new company.

The new center will initially focus on artificial intelligence and robotics technologies and will explore how humans move both outdoors and indoors, including technologies intended to help the elderly.

When the center begins operating in January, it will prioritize technologies that make driving safer for humans rather than completely replacing them. That approach is in stark contrast with existing research efforts being pursued by Google and Uber to create self-driving cars.

“We want to create cars that are both safer and incredibly fun to drive,” Dr. Pratt said. Rather than completely removing driving from the equation, he described a collection of sensors and software that will serve as a “guardian angel,” protecting human drivers.

In September, when Dr. Pratt joined Toyota, the company announced an initial artificial intelligence research effort committing $50 million in funding to the computer science departments of both Stanford and M.I.T. He said the initiative was intended to turn one of the world’s most successful carmakers into one of the world’s top software developers.

A similar challenge is now facing many of world’s largest noncomputing technology companies. In September, Jeffrey R. Immelt, G.E.’s chief executive, predicted that the company would be “a top 10 software company” by 2020.

In addition to the software engineers in each of its businesses that make jet engines, locomotives, power turbines, medical imaging equipment and other devices, the company now has more than 1,200 engineers at a specialized software center in San Ramon, Calif., just across San Francisco Bay from Silicon Valley.

“There is a software layer over everything now,” said John Zysman, a U.C. Berkeley political scientist and the co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy. And that is a powerful magnet that continues to draw companies.

By shifting its focus to include mobility for a rapidly aging population, Toyota is also acknowledging that demographic changes may soon affect traditional automotive markets.

“Toyota has been a reasonable, conservative car company, so it is intriguing that they are making this move,” said Jameson M. Wetmore, an associate professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. “Kids are getting their licenses later and the car companies are becoming concerned they don’t have the place in society they once had.”

In addition to focusing on navigation technologies, the new research corporation will also apply artificial intelligence technologies to Toyota’s factory automation systems, Dr. Pratt said.

The company describes its manufacturing system as the Toyota Production Systems.

“As extraordinary as the T.P.S. is, we believe it can be improved still further through the use of more data and more A.I.,” he said. “There may also be advances in robot perception, planning, collaboration, and electromechanical design from T.R.I. that will translate into improvements in manufacturing robotics.”

Dr. Pratt said he began his career as a research scientist at Bell Laboratories and was influenced by his time there.

Before coming to Darpa, where he was responsible for the agency’s most recent contest for building robots capable of working in hazardous environments, he was known for his earlier research at M.I.T., where he pioneered so-called collaborative technologies making it safer for humans to work near robots.