Audi shrinks self-driving computers, makes lights out of freakin' laser beams
Tonight saw Audi's pre-first-day CES 2014 keynote presentation, and this year's theme was iteration. Audi wouldn't tell you that was what the theme was — with them it's all "Vorsprung Durch Technik" (that's Advancement Through Technology) all the time — but what Audi introduced was evolutions of announcements from preceding years.
Last year Audi rolled out an A8 sedan onto the stage, or more accurately the A7 rolled itself out. It was an early demo of driverless technology that didn't depend on an array of sensors and scanners mounted to the roof. What wasn't shown off at CES 2013 was the trunk of that car, which was packed with computer boxes to manage all of the millions of inputs per second that it was receiving from the sensors distributed around the car.
This year, with Kunal Nayyar hosting (you might know him as Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory), Audi drove out, err, had drive itself out, an A7, sans driver or passengers. But what made this year's demo different from last years was the consolidation and miniaturization of the computing platform that made the self-driving possible. Or, as Audi likes to call it, piloted driving.
They call it "Z-Fast" (or as the Germans pronounced it, "Zed-Faust"), and the computing board is slightly smaller than a full-size iPad. It takes inputs from cameras mounted in the front, rear, and sides of the car, ultrasonic readings of the traffic around it, laser scan readings, and GPS to safely and accurately compute how to drive in the given situation.
To make it all happen quickly, though, Audi's equipped the Z-Fast setup with powerful radios and chipsets. On the connectivity front, there's a Qualcomm chipset connecting to AT&T's LTE network. Audi launched cars with LTE radios in Europe last year, but this is their first partnership to bring true 4G to automotive in the United States. AT&T is also replacing T-Mobile, who has been providing wireless services for Audi vehicles for the past few years.
And powering all of the Z-Fast goodness is the brand new Nvidia K1 chip with the 192-core GPU that CTO Jen-Hsun Huang so very much wanted to tell us all about that he had to be cut off by Nayyar for going off script. In the Audi implementation the K1 is in charge of managing the autonomous driving aspects, whereas Jen-Hsun was sure to mention that it can also be used to power infotainment and dashboard gauge systems as well.
AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega had engaged similar off-script shenanigans about AT&T's Drive package for automotive connectivity, much to Nayyar's consternation. As we've seen many times before, inviting well-spoken executives from other companies to speak at your keynote is asking for them to go off script. Rarely do we care about who is telling us about the new product — we care about what we're being told of the new product.
All of that combined makes for a car that is capable of driving itself. It will still likely be several years before we see piloted driving make its way to the consumer automobile market, restrained mostly by state and federal laws. Though, as with the FAA and cell phones on airplanes, taking time and being prudent in verifying that what it is you want to do is actually safe is a good thing to do when you're talking about multi-ton steel machines hurtling down crowded highways at 60 or 70 mph.
The second half of the show as about lasers beams. Specifically, Audi is ignoring the safety warnings about not point lasers at peoples eyes and instead is making headlights out of them. Debuted on an updated Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept car (I'm still waiting for the new Sport Quattro to start hitting dealerships and be laughably far out of my price range), the new headlight system uses reflected and refracted laser lights in conjunction with LED lighting to create a headlight that has a sharper focus, improved efficiency, and increased range. As in 300 yards range. As for when you can expect to see Laserlights on an Audi, there are still the requisite regulatory hurdles to overcome, so the best we were told was "soon".
Of course, this go-fast hybrid with lasers for lights had to have a crazy bass-heavy dubstep introduction, and that honor was given to the the iLuminate light-up dance team and a bunch of lasers shining through the haze that had developed in the theater.
As for the rest of the Audi Sport Quattro, it takes a heavy dose of design inspiration from the 1980's Audi Ur-Quattro, though with a modern take and thoroughly modern innards. It packs a high-performance sport hybrid powertrain that combines a 110kW electric motor with a v8 engine, a combo that's good for the equivalent of 700 horsepower. When combined with the sleek and lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber body, the Sport Quattro returns fuel economy upwards of 90 mpg.
Audi will have more tomorrow in a second press event at their booth on the show floor, including more on the Open Automotive Alliance in-car software group they've established with a number of companies, including Google and GM.
On a lighter note, towards the end of the presentation the teleprompters feeding words to Audi chairman Rupert Stadler failed. Unlike a certain other presenter today, Stadler had a set of cue cards on hand just in case.