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Audi Is Turning Its Vehicles Into Tech Platforms, But What Does That Actually Mean?

When Tesla released the Model S in 2013, it caught Audi a little flat-footed. Somehow the company had managed to miss the fact that most consumers didn’t want some gas-guzzling monstrosity driving them around. They wanted a car that released as little CO2 into the atmosphere as possible.

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But the Model S was more than just environmentally-friendly. It was also a mobile technology platform. Just looking at it, you could see it was fundamentally different. When you got in the cabin, it was more like a smartphone than a cockpit. It didn’t even have knobs on the dashboard - just a big, tablet-like display, from which the driver controls everything.


Audi didn’t cotton onto what Tesla was doing here immediately. The brand continued along with its digital transition roadmap, slowly incorporating more user-friendly infotainment with every generation. Several years into the process, however, it saw what Tesla was up to and decided to make a dramatic shift. Like the upstart Californian carmaker, it too would now produce cars that were simultaneously tech platforms, delivering all of the benefits of a Tesla.


In many ways, the decision to make the move chimes with the company’s philosophy. Vorsprung Durch Technik literally means “lead through technology.” So the brand really had no choice but to try to retake the lead in that realm.


Audi, therefore, is currently in the process of shifting the type of technology it offers. For years, it’s been an industry leader in mechanical engineering, creating four-wheel-drive cars with exceptional handling characteristics. Now, though, it needs to make the shift to the next frontier in car technology - smart software. Automakers have pretty much solved all the mechanical problems over the last several decades. Computers will be integral to the next stage in the development of the automobile.


Learning Driving Habits


Audi isn’t just paying lip service to in-car technology - it’s developing systems that it hopes will lead the industry into a bright and glorious future.


For instance, the company says that its vehicles now actively “learn” the driver’s habits, and consider them when calculating routes. Onboard systems track everything that the driver does, taking note of their practices, and then using them to inform direction planning. The system is unbelievably detailed and intricate, calculating routes on a lane-by-lane basis, telling drivers to switch if there’s a faster route. All information from Audi vehicles uploads to the cloud, increasing the accuracy of the instructions, using HERE as the service provider. It means that drivers can immediately adjust their route, based on their particular traffic situation. Updates show up every month and download to vehicles over the air.


Learning driving habits isn’t easy. But Audi knows that it needs to work with machine learning partners if it is going to compete against some of the more tech-orientated firms in the industry. Cars must tease out details in complicated patterns of data to provide drivers with the best experience on the road. Giving them rough directions is no longer sufficient. The technology now permits them to do better, so they are.


Bidirectional Charging Technology


Audi also senses that it will soon be involved in the mobile energy distribution market, whether it likes it or not. Cars, it believes, will provide power to people “on the go,” for everything from giving mains electricity to offering DC hookups for campers. The firm, therefore, is working hard on bidirectional charging technology that will allow users to charge the battery and use it to power other devices in their environment.


It sounds like a pretty simple technology to get right, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Audi wants its range of electric vehicles to be able to charge a home storage unit - and receive power from it - depending on energy levels. The task right now is to develop the interface that will allow vehicles to integrate with photovoltaic systems, deriving the energy that they need from the sun. Ideally, the carmaker wants to avoid the need to use an inverter in every situation to achieve higher levels of efficiency.


Pre-Sense


Pre-Sense is a technology that sounds like it came right out of a sci-fi movie, but thanks to the firm's efforts, it’s here with us today, available on the new Audi Q8. The system claims to offer drivers an “extra pair of eyes on the road” for added safety. The system continually scans the environment ahead of the car for potential dangers. It then will apply the brakes in the event of an emergency.


The system is much more sophisticated than many users imagine. As the car drives along, sensors on the front recognise objects in the road, much like a human. Because it has so much information in its database, vehicles can learn the difference between hazardous and non-hazardous situations, taking over the control of the car if it believes a crash is imminent.


This task was not easy for Audi. The automaker had to train computers in its vehicles to recognise the difference between an oncoming car on the other side of the road, and one stopped up ahead. It also had to learn about the difference between a person running into the way unexpectedly.


You can think of Pre-Sense as a system that acts like natural hazard perception but improves on it dramatically. Even if you’re tired, it continues scanning the road in front, looking for possible hazards, and applying the brakes if you don’t.


Cross-Traffic Rear Assist


How many times have you been reversing out of your driveway, only to have to slam on the brakes at the last minute because a car was passing behind? Too many times to mention, probably. Checking your mirrors is pretty much useless when you need to look side to side, up and down a road.


Audi, though, has come up with a solution. The company now includes cross-traffic assist rear in most of its vehicles. The purpose of this technology is to warn you of oncoming cars if you don’t have much visibility out of your side and reverse mirrors. The system relies on a series of cameras and sensors. It will send out an audible warning if it detects an oncoming vehicle. If you continue to reverse despite the bleep, it’ll automatically apply the brakes until the danger passes, keeping you and everyone else safe.


It’s a particularly important technology for larger vehicles with bigger blind spots. Like rear-view cameras, it offers a little extra security and confidence when reversing.


Automatically Dipping Headlights


Modern smartphones have onboard technology that can detect when you look at them so that they know when to switch the backlight to full. Audi’s latest crop of vehicles can now do the same. The automaker offers what it calls Matrix Beam - lights that auto-dip for you when an oncoming car approaches. It also provides directional lighting that shines into corners as you turn.


Technologies like this might sound simple, but they’re not. Audi’s systems had to learn the difference between an incoming car, streetlights and other sources of light on the road. And the system had to be sensitive enough not to dazzle oncoming drivers.


Getting all this to work required a lot of machine learning development and yet more sophisticated computer training.


Audi’s Plan For The Future


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Technology is going to play an increasingly essential role in cars in the future - if it isn’t already - and Audi wants to be at the forefront of it. There are good reasons to suspect that the brand will emerge as the outright leader in the space, owing to its commitment to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a car. It’s going to have to make a shift, though. Building fabulous vehicles is about more than just raw engineering prowess. It also requires an excellent working knowledge of software and its importance as part of the car ecosystem.


Audi has already stated that it wants E-Tron to provide options for every kind of customer who would traditionally consider its gas vehicles. This commitment means that electrification will become central to its strategy to survive, once the transition to green diving really takes off.


The firm also has one of the best self-parking technologies in the industry. It won’t be long before it develops its autonomy to the point where it can ferry you to the grocery store, without fuss.


The main problem Audi faces is a cultural one. A lot of people in the organization still believe that the current disruption Tesla is causing is a blip. Some even think that the brand is going to go under and will never make a profitable electric vehicle so long as it lives. That sentiment, however, is arguably false. Eyeballing the trends, you can see that technology and cars are going to come together faster than many people think. Drivers want their vehicles to fully integrate with their existing devices and offer them automation where relevant. Audi needs to see its cars as a platform. If it doesn’t, it’ll lose the tech race in the auto sector. And that’ll be bad for all of us.


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