At an event at the famous Ascari racecourse last week, TechWeek Europe was introduced to Bobby – Audi’s piloted car concept which it says has huge potential to improve the way we drive.
Bobby is able to assume complete control of the car if needed, freeing up the driver for other tasks, with situations such as being stuck in traffic or travelling on the motorway highlighted as particularly viable.
The company is far from alone in developing so-called ‘driverless car’ technology, though, with Google and Volvo among others also working on prototypes, so what sets Audi’s Bobby apart?
Well, to begin with, Audi is adamant that it is not looking to develop or launch a completely autonomous car, as Google has done (pictured right).
“We don’t want to do robo-cars,” says Thomas Müller, Audi’s head of development, braking, steering and driver assistance systems, “in our vision of piloted driving, you always have a pilot.
“The public perception of the future of driving is partly distorted,” he added, as automated driving is the next step, allowing the driver to take their hands off the wheel and allowing the car to pilot itself, meaning that the driver doesn’t need permanent control.
For the German manufacturer, the technology is about enriching the driving experience, and as one spokesperson said, making driving fun again. The driver can always take control of the vehicle when necessary, with a seamless transition putting them back in charge if needed.
These advances are more geared towards assisting the driver wherever possible, whether through safety, the environmental impact of their journey, or simply reducing the hassle of their travel. And Audi is sure that Bobby could play a significant part in the evolution of driving over the next few years.
Safety is a crucial part of the driving experience, but is often a feature that many customers are unwilling to pay extra for. 90 percent of accidents are caused by driver error, Audi research found, with smartphone and other mobile device use a particular issue. However by making the car smarter, this risk could be significantly lessened, the company believes, and so it is targeting making the car so intelligent that it is able to avoid accidents.
But asides from making driving safer, autonomous technology can also make journeys easier and more enjoyable for the driver. Audi says. Taking away the boredom often associated with long drives on the motorway frees up time for work, entertainment, or even just talking to companions or family members, which can make a big difference to a person’s well-being.
“This is what people are looking for when they spend two hours a day in a car,” Müller says, “for many of us, cars today are not relaxing anymore – you can get stressed.” Car travel needs to become more like airplanes, he says, where a long-haul journey allows you to relax, be entertained and even catch up on work if needed.
“This could be a new dimension of driving,” he adds, “not like commuting, which you need to do to get to work, but a new environment which you love to get in, and maybe even choose a longer route just to enjoy the ride!”
And ultimately, Audi say that the driver is always able to take back control of the vehicle at any moment, meaning the human can remain in charge during important situations.
“When you talk about efficient cars, most people think about the car as a unit,” says Müller, “so talk about making engines more efficient, improving the CV and removing weight, but if you think ahead, and the car is connected to infrastructure, or knows more about its surroundings, you can increase the efficiency of the system as a whole.”
One example he showed was a road leading to Audi’s home of Ingolstadt, which crests a hill before falling down to the city entrance, often catching drivers by surprise. But by using technology which is aware of the surroundings, a car would be able to adjust speed on the approach, saving energy and minimising the risk of an accident or causing a jam by over-zealous braking.
“In the end, a car should know more than a human being when they are driving,” says Müller, “the human being is the problem.”
“We should move from efficiency of one car to efficiency of the whole system.”
In order to allow technology such as Bobby to become commonplace, however, a range of improvements or changes will need to be made to ensure the technology can operate effectively. Müller highlighted the sheer range of different traffic light stylings, designs and placings as one notable example of one hurdle that needs to be overcome by the technology, as the human driver is able to identify the signals far quicker than the car’s technology could.
Implementing consistent standards is the answer, but that is easier said than done for some areas. Introducing uniform designs for road markings could be a fairly straightforward process, but re-locating or replacing thousands of traffic lights which are in the supposedly ‘incorrect’ position could be costly and cause significant disruption.
Another major hurdle which needs to be overcome is that of regulation, as very few countries or even smaller areas have regulations surrounding autonomous driving at the present time. Currently, the driving laws of most countries throughout the world are governed by the Vienna Convention, which in 1968 laid out the central guidelines surrounding automobile travel, including, most crucially, the law that a driver must be in control of his vehicle at all times. This legislation is now patently outdated, with Audi hoping nations will soon begin to work on new laws which include technology like Bobby.
Perhaps surprisingly, the United States could prove to be the first country to legislate such vehicles. The country has not signed the Vienna convention and is a hotbed of technological innovation, as seen by the concepts produced by Google which garnered so many headlines.
Ultimately, Audi sees piloted technology like Bobby as a way to assist and enrich the driving experience. For something which the majority of us do every day and more than often leaves us stressed or frustrated, the opportunity to make a positive change could be truly revolutionary.
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