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Audi pulls back the curtain to its self-driving car program



Of all the luxury car brands, Audi was the most aggressive when it came to integrating semi-autonomous technologies into its production cars. (See the A8 sedan, of which a version can not be sold in the US due to semi-automated features.) Now, the German automaker is offering a sneak preview of its efforts to build completely driverless cars, as well as one of them will help to get self-driving cars on the road by 2021.

Audi, owned by the Volkswagen Group, has recently pledged to spend nearly € 16 billion on electromobility and self-propelled technology by 2023. Much of this work will be done at Autonomous Intelligent Driving (AID), a wholly owned subsidiary of Audi , occur.

The group was founded one and a half years ago and employs around 1

50 people today. Its headquarters are in Munich, where 12 autonomous test vehicles drive on public roads. Most test vehicles are VW Golf hatchback engines, which appeals to AID's key role as an urban autonomous driving technology supplier to all brands of the Volkswagen Group, including VW, Audi and Porsche.

Alexandre Haag, the group's chief technology officer, said AID was for Audi, Cruise for General Motors, or Argo for Ford. However, instead of buying a contractor to advance the AV program, the German automaker tried to hire its self-drive team build from the ground up.

"Our goal is to develop the entire level 4 stack," said Haag The Verge . (The Society of Automotive Engineers defines Level 4 as a car that moves completely from start to finish in a dedicated area.) "The first application that is a robo-taxi," added Haag, "is long-term the whole group ready with a self-propelled stack for ownership vehicles, trucks, buses, grocery deliveries … all long-term. "

Like most AV programs Audi's business uses software and depth-based approaches to process all of its sensor data such as LIDAR point clouds, Camera pixels and radar echoes. This perceptual data models the vehicle's environment, both near and far, by detecting objects, vehicles, pedestrians, and other challenging obstacles.

However, Audi is not as advanced in the development and use of automated vehicles as other automakers. Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving division, has just started a very limited commercial robotic taxi service outside Phoenix, Arizona. GM says it will introduce its own car service in San Francisco in 2019. Audi intends to deploy its robot taxis to the same extent in 2021, the same year Ford commissioned Ford.


"Honestly, there's a hype out there," Haag said. "I think we're still a bit off the scale. I have a high opinion of Waymo, but I think [GM’s] Cruise raises a bit more. I think they have a good team and are on the right track, but I'm pretty sure they'll post something in 2019, it will be very marginal, very small. Maybe your own track, a fixed-route shuttle, a few miles or something like that. However, since I can drive all San Francisco or even only the Market Street, I really do not see that next year. "

However, Haag acknowledged that the development of completely driverless cars is a challenge currently struggling with. The car's perception or ability to "see" and properly identify nearby objects is incredibly difficult, as well as predicting what these objects will do.

"Achieving 90 percent [in perception] is pretty easy," Haag said. "It'll be interesting to get 95 percent. And then you have to go far beyond that. Nine points Nine Nines Nine … Adding nine is ten times more difficult. If you're at 95 percent, you've just scratched the surface. "

In order to intensify its efforts, Audi is adding several new suppliers to help with these challenges of perception and forecasting. On Tuesday, AID announced plans to partner with Luminar, a startup in Palo Alto that manufactures LIDAR sensors and sensing software for autonomous vehicles. Luminar supplies Volvo and the Toyota Research Institute as well as some other automakers that are not yet known. LIDAR, the laser sensor that sends millions of laser beams per second and measures how long it takes for it to rebound, is considered a key element in autonomous driving.

Haag said he was impressed with the reach and point cloud density of Luminar's LIDAR. "Having a more powerful sensor makes your perception task easier," he said. "And this is where Luminar comes in." AID's vehicles use Luminar sensors for long-distance sensing and detection, and LIDAR for shorter distances from Velodyne to nearer objects.

"It's a big win," said Austin Russell, the CEO of Luminar. His company has been working with Audi for over a year, but is just about to talk about his partnership. As a relative newcomer to self-drive, Russell said AID is nimbler than other AV operators who have been working on the technology for a decade or more.

"These people do not necessarily have much luggage to be burdened with software stacks that have been developed with different sensor types in the past few years," he said. Other operators can get stuck by "old code that prevents it from being agile, and easily switch to new platforms like ours," added Russell.


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