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Driving Towards An Automated And Electric Future

Digital showroom, electrified power train and autonomous vehicles—these are the three key phases that will literally drive the future of mobility.

By Benny Teo
June 30, 2021

We are living in exciting times; the cusp of a sci-fi future is upon us with yet another watershed moment in the history of transportation well within reach. It was only in 1879 when the first car was developed. In 1981, The Last Chase, a futuristic movie where all transport is electric and public, sees a lone Porsche 917 speeding away to freedom, indicating a choice between driving and self-drive and of the binding chains of technology versus the unbridled rush—and potential fallibility – of the human touch. Now in 2020, the truth seems to lie somewhere in-between.

To start with, Elon Musk’s Tesla has forced the automotive industry to speed up towards one part of the equation – replacing petrol and diesel with electricity. Even Sir James Dyson has toyed around with developing energy-efficient cars on the back of his revolutionary vacuum cleaner tech, and in 2014, Apple Inc began working on “Project Titan” with upwards of 1,000 employees working on developing an electric vehicle at a secret location near its Cupertino headquarters. That project was shelved in 2016.

Last year, BMW and Daimler, two of the world’s biggest powerhouses in automotive, inked an agreement to work towards a future without hands, one which Google has already put to practical use with the self-driving Google Car clocking in millions of miles, and now, with subsidiary company Waymo, having launched a self-driving taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona in 2018.

However, in March that same year, a self-driving Uber Volvo XC90 operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman named Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. The crash raised a number of pressing questions about testing autonomous vehicles on public roads and whether the technology is ready for safe and continuous use. It would eventually be, not today, but eventually. The question is, how soon?

Researchers forecast that by 2025, we will see approximately eight million autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles on the road. More recently, German motoring giant, Audi, in cooperation with market research institute Ipsos, interviewed 21,000 people in nine countries on three continents. The emotional  landscape of autonomous driving produces a mixed picture. On the one hand, internationally there is strong interest in (82 percent) and curiosity (62 percent) about autonomous driving. Also, more than half of the respondents would like to test autonomous driving.

On the other hand, clear concerns also exist, above all the fear of loss of control (70 percent) and unavoidable residual risks (66 percent). 41 percent of respondents are suspicious of the technology, and about one-third (38 percent) are anxious. The results also show that the younger the respondents are and the higher their level of education and income, the more positive is their attitude to autonomous driving.

"Automated and autonomous driving has the potential to improve our mobility substantially," says Thomas Müller, head of automated driving at Audi: "On the way there, alongside technical development, it is of decisive importance to convince people."

In a way, that progress towards the future has been expedited by the spread of the pandemic across the world. “The whole buying process, how people are informed about products and how they purchase it, you can see it here in Singapore from our digital showroom during this period,” says Christopher Wehner, managing director at BMW Group Asia. “We were online and we were trying to offer the whole customer journey from information to test reports, to virtual test drive where you can take a look at the car and really walk into a digital showroom where we actually have our physical showroom digitalised.

“You can walk in, open the car doors, take a look inside, you can do almost everything that you can do in the real world. This whole customer journey is one thing that we will see in future – the seamless journey between the real and the digital world, but it is happening now,” continues Wehner.

In the car, digitalisation has already taken place. BMW’s Connected Drive allows drivers to check their car’s energy charge, take a picture of where they have parked and send navigation and destination information to the car.

“This is only the beginning and this will set the tone for autonomous driving, because if you have autonomously driven customers in the car, they can do different things in there from shopping to entertainment to work,” says the 53-year-old who has been working with the group since 2000.

Two out of three key phases towards the future of driving have already entered some levels of mass adoption, hampered only by the issue of affordability. The third, autonomous driving, has some ways left to go. Much like the first time the 1879 one-cylinder two-stroke unit developed by Carl Benz took to the roads, this next step is constrained not by wealth, but rather by forces such as the advancement of road networks and the mindset of the people.

“Fully autonomous driving will take a longer period to happen because the challenges in the city are more difficult to solve, not just in terms of traffic but even simple lane crossings; in some cities, you do not even have separated lanes. You need to have a fully digital map already inside the car and this must be updated daily. Catering for pedestrian safety, particularly young children also make it challenging.

“I think the next step you would see on the Autobahns, the highways, because this is the easiest for the system to know if you’re on the lane and on the right track without needing to pay heed to pedestrians crossing. This will be possible with our next car, the iNext, which we will start production in 2021,” reveals Wehner, whose previous role as a head of product management back in Germany provides him with an inside scoop to the company’s developmental process.

In the language of autonomous driving, there are altogether six stages ranging from 0 (fully manual) to 5 (fully autonomous), of which most modern vehicles are already at Level 2, which means that advanced driver assistance systems can control both steering and accelerating/decelerating but falls short of self-driving because a human sits in the driver’s seat and can take control of the car at any time.

The Waymo, which is completely self-driven, is at Level 4. For commercially viable passenger cars, the BMW iNext and Audi A8 offer Level 3 autonomy, differentiated only by the fact that human intervention is still required.

Staying ahead of the game, Audi launched their top-of-the-line A8 as a Level 3 autonomous vehicle last year becoming the first in the world to do so. Then just some months back in May, the company’s new CEO Markus Duesmann authorised a new unit termed as “Artemis” project led by Alex Hitzinger, who is in charge of autonomous driving within the Volkswagen Group, to in his own words, “develop a pioneering model for Audi quickly and unbureaucratically.”

The target is to focus on new technologies for electric, highly automated driving with a specific model reference and have a highly efficient electric car with an extensive ecosystem built, and on the road as early as 2024.

Audi AI:ME

Currently on the A8 is a state-of-the-art Audi AI, which is a traffic jam pilot that can take charge during slow-moving traffic at up to 60 km/h on highways and multi-lane roads with a physical barrier separating the two directions of traffic. It can basically start from a stopped position, accelerating, steering and braking within its lane.

From a technical perspective, the traffic jam pilot is revolutionary. During piloted driving, a central driver assistance controller (zFAS) now continually computes an image of the surroundings by merging the sensor data, which combines a Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner with advanced sensor fusion and processing power plus built-in redundancies should a component fail.

Lidar is expensive to build, but dozens of startups and major companies are racing to bring its cost down for commercial mass consumption with chipmakers like Intel, Nvidia, and Qualcomm pushing down power requirements for these rolling supercomputers, while companies like Tesla are making their own chips.

Tech aside, the obvious gains from having a moving living space also extends to social, lifestyle and business options. Though launching later, BMW’s iNext has created an entirely new space, literally, for itself. The interior of the car is built towards “living” rather than just “driving”.

Comfortably furnished, owners will be able to select between “Boost” and “Ease” modes. In Boost, the steering wheel and displays are positioned clearly towards the driver but when “Ease” mode is engaged, the driver’s immediate environment changes: The steering wheel retracts slightly, creating a more open sense of space.

Apart from the steering wheel and displays in the driver’s area, there are no other screens or controls to be seen in the BMW iNext. Only when it is required by the driver or passengers does the technology become visible and operable.

“Premium manufacturers like us will build autonomous vehicles with quality in terms of the drive as well as of safety. If you have time in your own car, you would want to spend it in a premium atmosphere. Another factor would be the services that can be delivered when freed from driving so the iNext will already give you a taste of what is to come,” says Wehner.

The next step is already upon us. The Audi A8 opened the pathway to high-level self-driving while the BMW iNext, when launched, will show the world how that future can be lived. From here on, the only thing hampering progress will be changing the landscape of the roads and adaptation by different nations worldwide.

Even at Level 3 autonomy, carmakers will have to limit their capabilities depending on legal requirements as well as conditions of the road network and the availability of updated road data. It would take some time yet, but that dystopian future as reflected by “The Last Chase” is a sure bet and certainly within the foreseeable time ahead.

However, it won’t be Lee Major crushing the Californian freeway looking for obsolete gas stations to fuel his passion for driving; it will likely be a choice between cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway and watching a Netflix movie with a glass of champagne in hand or handling its curves whenever one feels the rush of adrenaline rising.

As Christopher Wehner aptly sums it up, “For fully autonomous driving, people who do not want to drive can spend time on other things. But of course, if I have a nice, windy country road and no traffic on the highway, I would not mind driving myself.”