Autonomous motoring in Shanghai

The first computer was nicknamed Moneypenny – named so after an Audi engineer spotted the 007 number-plate on the car it piloted. Bobby raced the RS 7 concept that at top speeds of 149.1mph autonomously completed the Grand Prix racetrack at Hockenheim last year. The test vehicle that cruised from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas earlier this year was named Jack.

This week we got to experience autonomous motoring ourselves as Lu Ban, named after the Chinese inventor, chauffeured us on the roads of Shanghai in the same Audi 7 Jack drove.

We are in China for CES Asia – the inaugural consumer electronics show for the region. As we drove from the expo halls in the Pudong financial district to the river Bund Lu Ban, the compact computer tucked away in the boot, took control whilst our driver confidently removed his hands from the steering wheel, swivelling in his seat to talk to us.

The computer will only take control if traffic conditions allow so, and only on straightforward routes as such. It will drive up to 60mph after which it alerts the ‘human’ driver to take control. If this fails, the car will go into emergency mode igniting the hazard lights and slowing down to a halt then notifying relevant rescue services to respond.

Shanghai’s hair raising driving habits certainly added flavour. Whilst the A7 stayed politely in the middle lane, local cars overtook and undercut without warning at terrifying speeds as the (now slightly nervous) co-pilot explained that the scheme is investigating local driving habits to configure regional driverless cars. Shanghai may require a few extra sensors.

Lu Ban may not be quite on par with Knight Rider’ Kitt, nevertheless the A7 piloted drive represents very impressive technology. Google and Apple have made promises in this direction, yet Audi is the first car manufacturer to have created a piloted production car available in the A8 production car in just two years time.

Later that day we saw the world debut of the electric R8 e-tron with piloted driving function. This isn’t a production vehicle, yet the marque is expressing the intrinsic sexiness of semi-autonomous driving with such a performance car.

Yes it may sound like a contradiction offering piloted driving in a performance car where the sole purpose is to entertain the driver. But it does make complete sense. When stuck in traffic jams, or in need of an urgent text, the computer takes over and the car is manoeuvred autonomously so you have time to rest arms and feet for the open, twisty road… when you can perform all sorts of racing shenanigans.

The stats are impressive – two electric motors, each supply power to the rear wheels generating combined 456bhp and maximum torque of 679lb ft. This is a very fast machine that can race to 62mph in just 3.9 seconds topping up a limited 155mph. Energy comes courtesy of a large lithium-ion battery with 92kWh and an impressive electric range of 450km.

The central driver assistance control unit (zFAS) makes a crucial contribution to the lead Audi has in this technology field – it processes information from sensors to generate a detailed picture of the vehicle’s environment. By separating the electronics and the mechanical side, Audi is able to keep up-to-date with technological advances.

Audi’s decision to debut a car in China and at a tech show is telling. The country comprises the largest single market for the German marque. And as the car is increasingly morphing into an complex electronic gadget, it doesn’t feel that odd to reveal one that relies so much on high technology at a consumer electronics show.

Rupert Stradler says that the car is ‘the biggest tech gadget.’ The Audi chairman offers, ‘we are experiencing a digital revolution stronger than the industrial revolution. The question is how we shape the digital future. We are ready to take risks.’

Nargess Banks

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