Amidst of all the driverless noise, Audi announces their premium segment car, A8, loaded with cameras, LiDars, and what not, importantly, with extra layers of checkpoints and hardware, to knuckle down the driver if he is not paying attention, to basically solve the problem that the SAE’s Level 3 autonomy possesses—drivers’ inability to pay attention! To it, Audi’s this premium sedan, somehow, manages to solve.
Its launch was a huge blow for those manufacturers who were to skip Level 3 automation due to Human-Machine Interface (HMI) problem it possesses. Not for Tesla Motors though. Tesla Motors equipped their cars with hardware that, they claim, is enough for getting them into Level 5 autonomy. The cars manufactured from Oct 2016 onwards, have 8 cameras, a forward facing radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and a processor which is 40x powerful than its predecessor.
Tesla Motors, however, did not upgrade the software needed for the newly installed hardware. That limited the cars’ capabilities until Tesla pushed 8.1 update recently. Tesla had to go few steps back to disable safety systems like automatic emergency braking, collision warning, lane holding, and active cruise control until they were robustly validated. The new Autopilot 8.1 update empowers cars to use these features effortlessly. The bigger question is, does Tesla’s current hardware has a potential to enable Level 3 of automation? And how does it look like compared to Audi’s A8? Before seeking answers to this, let’s go back in the history a bit.
The Autopilot feature was an over-the-air software update, named Tesla Version 7.0, in Oct’15 that Tesla sent to 60,000 sensor-laden cars it sold until then. The selfsteering was suddenly, overnight, a giant leap towards full autonomy. This is precisely why Tesla has a lead, arguably, over its counterparts as only Tesla’s cars are, still, in the hands of real customers. Audi’s story is equally interesting. A decade after the grand success of ‘Stanley’ in the DARPA Challenge in 2005, with Stanford University and the VW Electronics Research Lab (ERL) in California, in 2014 Audi developed a driverless RS 7 Sportback called ‘Bobby’ which circled the Hockenheim race track in Germany, autonomously and flawlessly at the limits of physical driving, achieving speed up to 150 mph. Four years prior to this, this trio developed Audi TTS called ‘Shelley’, conquered Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains in Western North America at speeds between 48 km/hr to 64 km/hr (30 to 40 mph). Ever since Audi has been demonstrating the next stages of piloted driving on public roads in the U.S., Germany, and in urban traffic in Shanghai. The brain of Piloted Driving is the Central Driver Assistance Controller (zFAS).
Hardware Capability and Limitations
Audi is the first company to offer Level 3 autonomy with its forthcoming model A8. The difference between Level 2 and Level 3, is Level 3 expects a driver to intervene only when needed, whereas, Level 2 expects driver to always be engaged. That spells a huge difference for liability. Audi indirectly saying it is liable in case of any accident; if the traffic jam mode is active on the freeway or highway (with a divider), and the vehicle speed is less than 37 miles per hour.
Audi A8 is a premium segment car with 24,399 (2016) worldwide and 4,885 USA (2016) yearly sales. However, due to the regulatory limitations at different geographies, the level 3 mode cannot be enabled everywhere unless the regulations are in its place.
While travelling on freeways and highways we certainly drive above 60mph. This traffic jam assist, as its name says, limits Audi A8 to operate only in congestion like traffic situation on highways with vehicle speeding 37mph or less. It can be a major relief in congestion but not otherwise. Contrary, Tesla enables their fleet to operate at 90 mph with the newest update.
Being at Level 2, Tesla has been escaping from the liability. What if Joshua Brown, last year’s unfortunate fatal victim, was in a Tesla with a level 3 Autopilot? Tesla would have legitimately screwed by now. Tesla has the least liability in accidents as level 2 demands drivers be fully-in charged in any given situation. By far, all accidents it witnessed were due to drivers’ fault.
Tesla relays on its cameras. Lidar, being the most sophisticated and most expensive element, has its own technical limitations and its performance can be flawed in extreme conditions. However, Lidar gives most precise vehicle surroundings. A8 is the first production car to use Lidar, whereas Tesla uses no Lidar. Therefore, Tesla should make sure that its computer vision system is as capable as a more precise Lidar based system, which by far, is nowhere close.
However, Tesla has over 250,000 miles autonomous driving data and over a couple of billions overall driving data in its kitty. And, it could be a game changer as it significantly improves computer vision system by feeding data to the car. That is why the driving data has so much of importance. According to Elon Musk, a better driving environment can be created by utilizing camera technology and continuous improvement of computer vision. And, feels Lidars are not necessary. This is how Audi AI traffic pilot system works:
During highly automated travel a small camera in the driving area detects if the driver tires or falls sleep. If that happens, a multi-stage warning is given. As soon as the speed rises above 60 km/h (37.3 mph) or the line of vehicles breaks up, the traffic jam pilot informs the driver that they need to take charge of driving once again. If they ignore this prompt and the subsequent warnings, the new A8 is braked to a standstill. – Audi Press Release, p.23/37
In comparison, Tesla’s hardware is capable enough to perform these checkpoints. These extra layers of security algorithms can be integrated in the future updates. The only thing it won’t be able to perform is, tighten the seatbelts or vibrate the steering wheel, due to lack of mechanism at present.
Audi A8’s coolest update though is not traffic jam assist but the electromechanical suspension that could be adjusted upper or lower to make the car like a sedan or an SUV, upon driver’s wish. In the fatal situations, the suspension can be automatically adjusted to curb potential damages. Now that is something difficult for Tesla to catch up with!
Tesla’s whole business drives upon huge risks, optimism, and great aggression. Without these risks, it’s hard for Elon Musk to sell dreams. Major automakers, like Audi group, cannot afford that kind of risks. Audi’s net profits dropped from 4.3 billion Euro in 2015 to 2 billion in 2016. That’s whopping 52% drop and 3.5% of the total revenue it made. Not surprisingly, Audi spent 7.5% of its total revenue on R&D, i.e. approx. 4.5 billion, 125% more than net profits.
Tesla, on the other hand, is vulnerable to uncertainties and is unstable due to financial issues. It lacks experience, great supplier base, huge production capacity, and has a limited market presence. It sells only electric cars, which constitutes a fraction of total vehicle sales worldwide.
Audi is much stronger in every aspect. The parent company, Volkswagen, has a strong supplier base, huge experience in designing, manufacturing and selling commercial and passenger vehicles, and can escalate production to any level if, and when it needs to.
Audi or any other major car manufacturer will not put too much autonomy soon, as it can eat its own flesh. Whatever Tesla has done, other automakers can do it too. But, if something goes wrong, it will largely affect not only their autonomous driving plans but also their current business. Only companies who are far from these risks, in fact, on the rise significantly, are the makers of chips, processors, and semiconductors.
Today it looks like Audi has significantly outsmarted Tesla, however, by the time Audi rolls out A8 in 2018 and could learn significantly from its features, Tesla will upgrade Autopilot to next level and could catch up the race at Level 3. Having said that, Audi’s business is more stable and strategies are in-line with its vision. In the long run, Audi seems more strong in the business perspective.
Visionaries, however, have always made history. If it was not Elon Musk’s vision to roll Autopilot overnight, we would not have seen this much of turbulence in the Driverless space, and I was not writing this article either!