ROHNERT PARK, Calif. – The driver of the Audi SUV is beyond inattentive.
First he turns into an oncoming car, braking just in time to avoid a collision. Then he backs out of a parking space and stops just before a passing vehicle smashes into him. Finally, he’s cruising down the street at around 20 miles per hour, doesn’t see a child in his path and stops suddenly just inches from disaster.
But the German driver was ordered to be clueless so that the new driver-assist technology packed into the 2017 Audi Q7 could, in each instance, save the day.
“With this new model, there will be an added level of safety for the driver,” says Anthony Foulk, product manager for Audi of America, which hosted the press demo event Monday.
Audi is part of the Volkswagen Group, which has been under intense fire for using technology to mask high emissions readings on its shared VW, Porsche and Audi diesel engines. Audi of America communications chief Jeri Ward opened the session by noting that Audi “takes this seriously and is working with regulators and engineers to do the right thing by (federal) agencies and our customers.”
The engine scandal threatens to tarnish a brand with deep roots and impressive sales in the U.S. VW Group stock dropped from $170 a share to $92 when the scandal broke, and currently trades around $125. Although Audi has now recorded 59 straight months of sales growth, VW sales dropped 25% in November as the automaker halted sales of cars with its offending diesel engines.
Audi clearly hopes to focus consumers on its history of innovation – its German tag line, Vorsprung durch Technik, means “advancement through technology” – by adding to its existing its suite of technological features. Audi and a dozen other manufacturers will spotlight such wares at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a growing automotive showcase as cars continue their transition from gas-powered carriages to rolling computers.
This past year was packed with autonomous car updates as automakers (including Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla) and technology companies (such as Google and much-rumored Apple) made incremental progress towards the ultimate goal of making a car that doesn’t need our help.
But that self-driving reality is still on the horizon as consumers and regulators alike wrap their heads around the implications of vehicles with no steering wheels or pedals. In the meantime, the bigger and more applicable gains are being made on the driver-assist front, features typified by Tesla’s new Autopilot feature, which lets its cars steer and change lanes on their own.
SUV REACTS WHEN DRIVER DOESN’T
Audi is among those automakers dedicating significant resources to both autonomous driving as well as what it calls Pilot Assist tech, safety-focused features that are custom-tailored for our increasingly distracted-driver age.
The revamped full-size Audi Q7 SUV goes on sale in January at a starting price of $55,000. It is the first Audi model to get new tech that uses bumper-mounted radar and windscreen-affixed cameras to detect cars and pedestrians and then brake, sometimes violently, if it senses the driver isn’t taking action.
Despite the often clunky names – “Pre-Sense City,” “Rear Cross Traffic,” “Vehicle Exit Assist,” “Turn Assist” – Audi’s new tech takes automobiles one step closer toward assuming control of the driving experience. In an afternoon of live demos in rural Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco, Audi engineers from the U.S. and Germany showed how the new Q7 will take over braking in a variety of potentially catastrophic situations.
The first – Turn Assist — involved the somewhat disconcerting act of turning left just as another Audi sedan was racing toward the Q7 at around 50 mph. In a blink of an eye, the SUV tightened the car’s seat belts and fiercely braked the vehicle as the oncoming car raced by untouched.
Rear Cross Traffic worked similarly, halting the car’s rearward progress as it backed out of a parking space into a passing car. But the most impressive demo was for the awkwardly named lifesaver of a feature, Pre-Sense City.
As the Q7 rolled down the road at around 40 mph, its radar guns noted the presence of a small person in the form of a dummy. In swift succession, the car emitted a ping, then tapped the brakes to try and alert the driver. Noticing no reaction – our test driver had his feet off the ground – it quickly tightened the seat belt, rolled up the window to within a half-inch of closing and slammed on the brakes, stopping about three inches from the fake child.
“Autonomous driving is another stage that we’re not quite at yet, even though we have been testing this, too,” says test driver Sebastian Will, who works in Audi’s product planning department in Germany. “What we are aiming for here are simply systems that can assist the driver when he or she isn’t aware of what’s happening.”
Other tech developments for the new Q7 include the addition of what Audi calls “Virtual Cockpit.” Formerly a feature reserved for its sports cars, Virtual Cockpit gives the driver the option of turning the instrument cluster – which is just a screen – into a combination birds-eye view map and gauge cluster.
Audi Connect now features its own app, compatible with Apple and Androidsmartwatches, that allows owners to start and lock their car remotely. One can also set geofenced parameters for the vehicle that prompt alerts if the car is driven beyond those distances by either a valet or driver-age kids.
Inside the Q7, driver and front seat passenger can monitor and control a range of infotainment and navigation functions through a combination of a central pop-screen and a series of knobs as well as a touchpad that can be used to write out commands and also provides haptic feedback to inputs.
“Our mission is to integrate the virtual world into the physical world seamlessly, which in turn gives you more information at an easy glance,” says Mathias Halliger, Audi’s chief architect for connected car vehicles. “It’s all about giving the driver more confidence.”