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Auto makers at a watershed

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Automotive brands find themselves at a fascinating watershed in society’s evolution. As is typical of periods of dramatic change, this presents many opportunities and new innovations that communicate with their customers, says TREVOR HILL, Head of Audi SA.

Vehicle manufacturers have had to innovate in developing more integrated mobility solutions and invest heavily in technology and innovation across the entire automotive value chain. These new innovations form part of the digital revolution within the automotive industry.

As a global, premium and innovative automotive brand, Audi‘s digitalisation journey can be found in many areas of the business. The application of artificial intelligence opens up a new dimension of performance for both the product and the entire value chain. As a digital car company, Audi is digitising all processes at the company: from product development with virtual reality; creating a factory environment with intelligent robots and to retail showrooms with the latest digital technology.

Since 2003, Audi has been using virtually created 3D models as a firm element of its vehicle development process. The company is now also testing a so-called virtual reality holodeck so that the design of new automobile models can be virtually assessed at an early stage. With the VR holodeck, a realistic impression of the proportions of future Audi models is obtained and allows employees from development and production to virtually assess the structure of a vehicle before it goes into production.

Additional areas in which virtual-reality technologies are already applied at Audi include virtual training for employees in packing logistics and the Audi VR experience for customer advice. The latter allows potential customers to virtually configure their desired car and to experience all optional equipment in a realistic way.

These digital advancements have presented an exciting time for automotive companies who are prepared to rise to the challenge within the retail environment.

The process of purchasing a car, for instance, needs to be completely re-evaluated. The old ways of driving out to a showroom on the edge of town to ask a Dealer for his advice are numbered.  Today, thanks to the internet, we can all educate ourselves about our options, our price range and our preferences before we even set foot into a Dealer showroom. The average customer is quite knowledgeable by the time he or she meets a sales person for the first time.

The role of company staff has thus changed from being providers of information, to being brand experience custodians.

At Audi, we know that when customers come to us, they already have som experience of our brand. Now they’re looking for a heightened level of engagement with us. They want to feel and live the brand.  We learned some years ago that this can mean a lot more than going for a test drive around the block. An example of this is the Audi City showrooms or the Audi Customer Private Lounge concept.

These showrooms, currently in London, Beijing, Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Istanbul, are interactive experiences that reinvent how a customer goes about buying a car. The virtual, digital nature of these showrooms means that they can be located in the heart of central business districts, where space is at a premium, and can recreate every one of the hundreds of millions of designs combinations which Audi offers, as the client customises the car of his or her choice.

Floor-to-ceiling screens – called powerwalls – produce an immersive experience as the customer creates the Audi of their dreams in photo-real detail, selecting the model variant and every specific detail with the assistance of an Audi professional.  Whether you want an Audi A5 with Java Brown paintwork, leather upholstery and red stitching, or a Vegas Yellow Audi Q2 with stylish wheels, you can create your dream vehicle on a tablet device, and then see it projected before your eyes.

Test drives can be arranged for a later date, but the power of the virtual brand experience is such, that a significant percentage of customers already choose to purchase their Audis without ever having driven a test vehicle!

At the Berlin showroom, we find that customers spend on average of 25% more on their purchases of Audi cars, as the showroom brings their custom specifications to life. The digital showroom concept has already been integrated into many of the Dealerships worldwide.

The idea is to move towards seamlessly integrated automotive shopping, buying and owning – across whichever channel the customer prefers. This all serves to enhance the brand experience, which has now been effectively separated or used to support the physical brick-and-mortar terminal.

The traditional Audi Dealership will also evolve and expand on as the brand prepares itself for the introduction of fully electric vehicles under the Audi e-tron umbrella. Dealerships would need to accommodate for charging station infrastructure and the subsequent storage facilities for the vehicles.

The rise of the sharing economy has seen an increase in ride-hailing and car-sharing services, which means – among other things – that fewer customers are feeling the need to own a car. Automotive manufacturers like Audi are also looking beyond traditional ownership models, and investing in “shared mobility” alternatives, what we term as Audi On Demand. In the future, the success of our companies will be measured in “kilometres travelled” as opposed to “vehicles sold”.

The digital revolution is tangible at Audi. For us, Vorsprung goes far beyond the car. With everything we do, we want to make our customers’ lives easier. We give them time, connect them with their environment, and offer them sustainable solutions and unique experiences.

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The promise of the self-driving car: Getting closer to reality?

Although the technology still faces plenty of hurdles before commercial viability, autonomous vehicles will one day rule the road, writes ANNA KUČÍRKOVÁ

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Are you ready for your next car to drive itself?

The promise of the self-driving car: Getting closer to reality? 

It’s a question being asked more frequently – “when will self-driving cars become the dominant presence on streets everywhere?” 

Automakers and tech companies alike continue to push the narrative that self-driving cars have indeed arrived. However, a better answer of when they actually will scale to consumers is some variation of “be patient.” 

For better and for worse, it remains the best possible response in today’s tech-heavy, yet uncertain climate.

Back in 2015, outspoken Tesla CEO Elon Musk foresaw a self-driving car by 2018, with the claim: “My guess for when we will have full autonomy is approximately three years. In some markets, regulators will be more forward-leaning than others, but in terms of when it will be technologically possible, it will be three years.” 

That bold prediction has yet to materialize.

Google was also bullish on the fast rise and adoption of vehicle automation. While parent company Alphabet continues to advance their Waymo self-driving division beyond most competitors, it’s offset by the need for someone to sit in the driver’s seat. 

In 2018, GM and Ford made bold declarations of putting cars into production that were free of steering wheels and pedals, by 2019 and 2021, respectively. Since that time, GM has backed off their original plan with Doug Parks, GM’s vice president of autonomous vehicles, citing regulation: “Until we have exemptions [from the federal government], which we filed a petition for, and/or law changes, we probably wouldn’t go forward with Gen 4. But we think it’s really something we’ve got to talk about, we’ve got to work on.”

Ford, however, continues to push ahead towards their goal.

The hard truth though is that similar to many of history’s biggest advancements, there will be growing pains.

While that’s not as optimistic as one would hope, the reality is the sphere of self-driving technology, and the vehicles and they’re deployment, remains a work in progress. 

The good news is that real-world testing and application of certain autonomous concepts are well past the infancy stage.

As technology matures and the idea of a car without a steering column or pedals become less radical, the day will arrive when autonomous, self-driving vehicles rule the road.

But where are we now?

Let’s look at how far we’ve come in self-driving tech, including where the industry leaders stand in their development. And, what’s holding us back from a fully autonomous future.

The Current State of Automotive Autonomy

Any ground-up discussion on self-driving cars begins with the question, “what does it mean for a car to be considered self-driving or fully autonomous?”

Autonomous standards defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and adopted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) include six levels of vehicle automation.

Starting at Level 0, where there is no automation, the standards top out at Level 5 – full self-driving capabilities, no steering wheel, no pedals.

Most personal vehicles on the road today possess Level 1 or Level 2 automation – features such as adaptive cruise control, advanced assistance with acceleration and steering, automatic braking, or lane guidance. 

Many of these features are becoming standard on most classes of vehicle. So unless you’re driving around in a car built prior to the early 1990s, chances are high that yours has some form of automation.

However, the leap from Level 2 to Level 3 automation is a big one. Then the holy grail, of course, is Level 5. But how close are manufacturers to this pinnacle of long-promised self-driving technology?

Who’s Leading the Revolution?

No fewer than 50 different companies are working to bring self-driving vehicles to a street near you. The diverse list of firms involved ranges from luxury automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi to small tech startups responsible for creating key components of the driverless technology. 

Others companies making a play include rideshare giants Lyft and Uber, the latter of which recently netted a $1 billion investment into their self-driving program. German manufacturer Continental who aims to revolutionize delivery and distribution by blending autonomous vehicles with delivery robots.

American legacy automakers GM and Ford have also made substantial investments towards mass-producing driverless cars. Even as they backed off their bold 2019 production goals, GM’s self-driving car program, Cruise, pulled in roughly $5 billion in outside investments.

Ford, for their part, have flown under the radar relative to others in the driverless segment. Even after admitting initial plans might have been too lofty, the automaker, in a partnership with startup Argo, are testing autonomous vehicles in Detroit, Miami, and Washington, D.C. They remain optimistic in hitting their 2021 production goal.

There are three companies, however, that collectively appear to be outpacing most others in the push to go driverless – Nvidia, Waymo, and Tesla.

Nvidia

In producing some of the top next-gen GPU and AI platforms for self-driving solutions, Nvidia has built an impressive partner roster which includes Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Volkswagen. 

Earlier this year, the company announced that Volvo is adopting Nvidia’s AutoPilot solution to deliver Level 2+ vehicle automation. In all, over 300 companies use Nvidia in the production of self-driving vehicles and related technologies.

Waymo

When looking at actual miles driven by autonomous vehicles, no one comes remotely close to Alphabet (Google’s parent company) subsidiary Waymo. More significant, Waymo’s commercial self-driving taxi service, Waymo One, is set to expand beyond its Phoenix-based test group of  400 early riders. 

With the opening of a new tech center in Mesa, Arizona, it positions the company to increase its fleet of driverless cars (with safety operator in the driver’s seat) and the group of early adopters.

Tesla

Perhaps most ambitious of all is Tesla, thanks in large part to its outspoken Principal and CEO, Elon Musk. The electric car company continues to push the boundaries of its current automated software, Tesla Autopilot, into a full-blown “self-driving suite.” Their commitment to doing so as early as next year runs counter to the measured approach adopted by the rest of the industry. 

It reflects just how far ahead Tesla might be (or believe they are) from everyone else. Consider the company’s claims that the self-driving hardware is already in place, and bringing it to the public is now only a matter of getting the software right. In addition, Tesla is pursuing automation without the bulky equipment that accompanies other self-driving cars.

The concern is that the rush without reason or continued research might lead to accidents.  Some worry a backlash would reinforce the belief that the world isn’t ready for fully autonomous cars. Or add to the laundry list of reasons why others maintain they are doomed to fail.

Expressing concern is Dieter Zetsche, former chairman at Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz. Mr. Zetsche, according to the Washington Post, likens it to Boeing’s 737 Max air crashes: “Even if autonomous cars are 10 times safer than those driven by humans, it takes one spectacular incident to make it much harder to win widespread acceptance.”

The Question of Safety

There is little doubt that eventually, autonomous cars will become ubiquitous on streets and highways throughout the country. To reach that point, there are still plenty of obstacles the self-driving segment must clear.

As evidenced by Mr. Zetsche, first among them is safety, or in more precise terms, the perception of safety.

Currently, perception lingers that autonomous technology is far from safe. Before achieving mass acceptance, people will require reassurance that an AI-driven car is more adept at keeping them safe than their own driving instincts and abilities.

Long term, the point of AI performing better at navigating the hazards of the road will prove accurate. Humans, after all, are flawed beings, and there’s little doubt when viewing it collectively, self-driving cars will make roads safer. Consider this:

  • They’ll eliminate drunk and distracted driving.
  • AI controlling one car may better anticipate the actions of the AI in another vehicle, removing the unpredictability of two human drivers interacting.
  • Travel will also become more efficient, thus reducing the prevalence of speeding or dangerous/aggressive drivers.

Even with our shortcomings behind the wheel, recent accidents involving self-driving tech do give people pause. As the knowledge level of self-driving AI expands at an increasingly rapid pace, there is still a considerable learning curve to navigate.

Self Driving Cars Are Coming, Be Patient

Let’s reconsider our original question:

When will self-driving cars become the dominant presence on streets everywhere? 

While lacking a consistent approach to solving, then advancing, the pursuit of a self-driving car, that so many have committed to finding an answer is a positive sign for the future of automated transportation.

For a timely comparison, the 50th Anniversary of the first Apollo moon landings has reignited interest it what it took to reach the lunar surface. Hundreds of companies and billions of dollars moving toward a singular goal. And it was accomplished in less than a decade.

The circumstances may be different, the interests more disparate than unified, it remains a worthwhile note of what’s possible with industry and innovation all seeking a common goal. 

So while the answer to when we’ll see mass adoption of self-driving cars may still be some variation of “be patient,” the scope continues to narrow. Soon enough, being patient will give way to being a passenger.

Article reposted with permission. Original article here.

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SA pioneers connected car strategy

Toyota has partnered with Vodacom and Altron to make smarter cars, using SIM cards to automate car management across its entire range, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Vodacom has announced a partnership with Toyota and Altron Netstar to connect every Toyota car to the Internet. The solution is South African-engineered and pioneers connected driving in the global market, in terms of standardising the offering across the entire range of cars.

“From the 1st of September, every Toyota and Lexus model sold will be connected,” says Kerry Roodt, General Manager of Marketing Communications at Toyota South Africa. “This includes Wi-Fi connectivity and 15GB of data. This enables the app to work wherever the driver is situated, so they don’t need to be near the car to use the app.”

Those who don’t want the 15GB of data will still be able to use the features of the connected car, without the Wi-Fi hotspot, free of charge.

Andrew Kirby, President and CEO of Toyota South Africa Motors, says: “For any mainstream brand, we are a first to introduce this technology as standard across all models, whether it be a Land Cruiser or an Etios. This is not cheap technology; it is a significant investment on our part that we were ready to make.”

The benefits of having a connected car are: 

  • being connected to a reliable secondary network;
  • having an automated log book;
  • functionality to book a service with the tap of a button;
  • having connected safety features like a battery monitor;
  • being cognisant of driving habits with a driving score, which monitors harsh breaking, fast cornering, and speeding.

“Our collaboration with Toyota has been a global first,” says Mteto Nyathi, chief executive officer of Altron Group. “We needed to make sure we met the global standards, as well. Anyone who knows Toyota’s standards knows that they’re high. We’re excited because now we’ve made this high-quality technology that can compete in the global market.”

“This is important when you consider where we’re coming from,” says William Mzimba, CEO of Vodacom Business. “When you contextualise this partnership, this speaks to a connected future. We don’t have to wait for 5G, we have technologies that can connect us at rapid speeds. It’s exciting to see that Toyota is not just talking about it, they’re actually doing it. We are now taking the user experience and connecting users with their car.”

The Altron Netstar group has pioneered connected tracking technology, but had to develop new technology to make this happen.

“It should never be confused with stolen vehicle technology,” says Nyathi. “We have a completely separate solution for telematics and WiFi. To combine WiFi with telematics in a small device, I am proud of our team to address these challenges. To be able to come up with a technology that’s developed and manufactured in South Africa is quite something, and ultimately contributes to South Africa’s economy.”

Kirby says: “Vodacom has managed to separate telematics data on a prepaid portion of the SIM, while another portion belongs to the WiFi in the car. If the WiFi runs out, the car can continue running applications like linked GPS maps and car tracking free of charge.”

This partnership marks the start of a longer-term vision to enable a more connected society by paving the way for the expansion of broadband access to as many South Africans as possible.

Vodacom’s partnership with Altron Netstar and Toyota is the first step towards a more connected future, where autonomous cars will become a reality.

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