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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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Project Bloodhound saved

The British project to break the world landspeed record at a site in the Northern Cape has been saved by a new backer, after it went into bankruptcy proceedings in October.

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Two weeks ago,  and two months after entering voluntary administration, the Bloodhound Programme Limited announced it was shutting down. This week it announced that its assets, including the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC), had been acquired by an enthusiastic – and wealthy – supporter.

“We are absolutely delighted that on Monday 17th December, the business and assets were bought, allowing the Project to continue,” the team said in a statement.

“The acquisition was made by Yorkshire-based entrepreneur Ian Warhurst. Ian is a mechanical engineer by training, with a strong background in managing a highly successful business in the automotive engineering sector, so he will bring a lot of expertise to the Project.”

Warhurst and his family, says the team, have been enthusiastic Bloodhound supporters for many years, and this inspired his new involvement with the Project.

“I am delighted to have been able to safeguard the business and assets preventing the project breakup,” he said. “I know how important it is to inspire young people about science, technology, engineering and maths, and I want to ensure Bloodhound can continue doing that into the future.

“It’s clear how much this unique British project means to people and I have been overwhelmed by the messages of thanks I have received in the last few days.”

The record attempt was due to be made late next year at Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari Desert, where retired pilot Andy Green planned to beat the 1228km/h land-speed record he set in the United States in 1997. The target is for Bloodhound to become the first car to reach 1000mph (1610km/h). A track 19km long and 500 metres wide has been prepared, with members of the local community hired to clear 16 000 tons of rock and stone to smooth the surface.

The team said in its announcement this week: “Although it has been a frustrating few months for Bloodhound, we are thrilled that Ian has saved Bloodhound SSC from closure for the country and the many supporters around the world who have been inspired by the Project. We now have a lot of planning to do for 2019 and beyond.”

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Motor Racing meets Machine Learning

The futuristic car technology of tomorrow is being built today in both racing cars and
toys, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The car of tomorrow, most of us imagine, is being built by the great automobile manufacturers of the world. More and more, however, we are seeing information technology companies joining the race to power the autonomous vehicle future.

Last year, chip-maker Intel paid $15.3-billion to acquire Israeli company Mobileye, a leader in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. Google’s autonomous taxi division, Waymo, has been valued at $45-billion.

Now there’s a new name to add to the roster of technology giants driving the future.

DeepRacer on the inside

Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest cloud computing service and a subsidiary of Amazon.com,  last month unveiled a scale model autonomous racing car for developers to build new artificial intelligence applications. Almost in the same breath, at its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, it showcased the work being done with machine learning in Formula 1 racing.

AWS DeepRacer is a 1/18th scale fully autonomous race car, designed to incorporate the features and behaviour of a full-sized vehicle. It boasts all-wheel drive, monster truck tires, an HD video camera, and on-board computing power. In short, everything a kid would want of a self-driving toy car.

But then, it also adds everything a developer would need to make the car autonomous in ways that, for now, can only be imagined. It uses a new form of machine learning (ML), the technology that allows computer systems to improve their functions progressively as they receive feedback from their activities. ML is at the heart of artificial intelligence (AI), and will be core to autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

AWS has taken ML a step further, with an approach called reinforcement learning. This allows for quicker development of ML models and applications, and DeepRacer is designed to allow developers to experiment with and hone their skill in this area. It is built on top of another AWS platform, called Amazon SageMaker, which enables developers and data scientists to build, train, and deploy machine learning quickly and easily.

Along with DeepRacer, AWS also announced the DeepRacer League, the world’s first global autonomous racing league, open to anyone who orders the scale model from AWS.

DeepRacer on the outside

As if to prove that DeepRacer is not just a quirky entry into the world of motor racing, AWS also showcased the work it is doing with the Formula One Group. Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director of Motor Sports, joined AWS CEO Andy Jassy during the keynote address at the re:Invent conference, to demonstrate how motor racing meets machine learning.

“More than a million data points a second are transmitted between car and team during a Formula 1 race,” he said. “From this data, we can make predictions about what we expect to happen in a wheel-to-wheel situation, overtaking advantage, and pit stop advantage. ML can help us apply a proper analysis of a situation, and also bring it to fans.

“Formula 1 is a complete team contest. If you look at a video of tyre-changing in a pit stop – it takes 1.6 seconds to change four wheels and tyres – blink and you will miss it. Imagine the training that goes into it? It’s also a contest of innovative minds.”

AWS CEO Andy Jassy unveils DeepRacer

Formula 1 racing has more than 500 million global fans and generated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2017. As a result, there are massive demands on performance, analysis and information. 

During a race, up to 120 sensors on each car generate up to 3GB of data and 1 500 data points – every second. It is impossible to analyse this data on the fly without an ML platform like Amazon SageMaker. It has a further advantage: the data scientists are able to incorporate 65 years of historical race data to compare performance, make predictions, and provide insights into the teams’ and drivers’ split-second decisions and strategies.

This means Formula 1 can pinpoint how a driver is performing and whether or not drivers have pushed themselves over the limit.

“By leveraging Amazon SageMaker and AWS’s machine-learning services, we are able to deliver these powerful insights and predictions to fans in real time,” said Pete Samara, director of innovation and digital technology at Formula 1.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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