Last year, Audi showcased the capabilities of its autonomous-driving software by sending a specially-equipped Audi RS7 Piloted Drive prototype at race speeds without a driver around the Hockenheimring race track in Germany. While an impressive stunt, Audi’s self-driving car — nicknamed ‘Bobby’ by engineers — was the only car on the track at the time, and required some special trackside assistance in the form of stationary WiFi points along the course to keep it on track at all times.
Then in January this year, Audi’s piloted-driving team changed gears, demonstrating Audi’s autonomous driving technology in a much grander way by sending a team of carefully-selected journalists in an Audi A7 Piloted Drive prototype car on a 560-mile journey from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas. While each journalist spent around 100 miles behind the steering wheel with a specially-trained Audi test driver sitting beside them in the passenger seat — a prerequisite for autonomous vehicles while traveling through California — the car did the majority of the driving itself.
Should it ever reach production, this car might just have what it takes to tackle the might of Tesla Motors
Now, at CES Asia 2015, Audi has unveiled the Audi R8 e-tron Piloted Driving prototype: a super-sexy, long-range self-driving electric car that should it ever reach production might just have what it takes to tackle the might of Tesla Motors in the plug-in autonomous vehicle marketplace.
Before we go any further, we should of course note this particular marketplace doesn’t even exist yet, but later this year it could. That’s because some time in Q3, Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] plans to release the newest iteration of its Model S operating system, known as the ‘7.0 software update’. In that update, Tesla is expected to enable basic autopilot driving functionality for owners of cars made after October 2014 — the date after which every new Tesla Model S shipped with the necessary hardware fitted to make autonomous driving capability a reality.
When enabled via an over-the-air software update, Tesla’s initial autopilot driving software won’t enable completely hands-off driving — partly due to circumvent the sticky question of driver liability in the case of a collision, and partly to enable it to bring the same kind of advanced assistance technologies to the automotive marketplace that airline pilots have enjoyed for decades without waiting for legislators and the insurance industry to play catchup.
Built as what Audi calls a ‘high-tech mobile laboratory,’ the R8 e-tron Piloted Driving prototype operates in much the same way: instead of providing fully autonomous functionality in the way that Google is striving for with its low-speed pod-like cars, its Piloted Driving software is designed to operate in the majority of situations where driving is monotonous rather than pleasurable.
Situations like the daily morning commute in stop-start traffic, or mid-range trips on flat, open highways, for example.
From an powertrain engineering standpoint, the R8 e-tron Piloted Drive is identical to the 2016 R8 e-tron Audi is offering customers as a ‘built-to-order’ vehicle. Based on the same multilateral space-frame chassis of the gasoline-powered 2016 Audi R8, the R8 e-tron Piloted Drive features a rear body module made of lightweight Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) which is not only stronger than traditional construction materials but lighter too.
In the centre of the vehicle in the space usually reserved for the transmission tunnel and behind the passenger cabin in the space where the mid-mounted engine of the gasoline R8 is found is a massive 92 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Capable of being recharged from empty to full in under two hours from a 50-kilowatt Combo CCS charging station, the battery pack manages an energy density of 154 watt-hours per kilogram, a massive improvement of the original 84 Wh/kg achieved by first-generation Audi R8 e-tron prototypes.
Range is quoted at 450 kilometres (279.6 miles) on the NEDC test cycle, but we should note here that as a prototype rather than production vehicle, these figures haven’t been approved by any external agency.
Meanwhile a pair of 170 kilowatt, 339.3-pound feet electric motors — one for each rear wheel — can accelerate the R8 e-tron Piloted Driving prototype from 0-62 mph in 3.9 seconds, going on to an electronically-limited top speed of 155 mph.
Tesla’s high-end Model S P85D for comparison, manages the 0-62 mph sprint in 3.1 seconds, a slightly longer all-electric range of 300 miles on the NEDC test cycle and a limited top speed of 155 mph.
We’re yet to see Audi’s R8 e-tron Piloted Driving on the public highway, but if it needs any journalists to help it test out this latest self-driving concept, we’re willing and able to assist.
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