Today, some of the most exciting innovations in consumer electronics aren’t the ones in your living room or your office — they’re the ones inside your car. — Audi CEO Rupert Stadler
While most automobile magazines do a great job of reviewing the performance of automobiles and trucks, they do not adequately address the vehicles’ GPS or positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities, sensors, or electronics suites. Nor do they endeavor to fully grasp how these sensor suites, many enabled by GPS and other PNT devices, add to their safety, peace of mind, and overall situational awareness. My pick of the best automobile currently on the market for driver situational awareness is the 2011 Audi A8.
Lest you think the choice was easy, it was not. For two years I drove more than 26 different candidate automobiles and I found myself repeatedly comparing them to the A8L. The Audi 8L is designated by its maker to premiere and test all electronic features — hardware and software, including situational awareness devices — that may eventually go into production on other Audi models.
I noticed when I began testing automobiles that, on the high end, they were fairly uniform in performance. The majority of them went from 0 to 60 miles per hour (0 to 100 kilometers per hour) in less than five seconds. They all stopped or went from 60 to 0 in approximately 100 feet (30.48 meters), depending on the tires, weather, and road surface. They were all reasonably quiet and to some degree comfortable. The average fuel mileage varied from 15 to 27 miles per U.S. gallon, with the Audi A8L taking honors in this class. However, the models varied tremendously in their electronic sophistication, integration, and situational awareness: some vehicles kept the driver situationally aware, and some failed miserably at this critical task.
I look not only at the electronics and how they are integrated, but also how easily and completely they inform the driver in all sorts of traffic and weather conditions. Do the windshield wipers activate automatically when it rains or you enter a fog bank? Does the navigation system automatically reroute you or at least offer that option when weather, accidents, or delays are encountered? Does the PNT system alert you in time to take evasive action in a potential dangerous situation? Does it present the mapping interface and alerts so that you are aware of your options both aurally and visually? Do you have to manually intervene or merely follow clear and precise directions?
Every major automobile maker and dealer I spoke with said that the majority of serious buyers today look for performance and style as always — but those have become secondary to the options provided, mainly the electronic awareness, safety, and entertainment suites. Of course, makers and dealers also appreciate the fact that these options, while adding safety, convenience and awareness, also add — often significantly — to the bottom line, or the vehicle’s drive-away price. So, yes, situational awareness does come at a price and sometimes a steep one. However, if it gives you peace of mind, lower stress, and saves lives, it is hard to complain. One can certainly make the argument that all these devices should be available on all automobiles. As time goes by they will be, and at a lower price. For now, we pay a premium for them. But what price can you place on a human life? Rest assured, many of these features are potentially life-saving.
I want to alert you to a phenomenon some GPS subject matter experts and I discovered while researching for the Department of Defense. It surprised us, but in retrospect we have always suspected the phenomena existed; we have chosen to call it Stealth GPS.
Stealth GPS exists in many military platforms today, and the practice now extends to the automotive industry as well. Basically, 90 percent of the more than 1 billion GPS users in the world use GPS for time or timing purposes and not for just position or navigational purposes. Obviously, in automobiles with very high-tech systems onboard, timing and synchronization are critical. Since GPS chips today are relatively inexpensive, they occasionally show up in unexpected places. No less than five major auto makers told us that every model they produce has a single and more likely multiple GPS chip(s) embedded somewhere in the electronic suites. These automobiles may or may not have a standalone GPS display, and it may not be obvious to the owner or even the mechanics that work on the vehicle, but GPS information, including timing data, is essential to proper vehicle operation.
For example, on the Audi A8L the Quattro sensors measure tire adhesion or slip up to 100 times per second and report that information through the traction-control system’s electronics. This requires precision timing and a tightly integrated timing or synchronization system.
Consider that GPS time is distributed freely around the world, and relatively cheap quartz crystal clocks can act to hold over precise GPS timing for a considerable period when the vehicle’s GPS antenna, also usually a stealth device, cannot see the sky. GPS chips in addition to position and navigation information may provide time of day to include day, month, year, hour, seconds, and divisions of seconds down to 1 x 10-14, along with altitude, attitude, heading, and velocity information, all independent of any other sensors on the car. As you will see, when GPS data are tightly integrated with other sensor data and display systems, the resulting displays and capabilities can be almost staggering in their versatility and ability to make the driver situationally aware.
How many GPS chips, stealth or otherwise, does the Audi 8L carry? Frankly, I am not sure, and it’s just possible that neither is Audi; after all, some of them are likely very stealthy. But regardless of how many there are, they inform and enable a dizzying array of displays, capabilities, and overall situational awareness second to none.
When I drove the A8L, every time I wanted a piece of information that the situation demanded, it always seemed to be readily available, and usually in more than one location. There is a pop-up full-color 8-inch display screen in the center console and a full color 7-inch display screen directly in front of the driver, between the speedometer and tachometer. The 7-inch screen is so well integrated that until information starts to appear, you never know it exists. I did not have to search or push buttons or pull levers — the information was simply there when I needed it.
The Audi’s displays were the most intuitive I have experienced to date. So much so that after experiencing the Audi’s non-intrusive total situational awareness capabilities, they were subsequently conspicuously absent on any other vehicles I drove.
The Audi A8L is available with all of what Car and Driver calls Audi’s latest “electronannies,” including a multimedia interface (MMI) and voice-controlled GPS display, which disappears when not in use or when the automobile is turned off. There is also active and adaptive cruise control with low-speed stop-and-go capability that will actually initiate and fully stop the vehicle if you are about to collide with an object, person, or another vehicle — and you fail to stop the car yourself.
The A8L has
- a blind-spot monitoring system;
- a camera-enabled lane-assist mode that turns on above 40 miles per hour and warns you with a steering wheel vibration when you are wandering in your lane or about to intrude on another;
- a night-vision system that displays yellow silhouettes for anything warm-blooded ahead, including pedestrians and those lovable but pesky Bambis lurking by the side of the road; when such creatures are directly in the car’s path, the alerts turn bright red.
- a visual reverse navigator in the center pop-up that clearly displays the exact parking path the car will take depending on how you turn the wheel. The proximity sensors beep with increasing frequency as you near objects and turn to a solid tone when you are within four inches of the object. I parked the Audi A8L several times solely by monitoring the center display.
While these wonders are merely enabled by GPS, the display screens in the vehicle are nothing short of amazing in their capability and versatility. The touch-screen color display can enable almost any feature of the automobile through a mere touch while many features are MMI- and/or voice-activated. You quickly learn, if your hands are occupied keeping you on the road, that you merely need to speak, and the Audi quickly obeys.
Before driving from Colorado Springs to Denver and back, I spent two very informative hours with the dealer staff going through the A8L’s features and capabilities. They do this with every prospective buyer — a good thing because the number of features can be daunting. But once you are actually driving, everything seems intuitive and, most important, non-distracting. I never once had to hunt for switches or buttons, because if you can’t remember, just use the audio system and tell the Audi what you want or need.
On the open road, I headed north to Denver. I set my destination merely by asking aloud for the Denver airport; the system immediately gave me a choice of the three airports in and around Denver, and I selected one. I could have looked up all airports within 100 miles, or put in the address if I knew it, or just browsed local transportation options, or even input the coordinates if I had them.
The center display always gave me the speed limit of the road I was traveling; it allows you to set a warning if you exceed that speed by your choice of number. The car is so quiet, there are no audible clues as to your actual velocity. If there had been any speed cameras on I-25, the Audi would have warned me about them as well.
The car always displayed the next three turns in blocks that clearly gave the mileage to the turn, the direction and degrees of the turn, and the name of the exit and road to turn onto. A mile before each exit, the navigation system displayed all its amenities and points of interest (POIs): gas stations, motels, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and cash machines. It can display much more or less, depending on how you program, it, but the logos for the amenities show up just like they do on some road signs with the same information (although the road signs never seem to be there when you need them, or they go by too fast to read). Plus, both the center and driver’s panel displays show in bright vivid blue your route and the turns to make, the lane you should be in, and very accurate distances and times to the next turn, your final destination, and any intermediate points.
Wonder of wonders, when I turned off the prescribed route (on purpose), I never heard the dreaded “Recalculating…” The system adjusted and gave me new data to my destination based on my waywardness, and a pleasant suggestion to “proceed along the highlighted route.”
Back on I-25, all of a sudden yellow triangles appeared on both navigation displays, with a visual and audible warning of slow traffic ahead; a few seconds later came an indication that an accident had occurred. The nav system immediately zoomed out to show alternate routes with major thoroughfares that would take me around the slowdown. I took the first turn off the Interstate without making any manual adjustments to the system. It routed me effortlessly around the accident and back to I-25. I never pushed a button or had to ask a question. If I’d wanted to continue on secondary roads, it would have accommodated that automatically.
On the outskirts of Denver, I programmed the system to find the nearest Starbucks, which was less than a half-mile off the Interstate. There I reprogrammed my return route to go through seven POIs. Having accomplished this feat without once looking at a manual, I was off again.
I made the trip back on secondary roads mainly so I could cruise with both sun roofs open and listen to the 19 speakers of the wonderful Bose stereo system (Bang and Olufsen option). I stayed about 5 miles below the speed limit and was passed innumerable times, but I didn’t care because I was having so much fun. This automobile is so comfortable, you find yourself looking for ways to extend your journey: 22-way adjustable leather seats; five-way, five-intensity massage system, automatic seat heating/cooling.
I made it to all seven POIs, including a couple I had heard of but never visited before, because of the frustration of getting lost trying to find them. Before I was ready, I found myself back at the dealership. The excellent staff encouraged me to keep the car longer, but frankly I was afraid if I did, it would wind up in my garage, and that is just not in the budget right now. That reminds me, I need to ask for a raise.
Bluetooth connectivity is available; the Apple iPhone can be fully controlled and/or downloaded onto the A8’s terabyte hard drive and accessed from any of the three color touchpad screens in the car.
You can control the GPS navigation interface to include new destinations, from the full color 10-inch touch screens in the rear passenger compartment, giving new meaning to the phrase “back seat driver.” There is a single DVD-CD drive slot in the center dash console as well as a six-disk changer unit in the optionally refrigerated glove box. That is, if the large cooler that extends into the rear cabin from the trunk space is not enough for you. Understandably, the rear cooler is a bit hard to reach from the front seat while you are barreling along the Autobahn at 130 miles per hour, or down I-25 at 75.
Bottom line for the Audi A8L: the information you need is displayed almost everywhere you look, and can be called up with the touch of a button, the scroll of a finger, or the sound of your voice. All internal and external data is provided in an atmosphere that is second to none climatologically and ergonomically. It is the only automobile I have driven lately with four full-color touchscreens that, while keeping you situationally aware no matter where you are seated, can simultaneously control all the systems in the automobile. The two 10-inch rear-seat screens can be used to read e-mail, browse the Internet, or watch the latest movies or television programming. Add to this an incredibly performance-minded vehicle, the highest gas mileage rating in its rank, amenities that want to make you slow down and enjoy the journey, and you have my pick for the best GPS-enabled, situationally aware vehicle in its class.
Thanks to Vince Cimino, general manager at the Phil Long Audi dealership in Colorado Springs, and his staff for unfettered access to the Audi A8L and all their expertise.
Until next time, happy navigating.
Interview with Audi Research Director Burkhard Huhnke
While testing Audis for this article, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, executive director of the VW/Audi Experimental Research Laboratory (ERL) in Palo Alto, California. Palo Alto is also home to Stanford University, and thus to Stanley and Shelley, autonomous vehicles that have driven into the record books. ERL supports all brands within the Volkswagen Group: Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Seat, Skoda, and Volkswagen.
The integration of external and onboard capabilities with GPS and a screamingly fast new Nvidia Tegra 2 chip make the Audi navigation system the first in-car navigation system with 3-D display capabilities.
Don Jewell (DJ): How is this integrated GPS different from a mobile device adhered to the windshield?
Burkhard Huhnke (BH): Let’s say the driver is overwhelmed in a very difficult situation, like approaching a traffic jam in bad weather at high speed. The Audi will sense this — we call it pre-sense — alert the driver, begin a series of automatic safety measures, such as tightening the seatbelts and closing windows, and then automatically start to brake the automobile. For us, the systems in the Audi are for more than just displaying information or blinking warning lights. The systems actually take over some of the functions and support the driver, especially in emergency situations. GPS provides a way for us to localize the car in its environment with data such as time of day, weather and traffic conditions, and any other information that both onboard and external sensors, such as the Internet and Google, connected provide.
DJ: What happens when GPS data is not available?
BH: We must provide additional sensors and train our systems to learn to bridge the time with GPS outages or interruptions without the driver being aware that GPS is no longer being received, make it seamless. The intelligence, the metadata from other sensors is onboard in the embedded systems, and they are programmed to provide the necessary data when GPS is not available.
DJ: How does this translate to a better experience for the customer?
BH: We put a lot of effort into the optimization of the human-machine interface (HMI). We have psychologists working on the HMI along with our designers and programmers. Some car manufacturers provide systems that force you to think like an engineer to operate them. We realized this approach won’t work. To create an intuitive navigation system requires much, much more. It requires input from our customer, what is intuitive to them. For this as I said we use simulators, customer inputs, along with psychologists, clinical studies, and a great deal of effort that goes into understanding what makes a truly intuitive interface and a system that people will like and enjoy using.
You do not need a handbook to operate our systems. I actually hate handbooks and I believe that if you cannot figure out how to do something, such as program a destination into a GPS in just a few seconds, without a handbook, then the customer will not like it; so we purposely made the system intuitive and very user friendly. The learning curve is very short and our customers find themselves using the system in no time at all.
We found out one of the key things our customers want is beautiful, high-definition, and fast graphics. So we started working with one of the leading companies (Nvidia) for graphical interfaces. In the end, we created an environment in the Audi A8 that is more like your home living room than a normal automobile.
In the A8 we combined the Internet and the onboard Audi network with things like Google Maps so you can continuously download Google Maps as they are needed: beautiful high-definition color graphics and maps with connectivity. The POI search is absolutely as up-to-date as it can be, often including data updated the same day or possibly just a few minutes before from the Internet. In the A8 for a POI you get the same information as if you had searched on your computer at home.
DJ: How much do you care about accuracy for your GPS/PNT systems in the Audi? Is one meter enough?
BH: We are extremely interested in a very accurate GPS position down to the centimeter level. Not all manufacturers are. Since you live in Colorado you may have heard about the Audi TT that successfully drove autonomously up Pikes Peak. To do this, we used differential GPS signals to take hairpin turns at race-like speeds.
But we realized that it is a risk to only depend on external signals such as GPS. GPS information is critical, but we find ourselves depending more and more on our onboard sensors. This gives us a huge advantage, such as with our onboard camera system. It gives us the ability to develop better adaptive cruise-control functions. All these extra sensor inputs combined with GPS gives you the best precision, but when you don’t have GPS, you have to rely on other sensors to take over.
We launched a navigation system with a processor from Nvidia at the same time it was announced as a capability in a mobile device. In the past, we were always behind the time with technology because we were conservative with what we put in the cars, but with this move we are now able to keep up with and even surpass the technology in mobile devices. We created a very smart motherboard so we can exchange and process data quickly.
DJ: What do you see as your mission?
BH: Producing the safest car in the world, and I think we are there. The United States still has 37,000+ traffic fatalities every year, so we took it as our responsibility to create the safest systems onboard any automobile. Our new navigation system predicts curves and safe speeds for the conditions and sometimes automatically reduces the speed of the automobile. We talk a lot about driverless cars, but actually I think we all enjoy driving, like you do, Don, with your Q7 in the snow in Colorado. But there are also times when we are extremely bored and not paying attention to our driving and just wish we could press an autopilot button and start answering e-mails or something. This could be in a traffic jam or any circumstance where it is no longer fun to drive. So that is something we would like to accomplish.
Recently we created a new program with Stanford University to work on solutions for mobility challenges. We want to be able to obtain more external information, use onboard information, and create the car of the future with the smart people at Stanford and those of us at ERL. We want a navigation system that is smart and can predict traffic, which helps and supports the driver, and therefore makes driving extremely safe. That is now our mission.
Don Jewell is contributing editor for defense and government at GPS World. His monthly e-mail newsletter column is free at www.gpsworld.com/subscribe.