MUNICH, GERMANY—The transformation of our cars over the past few years has been rapid. They used to be autonomous vehicles—in the truest sense—unconnected to the wider world, save by their tires. Now the average new car is a wearable computer with seats for four, clustered with sensors and screens and wireless datalinks. Some of this progress could be considered digital frippery; casting one’s music via Android Auto or CarPlay isn’t that much of an advance over Bluetooth, after all. But some efforts from automakers, like the latest advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), are our stepping stone into a world where our cars drive us.
As the automobile continues to evolve, subject to the white heat of technology, spare a thought for the poor automakers. Many of these safety systems are invisible to the driver until their time of need. Others are merely complicated and new. But all of them need to be explained, for how else will a customer see the point in opening their wallet? That it needs explaining is a problem that Audi has been giving a lot of thought, and the company brought us to Munich recently to take a look at some of the solutions it’s working on.
As you might expect from a company that has been working with Oculus since 2013, VR plays a big role. The most obvious application is to create a virtual showroom. And indeed we saw demos of just such a thing, a static demo using Oculus and a more mobile version that uses HTC’s Vive. The Oculus setup was a more mature concept, intended originally for the European market, where cars are generally much more individually specced than here in the US.
The virtual showroom allows you to explore cars that have been rendered in excruciating detail; roughly 5 million polygons, a noticeable bump from the similarly explorable 3D models in Forza Motorsport 6. In fact, the virtual demo cars start off with pure CAD data direct from the design department and would stretch to 60 million polygons if rendered as-is. The rig is powered by a pair of Nvidia M6000 graphics cards, providing 90fps with minimal (20ms) latency—Audi is taking no chances, figuring nausea is not the best sensation to induce in a potential customer.
The Vive setup is more of a work in progress, but it may yet show up in the company’s flagship locations before too long. Freed from static viewing points, you really are free to poke your head anywhere. Jam in through the engine bay of an R8 sports car and the V10 reveals itself to you, down to individual cylinders or cooling chambers cast into the block. And as a nice treat, Audi has also digitized an Auto Union racer from its pre-war past for us to poke around:
But the company’s other VR demo was rather more unexpected. This took place on a large tarmac expanse, just to one side of Munich’s airport. It’s the solution Audi has come up with to demonstrate ADAS functions like “pre sense city”—which automatically brakes if it senses a pedestrian in your path—without actually putting the driver or any pedestrians in harm’s way: meet the Virtual Training Car.
This ADAS function uses the car’s front-mounted camera to detect objects out to 328 feet/100m. Pre sense city (and similar systems on other cars, including the large animal detection system fitted to new Volvos) will bring the car to a complete stop if it’s traveling at or below 25mph/40km/h; at higher speeds it will at least mitigate the impact.
Outwardly, the Virtual Training Car is just another Audi A4, save for a few extra aerials and antenna. Open the trunk and soon its purpose becomes clear. All the available luggage space has been commandeered by electronics, with a pair of hefty cooling fans replacing the back seats’ center arm rest. The headrests are also gone, replaced in the back by a light bar aimed at the back of the driver’s head. And there’s one more screen than you’d usually find in an A4, directly in front of the front-seat passenger. Oh, and of course there’s an Oculus headset, meant for the driver.
The driving area—roughly 2,000 feet/600m by 1,000 feet/300m—is ringed by GPS markers that allow the car’s differential GPS system to know its position down to 0.8 inches (20mm). Without the VR headset, your view out of the car is of a large asphalt surface. Don the goggles, and you’re transported to an urban setting, still behind the wheel of an A4. Even the interior of the car is faithfully rendered, although let me tell you it’s extremely strange to look down at the wheel and see it move, without any hands on the wheel or feet on the pedals!
We began the demo by driving off, negotiating a low-speed slalom course, then proceeding to a traffic circle. On the return leg, a virtual pedestrian meandering down the sidewalk stepped into our path, triggering pre sense city. A visual alert on the car’s (virtual) heads-up display was the result, quickly followed by the seat belts pretensioning and an emergency brake application.
It’s a rather elegant method of demonstrating a modern safety system; a previous demonstration we saw was more low tech, involving a mannequin in a wedding dress being pulled in front of a car. It’s also an alternative to something like Ford’s VIRRTEX simulator, which sits atop a gigantic six-post motion rig.
It required a fair bit of integration work between the VR environment and physical A4, as the car’s electronic brains need sensor input from the virtual world in order to trigger their emergency subroutines. Audi has used the Virtual Training Car on more than 5,000 of its salespeople from around the world, and the automaker is currently working on extending the systems it can demonstrate beyond pre sense city.
The Virtual Training Car experience doesn’t lend itself well to customer-facing applications, however, which is where the Virtual Engineering Terminal comes in. It’s a large (55-inch/1.4m) touchscreen tabletop, coupled with a wall-mounted monitor. Models of various Audis can be placed atop the touchscreen, which animates and explains how various systems—traffic jam assist or the clever matrix LED headlights—work on the road. The effect can be seen in the following video:
Sadly, although the Virtual Engineering Terminal is extremely cool to see in action, the cost of such massive touchscreens means that currently just three have been built. As with most things consumer-electronic, that’s almost certain to change, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see these setups starting to appear for the public, first at auto shows and then in the local dealership. It certainly beats reading a glossy brochure.
Listing image by Audi