Piloted through the urban jungle of Shanghai – this is no longer a vision of the future.

Audi Pilot

Audi development engineer Thomas Müller and his team sent “Lu Ban” and “Kong Ming”, two piloted Audi A7 Sportback prototypes, on a very special kind of test drive. An initially uncertain and soon impressed reporter tells all.
Look, no hands! The car takes over control – The A7 piloted concept is piloted at speeds of up to 60 km/h. It remains in lane, braking and accelerating as required.
We have to adapt and approve the system for each region. And reliability is the key factor for Audi. At the end of the day, it’s all about safety.
(Thomas Müller, Head of Development Brake/Steering/Driver Assistance Systems)

The weather in China’s sprawling metropolis of Shanghai is oppressive and muggy. On the city highway, the cars snake their way slowly in convoy toward the Pudong district – i.e. directly into the Manhattan of Shanghai. The on-ramp spirals upward into the sky to reach the bridge that stretches more than 400 meters over the Huangpu River. Right in the midst of it all is a white Audi A7 Sportback, known as “Kong Ming”. At the steering wheel is Thomas Müller, Head of Development Brake/Steering/Driver Assistance Systems at AUDI AG. We are on a test drive to check the capabilities of piloted driving in congested traffic. Will the Audi prototype pass this endurance test in the Asian city?


As soon as the car reaches the straight, a white display lights up in the cockpit: “Piloted Driving available”. Müller pushes an inconspicuous button on the steering wheel, takes his hands off the wheel, his feet off the pedals and settles down in his seat. The engineer has a satisfied smile on his face. The green light framing the speedometer and rev counter signals to the driver that the electronics have everything under control. For a moment, as a passenger, it’s a strange feeling to experience the Audi A7 Sportback driving on its own. However, the unpleasant sensation quickly transforms into fascinated amazement. The steering wheel turns by itself, keeping the A7 Sportback safely on track, while the car maintains the right distance to the vehicle in front at all times.

Real personalities – “Lu Ban” and “Kong Ming” negotiate Shanghai congestion completely autonomously.
90 percent of accidents are caused by the driver. We want ultimately to offer a safety system that reduces this.
(Thomas Müller, Head of Development Brake/Steering/Driver Assistance Systems)

What ultimately looks simple, and provokes stunned head-shaking on my part, takes a whole lot of preparation. Müller’s team has been at the Audi R&D Center in Beijing for several weeks building two technology prototypes together with their development co-workers from Audi China. The electronic systems in the two A7 piloted driving concept models have been specifically adapted to Chinese traffic conditions. Driving in the Middle Kingdom is far more chaotic than on German or American highways. A bus from the right, a car from the left, a quick dash into the tight space in front of the A7 – these are extreme situations that can quickly push human beings to their limits.


It’s also an endurance test for the electronics in the technology prototype. Every now and then, the practiced test driver has to take over. “This is exactly why we’re testing in China,” says Müller’s team member Sebastian Klaas, who is monitoring the vehicle data on the computer from the rear bench.


“Driving here is totally different from what we know in Europe and the USA. The horn is part of standard Chinese communication. They use it to tell you they want to cut in and lots more besides. We have to learn to understand all that.”


While piloted driving is planned to enter series production for the USA and Germany in 2017 with the new A8, Müller’s team is still at the very beginning of the process for the Asian region. When it comes to the development of driver assistance systems, the infrastructure and driving behaviors of the respective countries play a major role. “We have to adapt and approve the system for each region. And reliability is the key factor for Audi. At the end of the day, it’s all about safety,” says Müller.

The cockpit shows what’s going on: White – piloted driving is available.
The cockpit shows what’s going on: Green light – the vehicle has everything under control.
Piloted driving – Thomas Müller traveling with his personal chauffeur, an A7 piloted driving concept.

The cooperation with the Audi Technology Center in China is crucial to this project. This development center in Beijing mirrors the Technical Development organization at the Ingolstadt plant. Those at work there include German engineers and specialists from around the world. It was the Chinese co-workers who named the two technology prototypes.


“Baptism” has a long tradition in Müller’s team. “We always like to give the cars names because we believe they have personalities,” says Müller. “You can equip two cars the same, yet they still drive differently. Each has its own character.” With the names “Lu Ban” and “Kong Ming”, the engineers are underscoring the high demands that Audi has of its own technologies. Lu Ban lived in the fifth century BC and is considered in China to be the father of architecture. In 200 AD, Kong Ming invented an allterrain vehicle – in a sense, the first quattro.

Look, no hands – Thomas Müller doesn’t miss the opportunity to undertake some of the test driving himself.
Müller has his eyes firmly on the prize.  

“90 percent of accidents are caused by the driver. We want ultimately to offer a safety system that reduces this.” The first step in this direction is piloted driving on highways and highway-like roads where speeds of around 60 km/h are possible. This situation, without oncoming traffic, cyclists, pedestrians and traffic lights is the easiest to manage.


The next step is to cover speeds of up to 120 km/h. No simple undertaking, as Müller explains: “The sensors with which our system works can’t currently see as far ahead as the driver can. We can’t yet identify a construction site or the end of a traffic jam sufficiently far in advance with the onboard sensors to comfortably enable it for even higher speeds.”

Track: The RS 7 piloted driving concept “Bobby” completed a lap of the Hockenheimring completely autonomously and at racing speeds.
City - In Shanghai, the piloted Audi learns to deal with traffic in a Chinese megacity.
Complicated scenarios also have to be thought through.

In the event of a system failure, there must be another on standby to take over the function. Thus, various systems in the car have to be doubled up. Once these issues have been addressed, the engineers will then be able to venture into more difficult situations – main roads with oncoming traffic, overtaking maneuvers, stoplights and, at some point, even city traffic with pedestrians.


However, for development engineers working on piloted driving, the city is a highly complicated matter for realization in the more distant future. A human driver can categorize others sharing the road – if he sees a child at the curbside, he slows down in case that child suddenly dashes out onto the road. If he sees an adult and notices that he, too, has been seen, there is no urgent need to slow down. A car is not yet in a position to take such decisions.

“In principle, the car has to gather driving experience much like a human being. You can’t preprogram everything. What you have to do instead is develop a self-learning system,” says Müller.  

“Swarm intelligence and learning algorithms will be necessary for piloted driving through cities.” All of that takes time. The legislative conditions are a limiting factor, too. And, ultimately, the customer also has to be prepared for such innovations and accept them as well.


As a passenger, I trust the system – because Müller trusts it. After just a short time, I am sitting just as calmly in my seat as the engineer next to me. But I find myself wondering if I would hand over control to the car if I were sitting behind the steering wheel. Müller takes a relaxed view: “We are developing the systems on an evolutionary basis and guiding our customers step by step toward piloted driving.” According to Müller, the feedback is usually “It feels like the next generation of ACC, the adaptive cruise control.”


Plus, the decision to engage piloted driving is always left to the driver: “Our strategy is not to replace the driver, but to support him.” This applies to all situations in which driving is not enjoyable or can become dangerous, i.e. where the driver is either over-challenged or under-challenged.


Meanwhile, “Kong Ming” has long since crossed the highway bridge. In my fascination for the future of driving, I have forgotten all about the imposing view of the Shanghai skyline. But, with the heavy cloud hanging in the sky, there would have been little to see today anyway. Shortly before leaving the highway, the A7 Sportback makes an announcement. “Traffic dissolving. Please take control of vehicle”, appears in the display, outlined in red. The Audi engineer dismisses his personal chauffeur for the day and takes over the wheel again himself.

Road: Concept vehicle “Jack” pilots the long journey between Silicon Valley and Las Vegas.
Success story – piloted driving at Audi

Precision, speed, distance – regardless of the challenge, Audi is at the forefront when it comes to piloted driving.


Verena Väth (text), Graeme Fordham (photos)

Recommendations from the editorial team