By on July 31, 2020

With regulatory bodies the world over forcing the automotive sector to prioritize efficiency over mightiness, industry rhetoric has gradually shifted away from the powertrain. While every brand still wants to squeeze out all available power from ubiquitous four-cylinder motors, providing excess is only a priority in a handful of cases catering directly to enthusiasts.

The idea of a big, brutish luxury car with a monstrous engine still exists, but it’s being supplanted by technology-driven features catering to tech-focused minds and the green movement. Modern luxury is based in connectivity, applications, and distancing one from the experience of driving altogether  or at least that’s what the automotive industry now seems to believe.

And they may have a point. While we’re well aware those advocating “mobility” desperately want it so that they can tap into your data (to enhance revenue using the same grimy business tactics favored by big tech firms), carmakers also need something shiny to dangle in front of consumers so we’ll buy the latest and greatest product. The tech sector is also booming right now, and the industry’s dying to get investors back on its side after seeing the Wall Street performance of EV companies  especially Tesla Motors.

Even the traditionalists at Toyota are buying into it, announcing an important push into software development as they attempt to craft the next industry-standard operating system for cars. It’s also the song Volkswagen Group has sung ever since Dieselgate. Meanwhile, Audi recently explained its own commitment to software after its parent company (VW) tasked it with ensuring the botched launches of the ID.3 and Mk8 Golf don’t become commonplace.

“When it comes to digitalization we are lagging behind  for now,” Audi CEO Markus Duesmann said in an interview explaining the company’s new Project Artemis program to Reuters (via the New York Times).

The project involves taking around 200 employees and using them to accelerate the software going into a scalable vehicle platform; they’ll be allowed to operate somewhat autonomously from Volkswagen Group. Duesmann said this is necessary due to the stakes at play. The group already intends to bring a “highly automated” electric vehicle to the public in just a handful of years.

“To develop a new car with so many new features in this period until 2024 is so demanding that it is probably without precedent. That’s why we have decided to work with a separate unit,” he explained.

From Reuters:

With the advent of self-driving cars, vehicles need processors and software operating systems to analyze data from radar, lidar, and camera sensors to calculate driving reflexes so cars can navigate and avoid accidents on their own.

In the past, bigger cars with more powerful engines were automatically better. Now computing power and intelligence will be a key metric for defining what is premium, forcing Audi and VW to retool the way they design cars.

“Technical development of vehicles is no longer organized according to a vehicle’s size, but by the car’s electrical and electronic architecture,” Duesmann said, explaining that premium and high-value models would now differentiate themselves according to their computing power and sensor levels.

We’d like to use this opportunity to remind our readers that self-driving cars still don’t exist. The technology has seen its development slow to a crawl in recent years as R&D teams realized training a machine to account for all variables is a difficult proposition. It should also be said that “bigger cars with more powerful engines” are still objectively better. Circumstances (income, where one lives, etc.) and personal preference may direct someone toward a smaller, less potent automobile — often resulting in the ideal product for the customer — but more is still more in terms of cars.

Until Bentley starts selling pint-sized economy models for $250,000 and Lamborghini stops thinking 0-60 times matter, that will remain true. However, convincing the public that something using half the materials is worth as much as an older design with twice the mass and a juicier dyno sheet (like Dodge) would be a boon to automakers looking to sell you on touchscreens and the same connectivity that’s already available on your phone. The only real bright spot is the enhanced safety features offered by equipping cars with sensors and more computer power, but those systems have proven occasionally annoying, highly fallible, and may even make us worse motorists.

Still, there may be no other way. Much of the industry is already deep into the process of digitizing everything it possibly can as the situation snowballs down the mountain. Any company snubbing the assumed technological bonanza runs the risk of looking old-fashioned, falling behind and losing out on wads of cash made available through data acquisition and updated business models. This is also why so many of these big moves between industry giants look so similar.

Audi’s Project Artemis is a near carbon copy of Woven Planet Holdings (aka the rebranded Toyota Research Institute). Both use names that distance themselves from traditional industry players, designed to welcome new partnerships and outside investment. Self-driving is a concern but secondary to building on the software used for in-car operating systems and the new features they bring to the table. Ideally, VW Group would like to see this happen as quickly as possible.

“If we gain speed with a supplier or with a software company, we will consider it. Speed is extremely important,” Duesmann said. China is also supposed to play a large role in the program but the CEO declined to elaborate.

Artemis will be working alongside VW’s Car.Software team, rather than absorbing it. Duesmann noted it will be important to have staffers embedded in various departments to ensure a degree of mental flexibility. Not that we’re seeing many new ideas, overall. The public now understands that the promise of self-driving vehicles is a largely empty one, and Artemis’ plan to bring a semi-autonomous vehicle to market by 2024 sounds awful familiar. Audi’s real goal is solving Volkswagen’s software issues while gently copying BMW’s Project i… which was established roughly a decade ago and has already delivered a couple of novelty cars.

[Image: JL IMAGES/Shutterstock]


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13 Comments on “Audi Suggests Computing Power Will Decide Industry Winners/Losers...”

  • avatar

    Engineering optimization (of which computing power plays a very important part) saves money, makes a better car, and improves the company bottom line. Throwing technology at a problem often makes a good solution (not always) and there a lot of computing-intensive gee-whiz gadgets, er, features on cars these days.

    But all too often in this industry the difference between winners and losers is when the bean counters voted for a decision to cut corners and the company ends up shooting itself in the foot.

  • avatar

    Walt Whitman once wrote [no kidding]:

    “Singing my days,
    Singing the great achievements of the present,
    Singing the strong light works of engineers…”

    Question: If Walt Whitman were standing on a new vehicle lot in 2020, what words would he choose in lieu of “strong” and “light”?

    • 0 avatar

      Possibly related:
      An eight-foot-tall exact replica of the metal frame of the Eiffel tower would weigh about six pounds (slightly more than two quarts of paint).

      Puddled iron (not steel) – not exactly the least dense building material in the world.

      That guy was a genius.

  • avatar

    So Audi thinks that cute software will hide or make irrelevant that a vehicle is unrewarding to drive. We went through something similar fifty years ago when reduced toxic exhaust emissions (not just CO2) and then low fuel consumption temporarily replaced performance (including braking and handling, not just acceleration) as worthy design goals. The result was that the best car was no longer the latest model but something from the mid 1960s that had been treated well. We could find ourselves thinking the same about early 2000s models versus new ones. Be prepared for the Audi equivalent to a Cadillac Cimarron.

  • avatar

    So much for the basic moral issue: snooping is rude.

    But, these days, snooping is almost exalted.

  • avatar

    Audi may be right – about overpriced luxury cars. Precision manufacturing has produced excellent, long-lasting drivetrains on most cars. But touch screens and infotainment “features” are no more reliable than cell phones, laptops, desktops, and a host of other electronic devices that need to be replaced after 5-6 years, and more often than not the electronic replacements aren’t available.

    So-called “smart” appliances must be replaced after a few years, not because their basic mechanicals have failed, but because the electronic controls have, and there are no parts or replacement units available. Refrigerators, Washers, stoves, and TVs are junked due to failed electronics, when their counterparts with mechanical controls would have continued to work for years longer.

    Appliances cost a lot now, but imagine borrowing money for a much more expensive vehicle, and finding after 5-6 years that the computer-screen integrated basic controls have failed, and they stopped making them? There will be a lot of luxury cars rotting away in barns, because they cost too much to repair, or can’t be repaired at all, while their drivetrains are in perfectly good shape.

    The rich can afford to throw away their cars after a few years, but the rest of us cannot. There’s a huge market for cars with reliable drivetrains and minimalist controls that can be repaired, with a minimum of computer chip modules that can be replaced easily and cheaply, and stay on the road for a decade or more.

    • 0 avatar

      “There’s a huge market for cars with reliable drivetrains and minimalist controls that can be repaired”

      While I agree with this idea in theory, the general public does not appear to. Most people seem prepared to spend a little bit (or a lot) more to get as many “upscale” features as possible. Upscale nowadays apparently means electronics.

      The folks you are talking about already buy all the 2-generations-old transmissioned Corollas Toyota can produce.

      • 0 avatar

        lol… no. The market for a car with minimalist reliable controls is smaller than the market for manual transmissions.

        And I’ll be those customers looking for “cars with reliable drivetrains and minimalist controls that can be repaired” want to buy those cars used.

    • 0 avatar

      Or you can just make the car serviceable and upgradeable. I admire Tesla in this regard. Instead of planned obselescence, they practice continuous improvement and try to make upgrades backward-compatible. In their world, a 2012-13 model is practically prehistoric: only 3G connectivity, less computing power for gee-whiz features. But you hand them $2500 and they replace your screens and computers and wham-o, your car can do the same stuff a new one can.

      (Yes, $2500 is a lot of dough, but not relative to an $85,000 car. Scale the complexity and grandiosity down to mainstream level and the same idea could apply.)

  • avatar

    Duesman has it wrong. It’s not computing. Material science will be a much bigger factor. It’s not just the exotic metallurgy involved in developing new coatings for battery electrodes. It applies to ICE vehicles as well. Cylinder coatings and materials, lighter and more durable body parts and other components will be critical. New materials will be needed to facilitate large scale additive manufacturing. Nanotechnology and similar technologies should the most important priorities for any auto company.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    This does not get my pulse going at all. The trend this guy is talking about is car-as-appliance. If driving is not entertaining because the car is anodyne, I’m not sure a bunch of gadgets is going to remedy the situation. Strike the entertainment and what’s left is a device that transports you and X number of others from A to B comfortably, reliably and efficiently. In other words, a Toyota.

    Leaving aside for a moment the fact that a 4-cylinder engine can be pressurized sufficiently with a combination of turbochargers, electric turbochargers and superchargers (I’m looking at you, Volvo.) to develop sufficient horsepower and torque to move anything down the road with reasonable alacrity, the fact is that 2 liter 4 cylinder engines are inherently guttural, rough and agricultural sounding. There are just not enough power pulses per revolution. In fact, using forced induction to generate higher output just makes the situation worse, not better. If “luxury” is smoothness, then any vehicle powered by a 4 cylinder engine is a fail. I’d much rather have the 3-liter BMW in-line 6 of the early 2000s, even with 25 less horsepower than the current BMW turbo 2 liter 4 (or similar engines from Mercedes).

    If that’s my choice and I’m a luxury buyer, give me a Tesla any day of the week.

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