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by Matt Campbell

The speed at which things are changing in the automotive world is at times baffling, and even the heads of some of the most successful companies on the planet are trying to keep up.

Audi chairman of the board Rupert Stadler, for instance, told CarAdvice at the 2017 Geneva motor show that he feels things are changing faster now than ever before in the industry.

“I think we agree within five minutes that the automotive industry is now in the biggest transformation process ever. The speed of digitisation, how our vision impacts our business models, the speed of digitisation, how that one impacts innovation in terms of piloted driving, piloted parking,” he said.

Audi has stated it will offer a level of autonomy in its upcoming A8 flagship model that will allow semi-automated driving on the open road, with hands-and-feet-free motoring for longer periods than has been possible up to now.

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Indeed, the company unveiled a new concept, the Q8 sport concept, which featured a mild hybrid drive system that is designed to allow automated parking using an electric motor, too. That’s expected to flow through to the production A8 and Q8 after that.

Stadler said the pace of change is making the company think differently about how it operates within the changing parameters.

“Autonomous driving is so huge and so impactful that we internally said, ‘maybe it is worthwhile to concentrate much more in innovation and how we position the brand than running only for volume and the number one because this one … If you have the right products, if you have the right technology support, if the brand perception in terms of innovation, prestige, Vorsprung durch Technik is right, volume will be up,” Stadler said.

“Of course, it’s not the fight [to see] who will be [on top in] 2020, it is an ongoing fight year after year,” he said. “We see now at the moment that Mercedes is ramping up, but that doesn’t matter. So we have to find our way, how we progress with our brand.

“When you have a look on our stand, the glimpse of a Q8 could give you a little bit of a potential which will come out with a new design language,” he said. “What we are going to do with the next few months will be important for the organisation, because now it is upcoming Audi A8 with level three of piloted driving functions.

“Then we are coming with the A7, then it’s coming the A6, the Avant, the order that we work with the Q3, then it’s coming the A1, then it’s coming the better electric vehicle, and the Q8. And this will happen in 2018. So I’m a busy man. Believe me, my colleagues, I’m very busy!”

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On the topic of the future of autonomy and how Audi will roll out its technology, Stadler said that it will be a progressive rollout, starting with the so-called ‘level three’ autonomy in the A8.

“We will see it first of all, with different levels of autonomous driving. Today, everybody who has some certain driver assistance systems is operating on level two,” he said. “So, officially, we are not allowed to take off your hands [from the steering wheel]. So with the A8, we will have the technology, which is programmed that you can take off your hands.

“Then of course, the level four would be still a car with steering wheel, brake pedals, and gas pedals, but maybe it’s a different environment, so you can really relax,” he said. “Maybe if the steering wheel moves away, but it’s still on board.”

Level five autonomy will a different type of driving experience, according to Stadler, because there won’t be much, if any, driving done.

“Level five is, let’s call it, a ‘robo-taxi’. There is no brake or no gas or no steering wheel, because it is full autonomous driving which is level five. Believe me, we see now the complexity of software engineering with centrifusion, with camera laser technology, which has to come together on the A8.

“It is highly complex and I can imagine today, with the experience of the last two years, what could require level four and what will require level five.

“Of course, we are working on that technology. Within the Volkswagen Group, we took the responsibility to develop level five technology. We founded a company which is called Artificial Intelligence Driving. We will staff now the team with software engineers and whatever is needed,” he said. “Maybe it will be behind 2020.”

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