Audi’s Aicon is a self-driving 500-mile-range EV with its own drone

In late spring, I got an exclusive look at Audi’s Long Distance Lounge concept, a glimpse into a possible automotive future built around Level 5 autonomy. The spirit of that ambitious interior design study lives on in Audi’s new Frankfurt Motor Show star, the Aicon concept.

Audi’s worked a bit too hard to get “AI” — its name for various mobility technology — into the vehicle’s moniker. But unfortunate name aside, the sleek five-door EV seen here is loaded with interesting tech. Unusual features include fully digital exterior displays instead of traditional head and taillights, as well as a mini-drone that functions as a “light companion” to guide you to and from the vehicle at night. Clearly, this isn’t a car you can expect to see in your local Audi dealer in a few years’ time — it’s an ambitious, down-the-road look at how self-driving technology could transform luxury automobiles.

The Aicon’s size is tough to gauge in these images. You might think this is some sort of next-gen Tesla Model S killer, but it’s a bit bigger than that. Despite only offering a two-plus-two seating configuration, the Aicon is deceptively massive, spanning some 17.9 feet long — shadowing the Model S by a foot and a half. In fact, it’s over 9 inches longer than Audi’s new long-wheelbase A8, yet it sits lower. 26-inch wheels would be cartoonishly oversized on a more ordinarily scaled vehicle, but here, they don’t look out of place.

Each wheel is individually powered by an electric motor and total system power is given as 349 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. Those aren’t particularly impressive figures in this day and age, but bigger numbers aren’t as important because of this car’s focus on effortless long-range cruising over dynamic performance. The fully self-driving Aicon doesn’t have seat belts, let alone a steering wheel or pedals, so a total cruising range of around 500 miles is more important than spec-sheet metrics like 0-60 mph times or top speed. In fact, the German automaker hasn’t even bothered to release such performance stats.

Audi claims its slipstream Aicon can be charged to 80% of its solid-state battery pack’s capacity in under 30 minutes using an ultra-high-output 800-volt charging system, and the car includes wireless induction charging, either of which can be triggered without a driver stepping inside.

Given its fully autonomous nature, company designers believe traditional headlamps and taillamps will become superfluous, so instead, the Aicon’s face is covered in “light fields” that use 600 3D pixels each. The multicolor arrays allow for animations and various graphics that can be used to communicate the vehicle’s actions and intent to other motorists and pedestrians. Audi envisions the Aicon’s nose as having facial-like characteristics, including the ability for lights to expand “to resemble wide pupils or [be] squinted for an aggressive look. If the car detects passers-by or other road users, it literally makes eye contact with them and follows them with its ‘eyes.'”

Audi Aicon concept - Frankfurt Motor ShowEnlarge Image

A sleek, U-shaped dashboard does without a steering wheel or pedals.

Audi

Despite its innovative exterior, it’s the Aicon’s cabin that may be its most futuristic feature. Like Audi’s aforementioned Long Distance Lounge concept, this showcar’s cabin is notable for its generous proportions and furniture-like swivel-and-slide lounge chairs that can be positioned for work or relaxation.

A horseshoe-shaped dashboard that rings the two main seats employs touch-sensitive panels, but you can interact with the car using voice commands, too. The system even uses eye-tracking cameras to help simplify menu selections. Up above, OLED lighting and a glass roof with electrochromic variable opacity set the mood.

It’ll likely be many, many years before you’ll see anything like the Aicon in driveways. In the meantime, thanks to its generous dimensions, ultra-posh interior and some autonomous tech of its own, Audi’s new 2019 A8 may just be the next best thing.

Porsche 911 GT3 Touring Package aims for subtlety

It’s hard out there for a person who wants a performance car but doesn’t want the aesthetics that come with it. Thankfully, Porsche recognizes this group, and it’s built an options package for the 2018 911 GT3 to suit their subtlety.

The Porsche 911 GT3 Touring Package maintains a low profile without losing any of the GT3’s capability. Since the standard GT3 features a rather large rear wing, the Touring Package does away with that, replacing it with an automatically extending rear spoiler similar to other 911 variants.

Not everyone wants a car as flashy as its performance specs belie.

Porsche

Purists will enjoy the fact that the Touring Package is only available with the six-speed manual transmission. Think of it as a 911 R, but without the stripes or the additional weight-loss regimen. As a matter of fact, as if by magic, the GT3 with the Touring Package is exactly the same curb weight as the manual GT3 without the package.

At 3,116 pounds, the 911 R is about 95 pounds lighter than the GT3 Touring Package, but that doesn’t affect straight-line performance all that much. You’ll still arrive at 60 mph in 3.8 seconds — same as the standard 6MT GT3 — although with a top speed of 196 mph, you’re down by 1-2 mph compared to the big-winged GT3 variants. The engine remains a 4.0-liter flat-6 putting out 500 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque.

If you think that’s the end of it, it’s not. The interior gets a little fancier, too, thanks to a standard leather-finish GT Sport steering wheel, with that leather extending to the shift lever, armrests, center console and interior door handles. Four-way power sport seats with an embossed Porsche crest are standard, but you can upgrade to 18-way adaptive seats or proper buckets if you want to drop additional coin.

Speaking of coin, Porsche traditionally loves to charge buyers for the privilege of removing items from vehicles, or making the interior fancier, but the 911 GT3 Touring Package is different. It’s actually the exact same price as the standard GT3 — $143,600, before destination and taxes and all that good stuff. If you want to tear it up on the track without all eyes on your big ol’ wing, and feel a little fancier in the process, the GT3’s Touring Package is a hell of a deal.

Tech Tent: Facts, faces and the Nissan Leaf

Nissan’s new Leaf

Every week seems to bring more news of the move to electric motoring with many of the headlines centring on Tesla. Its Model 3 has been touted as the Model T Ford of the electric era, bringing an affordable battery-powered car to the mass market.

Launch of Nissan LeafImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe new version of the Leaf gives the car an extended range between re-charges

But maybe a traditional car company could be better placed to do that. The Nissan Leaf has been neck and neck with Tesla’s Model S as the world’s best-selling electric car – and this week the Japanese company unveiled a major upgrade to the car, giving it a much improved range.

Mind you, just how far it will go is somewhat unclear because there are a number of different methods of measuring that. The Japanese method gives it a range of 400km (250 miles), the European one reckons it will go for 230 miles, while the American system says it will go 150 miles before you need to plug it in.

Nikki Gordon Bloomfield, who does a weekly podcast about electric vehicles and was at the Tokyo launch, reckons the American range calculation is the most realistic. That is some way short of the Tesla Model 3’s 220-mile range, but she says Nissan won’t be too worried: “Nissan is not Tesla, nor does it want to be – it’s selling a car for mainstream buyers.”

She says that while there is some impressive technology in the Leaf there is nothing too flashy which might scare off those mainstream buyers, who are the target market as opposed to the early adopters who drool over the Tesla’s futuristic features.

But there is certainly plenty of room for both companies. Electric car sales are surging, up 38% in Europe in the first quarter of 2017. But they still represent just 2% of all cars sold.

What’s in a face?

Facial recognition is a technology that has come a long way in recent years. It is used in mobile phones as a means of secure login, at borders to automate the checking of passports, and by various law enforcement agencies to spot suspects or previous offenders.

Dancers at Notting Hill CarnivalImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionPolice use of facial recognition at London’s Notting Hill Carnival was controversial

But it’s also very controversial – here in Britain there was an outcry over its use at the recent annual Notting Hill carnival, with accusations that it amounted to a form of racial profiling.

Tom Standage of the Economist, which has a special report this week on facial recognition, says computers are now much better than we are at recognising faces, one of a number of areas where feeding vast amounts of data into machines enables them to surpass human capabilities.

But a new study by Stanford University scientists shows how the technology could pose privacy dilemmas. The researchers showed a computer about 14,000 photos taken from an online dating site where the subjects identified themselves as gay or straight. It was then able to determine, with a greater accuracy than a human who was gay or straight, just by examining photos.

But, as Mr Standage points out, even if the algorithm appears pretty accurate when examining dating site photos, where people present themselves in a certain way, in other circumstances it will turn up plenty of false positives. Then how would we feel about its use in a country with repressive attitudes towards homosexuality?

Facts don’t matter online

There’s a well-known cartoon featuring a woman asking a man when he’s coming to bed who then says: “I can’t – someone is wrong on the internet.” It sums up just how we can be drawn into arguments online with people who seem to be immune to reason.

But a neuroscientist at University College London says we are probably wasting our time if we think facts will change people’s minds. Tali Sharot has written a book called The Influential Mind about how the methods we use in argument don’t work because they don’t fit with the way the mind operates.

People arguingImage copyrightCAMILOTORRES
Image captionOnline rows cannot be settled by quoting facts, suggests research

She says the sheer volume of information now available on the internet is actually making things worse: “You can find information that supports anything you want to – and people do.” So if you believe the world is flat or that vaccines cause autism, you can find material online to back up your beliefs.

“What we need to realise is fighting the confirmation bias is not very helpful,” says Dr Sharot. “We can’t change millions of years of evolution – our brains work in a certain way.”

It seems a counsel of despair for anyone who believes that facts matter. But there is a cunning way of getting people to change their minds.

Dr Sharot points to a group of scientists who took a different approach when trying to convince parents that vaccines were not linked to autism. Instead of confronting them head on with studies that showed there was no link, they accepted the parents’ beliefs and instead talked to them about the good things vaccines did – such as keeping children safe from measles or mumps.

“They highlighted something everyone agreed on,” she says. This approach proved far more effective at changing minds than just a bald laying out of facts.

And do not feel smug in the belief that you are far too smart to be dogmatic about your beliefs even when you are shown evidence to the contrary. Dr Sharot says the research shows that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to have a confirmation bias.

The new king of the hypercars

With Project One, Mercedes-AMG is ushering in a new era of hypercars. It’s been a few years since the world had a proper, new all-conquering machine on the market. The last trio — the McLaren P1, Ferrari laFerrari and Porsche 918 — all having ended their production runs. And, while the phenomenal Bugatti Chiron is still just getting up to production speed, that’s a velvet rocket, not so much a trackday dominator, the sort of thing we’ve been missing. Now, we have our first look at the next one.

With over 1,000 horsepower in a low, lightweight package, Mercedes-AMG promises that Project One will offer performance on-par with a Formula One car in a package that is not only road-legal, but that anyone can buy. Anyone who is phenomenally wealthy, anyhow.

This is a proper road car, a machine that seats two in relative comfort — relative that is compared to an average hypercar, which is typically striped bare to offer the most trackday performance. We haven’t seen much of the interior, but it looks far more accommodating than an F1 car, while stealing a few of its tricks. Most notably? A steering wheel that has most of the important right on it. Valuable, this, given the driver will be lying practically prone when driving this car.

Yes, that’s less horsepower than the phenomenal Bugatti Chiron, but in a package that is surely, substantially lighter. Mercedes says that this car will accelerate not to 60, but to 125 miles-per hour in less than six seconds. It will hit a top speed in excess of 217 mph and can do that despite having a V6 engine that’s just 1.6 liters in displacement. That’s smaller than what you’ll find under the hood of a Ford Focus!

Mercedes-AMG Project One
Not a bad place to be, right?

Daimler AG

Of course, what’s here is augmented by electric turbocharging and not one but four electric motors. Two of those are situated on the front axle, much like an Acura NSX, which Mercedes-AMG expects will allow the car to regenerate up to 80 percent of its braking force to recharge the onboard batteries.

But, it won’t just be fast. Daimler Chairman Dr. Zetsche said that the car offers a thermal efficiency of 40 percent, meaning it will get far more energy from burned gasoline than your average car, and beyond that will be able to drive 25 km (about 16 miles) using just electric power if you want to get somewhere quietly.

Two figures are missing, though. The first is how many Mercedes-AMG will build, and Dr. Z already indicated that some people are bound to be “disappointed” as there won’t be many. Just 275 of the cars will be produced at a cost of €2.275 each. That’s about $2.72 million by today’s exchange rates, just slightly cheaper than that Chiron. A bargain, then.

BMW will offer 12 full-electric cars to catch up with Tesla

MUNICH — BMW Group will offer 25 electrified vehicles, including 12 EVs, by 2025 as it prepares to unveil a new four-door zero-emissions model at the Frankfurt auto show, the automaker said in a statement.

“By 2025, we will offer 25 electrified vehicles – 12 will be fully-electric,” CEO Harald Krueger told journalists at an event in Munich, adding that electric cars will have a range of up to 700 km (435 miles).

The Frankfurt show, which starts next week, will be used to unveil a new four-door electric car positioned between the i3 city car and the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, Krueger said.

The four-door model, a low-slung sedan, was kept under wraps as BMW showed journalists around its Munich design headquarters on Thursday. It is set to go on sale by 2021. BMW declined to specify its name. Motoring press reports said the sedan is likely to be called the i5.

“We will be increasing the share of electrified models across all brands and model series. And, yes, that also includes the Rolls-Royce brand and BMW M vehicles,” Krueger said.

BMW is investing in its factories to enable all of its models to be equipped with all variants of powertrain by 2020, including fully electric variants, should demand for zero-emission vehicles take off.

BMW plans to unveil an electric Mini at the Frankfurt show, which will go on sale in 2019. The first electric version of a BMW core brand model, the X3 SUV, will follow in 2020, Krueger said.

i brand revival

In future, all EVs from the BMW brand will belong to the i subbrand, he said.

New longer-range battery technology is facilitating the revival of the “i” sub-brand, which hasn’t been assigned a new car since the i8 in 2014.

“We wanted to have a sufficient range that’s coming with the next technology jump,” Krueger said. For the green-car sub-brand, “there wasn’t a big gap. We planned it.”

Consumer demand for the i3, which was launched in 2013, has been sluggish due to concerns about its limited driving range and high price. But with the new regulations coming into force, automakers have little option but to make electric cars more appealing, especially as consumers shy away from diesel in the aftermath of Volkswagen Group’s cheating scandal.

“The environment is changing, it’s much more tense,” Klaus Froehlich, BMW’s development chief, said at the event. “Because of the actions of some, and I emphasize some, the credibility of our industry has been severely compromised.”

BMW, which lost its luxury-car sales crown to Mercedes-Benz last year, is looking to claw back its leadership role. That includes being more aggressive with next-generation technology, especially electric cars as European environmental rules tighten starting in 2020. BMW’s push is similar to Mercedes’ plans, which involves the EQ sub-brand.

U.S. House unanimously approves sweeping self-driving car measure

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Wednesday unanimously approved a sweeping proposal to speed the deployment of self-driving cars without human controls and bar states from blocking autonomous vehicles.

The bill now goes to the Senate and would allow automakers to obtain exemptions to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles without meeting existing auto safety standards in the first year, a cap that would rise to 100,000 vehicles annually over three years.

Automakers and technology companies, including General Motors and Google’s self-driving affiliate Waymo, have been pushing for new federal rules making it easier to deploy self-driving technology.

Meanwhile, some consumer groups have sought additional safeguards.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has been working on similar legislation and could circulate a draft of the measure this week. One sticking point will be whether to include commercial self-driving trucks in the legislation. The House measure does not include large trucks.

Volkswagen AG and many other automakers have been lobbying Congress to act, often bringing test vehicles to Capitol Hill to give lawmakers a chance to test out driverless cars.

The issue has taken on new urgency since U.S. road deaths rose 7.7 percent in 2015, the highest annual jump since 1966.

Current federal rules bar self-driving cars without human controls on U.S. roads and automakers think proposed state rules in California are too restrictive.

The measure, the first significant federal legislation aimed at speeding self-driving cars to market, would require automakers to submit safety assessment reports to regulators, but would not require pre-market approval of advanced vehicle technologies.

Initially, authors proposed to allow automakers and others to sell up to 100,000 vehicles immediately.

Manufacturers must demonstrate self-driving cars winning exemptions are at least as safe as existing vehicles.

Under the House proposal, states could still set rules on registration, licensing, liability, insurance and safety inspections, but could not set self-driving car performance standards.

Consumer advocates have sought more changes, including giving NHTSA quicker access to crash data and more funding to oversee self-driving cars.

Reuters reported Tuesday that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will unveil revised self-driving guidelines on Tuesday in Ann Arbor, Mich., citing sources. The department confirmed late Tuesday it plans to unveil the new guidelines next week.

GM said in a statement that “while more work is needed,” the House measure is “good progress toward a law that will facilitate realization of the safety, mobility, and environmental benefits of self-driving vehicles.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and coalitions of groups backing automated vehicles, including vehicle and auto parts trade associations, and groups representing the blind, praised passage.