A recent teardown of the Audi A8 reveals exactly why, from both a technological and economic standpoint, achieving higher levels of autonomy for vehicles has been harder than anyone originally expected. Audi’s experience with the A8 consequently remains relevant today.
When Audi launched its redesigned A8 sedan at the end of 2017, the company touted it as the auto industry’s first Level 3 car. The entire automotive industry is still contending with technological issues and unfamiliar cost structures that confronted Audi back then. The teardown conducted by System Plus provides valuable insights into a few questions:
What does it take to pull off a Level 3 car?
What’s included in the A8 sensor suite?
How much processing power does a Level 3 car require?
Is it GPU, SoC, CPU or FPGA driving Audi’s central driver assistance controller called zFAS?
How much does zFAS cost?
It can be instructive how Audi achieved Level 3 functionality using chips that had been on the market, and were already tried and tested in other applications, especially in comparison with Tesla, which two years later (2019) launched its “Full Self Driving Computer” board which relies heavily on two home-grown self-driving chips.
System Plus teardowns include analyses that go beyond simply reverse engineering and identifying hardware elements. The firm also performs “reverse costing” — estimating how much it must have cost a company to source specific components and build its products. System Plus’ reverse costing of the A8 shows that 60% of the cost of zFAS — estimated to be $290 — is driven by the cost of semiconductors. This is hardly startling, since 80 to 85 percent of the content in modern cars is electronics. That wasn’t the startling thing about the costs, however.
Margin The real shocker to car OEM, said Romain Fraux, CEO at System Plus Consulting, is that no automotive companies were mentally prepared to pay a 50 percent margin per component — as charged by Nvidia, Intel and others for their flagship chip solutions. This opened the door to a whole new world for automotive OEMs, prompting them to rethink the calculus of highly automated vehicles.
The System Plus teardown/cost estimate does not include the cost of software development for automated vehicles. However, the use of an FPGA (Altera Cyclone) inside zFAS shows Audi’s attempt to preserve the own software assets it had already developed.
Over the last 18 months, some leading OEMs have begun hinting their desire to design their own autonomous vehicle chips, a la Tesla. This approach enables them to control their own destiny in terms of hardware and software development. However, given the high cost of chip designs, it’s far from clear if car OEMs are better off going it alone.
Another important aspect of A8 is that Audi brought to the market the first commercial vehicle, among all the car OEMs, to show a path to autonomy.
At the time of A8 launch, the technology inside the vehicle was pitched as an “automated driving breakthrough,” featuring a system called Traffic Jam Pilot. When activated, Traffic Jam Pilot supposedly relieves human drivers from the ordeal of negotiating stop-and-go traffic.
But these best-laid plans collided with a “handoff problem” (to alert and engage a distracted human when the computer falters) that has dogged the very concept of the Level-3 vehicles since the beginning.
Today, A8s are on the streets, but none has its Level 3 autonomy features activated and operating in the real world.
That’s not a knock on Audi, however. The A8 made it clear to the AV industry what it’s up against. Industry leaders must sort out every regulatory, technical, safety, behavioral, legal and business-related complication before they can tout the utopian future of robocars. This partly explains growing momentum behind safety standards setting among car OEMs, Tier Ones, chip suppliers and technology and service companies (i.e. Waymo, Uber).
A8 under the hood
The challenge for automotive manufacturers will no longer be offering the most speed, or the best acceleration from zero to 100 km/h, but to ensure increasingly advanced autonomous driving and assistance systems. This is the goal of the Audi A8 with Level 3 self-drive, the first to used Lidar technology.
The A8’s sensor suite also includes cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors. The Audi A8 will autonomously manage driving on the most congested roads without a driver’s intervention. Audi specifies that the driver can keep his or her hands off the steering wheel at all times and, depending on local laws and regulations, can engage in other activities such as watching TV onboard. The vehicle can perform most driving tasks, but human override is still required (figure 1).
Fraux ran down the list the innovative technology inside the Audi A8: “Audi is the first car with Level 3 autonomy. The Traffic Jam Pilot system installed on the Audi A8 takes charge of driving in slow-moving traffic at up 60 km/h on freeways and highways, using sensor fusion and the world’s first laser scanner.” (Note: This Level 3 feature, however, has never been activated to date)
Former beat reporter, bureau chief, and editor in chief of EE Times, Junko Yoshida now spends a lot of her time covering the global electronics industry with a particular focus on China. Her beat has always been emerging technologies and business models that enable a new generation of consumer electronics. She is now adding the coverage of Chinaâ€™s semiconductor manufacturers, writing about machinations of fabs and fabless manufacturers. In addition, she covers automotive, Internet of Things, and wireless/networking for EE Times' Designlines. She has been writing for EE Times since 1990.