driverless cars

Audi's CES laser light show

January 8, 2014: 1:11 PM ET

In Las Vegas, the German automaker unveiled its new headlight technology along with some of its "piloted driving" systems.

By Doron Levin

140108123013-audi-laser-light-620xaFORTUNE -- Among the innovative technologies that distinguish today's cars from the flivvers of yesteryear are headlights. Conventional halogen bulbs begat xenon which begat LED (light emitting diodes), now all the rage and featured in several luxury models.

Audi is stepping things up a notch with laser light headlamps. The advanced system is roughly three times as powerful as the German automaker's current LED and will be able to project light the length of about five football fields.

"We will be the first brand to put laser lights into production," said Ulrich Hackenberg, top technical executive for Audi and its parent, Volkswagen AG (VLKPY). Audi's entry in the 2014 LeMans endurance race will be equipped with the lamps.

Hackenberg was speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, increasingly a venue that automakers are using to display cutting-edge electronic technologies used in cars. He referred to "my team of 10,000 engineers."

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BMW, one of Audi's German archrivals in the luxury space, also is developing laser light technology, likely for use on its i-series electric vehicles. The light comes from phosphorescent material excited by the lasers, rather from the lasers themselves. For some consumers, a car's electronic gadgetry can be a bigger draw than fuel efficiency.

Hackenberg said he is confident the laser light system will meet with regulatory approval. Audi's Matrix LED headlamp system, featured in an advertisement for the A8 luxury sedan during the 2012 Super Bowl, so far has been banned in the U.S. due to a regulatory hangup (a 1960s-era regulation that requires high-beams to be switchable on and off), despite its apparent technical sophistication. He added that Matrix LEDs, will become "available in even more Audi models and more countries, including the U.S."

Audi, employing 10,000 engineers worldwide, has been pushing to attract customers to its upscale models by dint of technical wizardry in a number of categories other than the usual, styling, and engine performance.

Ricky Hudi, head of Audi's electronic research and development, said the company is refining so-called piloted driving systems, which some regard as precursors to cars of the not-too-distant future that can drive -- or very nearly drive -- themselves.

In contrast to Google (GOOG), which is working to create a driverless vehicle system for commercial use, Audi and other automakers are more circumspect about defining such a goal, even though they concede it's a possible outcome of research and development efforts.

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"The new systems will take over the driving in certain situations," said Hudi, "making it more comfortable and safer. Nevertheless, it always remains the driver's choice to turn over the wheel."

In a demonstration of "traffic jam assist," an Audi system not yet offered commercially, a test driver was able to take his hands off the wheel at low speeds. The vehicle remained in its lane, following the car in front of it at a predetermined distance, braking and accelerating as required.

But the "traffic jam assist" isn't yet foolproof, occasionally requiring correction from the driver. Audi engineers said they weren't worried that glitches would be reduced to a minimal level, allowing the system to be introduced within a few years.

Audi has staked out territory among the technology leaders in luxury automobiles, stoking a competition that's producing unimaginable features. For anyone who drives these up-to-date cars for the first time, the effect will be quite startling.

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