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The off-roader of the future uses drones to light the way

11 September 2019

Audi’s electric off-roader, the Audi AI:TRAIL quattro, combines the capacity for automated driving with off-road capabilities and ample battery capacity.

Audi AI:TRAIL quattro concept goes off-piste (Credit: Audi)

The glass surrounding the cabin extends all the way to ground level, providing unrivalled all-round visibility. The ample battery capacity ensures sufficient range even away from dense networks of charging stations.

The “Trail” part of the name evokes the idea of exploring nature. That is why there are no big screens on board for streaming TV series or videoconferencing; instead, broad glass surfaces provide a clear view of the surroundings. 

This is how Marc Lichte, Audi’s Head of Design, describes the use case: “With the AI:TRAIL, we are showing an off-road concept with an emissions-free electric drive for an innovative driving experience away from paved roads. Consistent with this, we designed a monolithic basic vehicle body with maximum glazing to create an intense connection to the surroundings. A concept for sustainable mobility on demand.”

Helicopter-style all-round visibility

The windscreen wraps around the front of the vehicle like the cockpit of a helicopter. Passengers have an unobstructed view of the road or trail both in front and to the sides. Nor is it just the front and sides that are transparent and covered in glass. Almost the entire roof, from the top of the windscreen to the rear spoiler, allows a clear view of the sky and the landscape. Even the vertical Singleframe is glazed, with only the four rings of the badge sitting in their customary position in what is otherwise a glass octagon.

Both the windscreen and the tailgate open wide, providing easy access to large storage compartments with straps to keep luggage secure in transit. Integrated in the bumper at the rear is another separate compartment for dirty items such as hiking boots, climbing gear or wet clothing.

The side sills beneath the opposing doors act as retractable running boards. This makes it easier to load and unload the roof rack. Instead of bulky wheel wells, horizontal wings are all that sit above the four wheels. That makes it possible to see the suspension in action from the cockpit even during travel.

Bulky transverse links and MacPherson suspension struts with coil springs and adaptive dampers provide suitable robustness and ensure safe driving stability. The special tyre design becomes apparent at first glance, as the profile appears to be drawn all the way up into the high tire sidewalls. However, behind it lies a structure of supporting struts, which are integrated in the treads, and the actual surface. This design allows the tyres themselves – in addition to the suspension struts – to contribute a further 60mm of suspension travel. Aside from improved off-road capability, this provides the occupants with an enormous amount of additional comfort.

Audi AI:TRAIL quattro concept goes off-piste (Credit: Audi)

The tyres also feature variable, sensor-controlled air pressure regulation. Optical sensors and electronic stability control (ESC) work together to detect the condition of the road surface and adjust the air pressure in the tyres accordingly. As regards traction, it can be useful to reduce the pressure, such as when driving on sand, and thereby increase the tyre contact patch. By the same token, increasing the pressure again when switching to asphalt increases drive stability.

Eyes in the sky

Mobility and multi-functionality are features of the Audi AI:TRAIL’s light sources as well. Instead of conventional headlights, self-contained light sources sit below the A-pillars and can shine both outward and inward. These LED elements are dimmable and adjustable and can be used as interior lighting as well as for lighting the vehicle’s path. The rear light operates in a similar way. Extending across the full width of the rear section, this element can be used to illuminate the luggage compartment and as distinctive signature lighting for the exterior.

Instead of conventional low beams and high beams, the Audi AI:TRAIL is equipped with a total of five rotorless, triangular, electrically operated drones with integrated matrix LED elements. They are capable of landing on a roof rack or directly on the roof of the vehicle and docking onto the inductive charging elements.

The flying objects are Audi Light Pathfinders, which generate their lift in the same way as bladeless fans produce their air flow. Thanks to their markedly lightweight design, they can fly ahead of the AI:TRAIL, consuming comparably little energy in the process, and illuminate the path ahead, thereby replacing headlights entirely. If desired, the on-board cameras generate a video image that can be transmitted to the display in front of the driver via Wi-Fi, turning the Pathfinders into eyes in the sky.

When the AI:TRAIL is stationary, the drones can also illuminate the surrounding area from their position on the roof; for example, when the occupants are enjoying a picnic next to the vehicle. They can also illuminate the interior through the transparent panoramic roof if the occupants prefer to remain inside the vehicle.

The drones, which are coordinated fully automatically by the AI:TRAIL, usually fly at least in pairs. If necessary, they can also provide additional light intensity or illuminate the area around the vehicle by coming together to form groups of up to five drones. The occupants can simply use control software on their smartphones to set their desired scenario.

Audi AI:TRAIL quattro concept goes off-piste (Credit: Audi)

The Audi Light Companion is just as easy to use. This is a light source that is shaped like a large flashlight but has a much more extensive range of functions. It is normally magnetically attached to the front side of the seat, where it acts as ambient lighting. However, you can also take the Light Companion with you when you leave the AI:TRAIL, and this is when it really shows what it can do. Integrated in its housing are three legs that can be used to stand the light in place and turn it into a campfire light or a close-range floodlight. The housing also accommodates several cameras that can scan the way ahead or take videos of the scenery, which can then be uploaded directly so social media.

However, that is not the end of the Audi Light Companion’s talents. When integrated with the AI:TRAIL’s navigation system, it is capable of projecting directional symbols and even written information onto a route and thereby helping AI:TRAIL users to find their way around when hiking.

Automated driving on roads, driver assistance in rough terrain

What is already established in rail transportation and aviation is now at the threshold of a breakthrough in automotive transportation – automated driving. The Audi AI:TRAIL is designed for driving on roads up to level 4.

Level 4 is the second-highest level on a standardised international scale for increasing automation. Although systems in this category do not require any assistance on the part of the driver, their function is limited to a specific area – such as highways or areas of inner cities equipped with suitable infrastructure. In these places, the driver can completely transfer the task of driving to the system. The driver needs to resume the task only when the car leaves the area defined for fully automated driving. The Audi AI:TRAIL is therefore equipped with the traditional steering wheel and pedals.

The driver will need them when going off road at the latest. After all, although even unpaved dirt tracks and forest paths have been mapped extensively through digital cartography, the way in which their surfaces frequently erode makes them too variable to allow their limits and any damage to be digitalised for automated driving reliably and for any extended period. Automated driving in the reduced-speed level 3 range can therefore be possible on dirt roads only in exceptional cases and at low speeds. In these situations, the driver will have several seconds to take over.

But the sensors and assist systems don’t leave the driver of the AI:TRAIL alone, even off-road. First of all, there is the tried and tested sensor system for the ESP on board, of course. The data for friction values and slip, longitudinal and lateral acceleration provide the electronics with all necessary parameters they need in order to optimize drive stability. There is also a whole range of sensors that can detect both the road surface and obstacles; they work with optical systems such as cameras and lasers, as well as with ultrasound and radar. The data that they provide enables the central driver assistance system to avoid collisions by intervening with the steering and braking as needed.

The electronics also assist the driver with conquering uneven stretches, for example when the vehicle is in a tilted position or on particularly challenging inclines. Where necessary, the systems warn the driver when critical limits are about to be exceeded, such as ground clearance or angles of incidence that are difficult to control. They can also keep the vehicle on track, within the limits of the system – much like a lane-keeping assist working in concert with cruise control. Depending on the circumstances, this puts the vehicle at automation level 2. However, it requires the driver to be paying attention at all times. The smart assistance systems do provide effective support, definitely help to improve safety and take a significant amount of the strain off the driver.


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