Eastern innovation: the international show CES launches its first edition in China
'The car is the biggest tech gadget,' declared Audi chairman Rupert Stadler at the opening ceremony for CES Asia. This is the first time the leading consumer electronics show has been held in China. Although still substantially smaller than the main event in Las Vegas, it has big ambitions to grow in size, and a clear vision to be the voice of innovation in Asia.
'Shanghai is the city of the future,' followed Gary Shapiro, explaining why, as the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, he chose the country's creative hub to host this inaugural event.
The technology was certainly prominent. The following day we were introduced to a selfie drone and a robotic chef as well as the usual panoply of electric gadgets, wearable tech, personal transporters, bluetooth headphones and curved TV screens, all displayed at the shiny new expo centre in the Pudong district. Yet it was a self-driving concept vehicle from Audi that took centre stage.
The marque chose the occasion to unveil the ultimate piloted car. The semi-autonomous R8 e-tron is a 456bhp supercar powered by electricity and steered by a computer. This is a highly advanced machine that's intended to single-handedly address all our concerns about future mobility - sustainability, connectivity and digitalisation.
The e-tron is a tech gadget like no other. Piloted driving offers a bridge between the present and a future of fully autonomous motoring. When stuck in traffic jams, for example, or with a need to deal with an urgent text, the computer takes over and the car is manoeuvred autonomously so you have time to save your arms , feet and reflexes for the open, twisty road, where the R8 e-tron's dynamic brilliance comes into its own.
At the heart of piloting is Audi's central driver assistance control unit (zFAS), designed to process information from exterior sensors to generate a detailed picture of the vehicle's environment. The new electronics architecture sees the hardware separated from the mechanical side so the electronics, with a typically shorter life cycle, can be frequently updated without the need to invest in updating the entire car. Audi has a lead on the technology, first shown in last year's piloted A7, which we were briefly chauffeured in around Shanghai.
Precarious local driving habits certainly added flavour. Whilst the A7 stayed politely in the middle lane, local cars overtook and undercut without warning at terrifying speeds as our on-board expert explained that Audi is investigating local driving habits to help configure regional driverless cars. Shanghai, he concluded rather nervously, may require a few extra sensors.
The computer will only take control if traffic conditions allow it and on straightforward routes. It will drive up to 60mph after which it alerts the human driver to take control. If this fails, the car will go into emergency mode igniting the hazard lights and slowing down to a halt then notifying relevant rescue services to respond. Thankfully we didn't get to experience this.
The technology is impressive. Google in particular has made great strides in this direction, with Apple reportedly waiting in the wings, yet Audi will be the first car manufacturer to offer a piloted production car when the next generation piloted A8 is unveiled in just two years time.
The company is convinced of the importance of autonomous motoring. In his speech Stadler reminded us that nine out of ten accidents are caused by human error. 'Piloted driving has the potential to make driving safer,' he offered.
Launching the R8 e-tron in China is a testimony to the significance of the country for Audi. China is now its largest single market. It is also a relatively youthful one with the average Audi driver aged 36, compared to the middle-aged demographics in Europe and the US. The needs and wants are therefore completely different in China.
Saad Metz, head of Audi research and development in Asia, says the key here is to localise projects, to find solutions that answer the needs of locals. A centre in Beijing was established two years ago expressly for trend scouting and defining specs for the region.
He says: 'the conditions we face in China are the most challenging from their roads to harsh weather conditions. The traffic in megacities and the multi-story road arrangements call for a complex navigation technology.' It also means forming strategic regional partnerships with software provides, the likes of Cubic Telecom, Huawei and Baidu - all announced at CES.
'We are experiencing a digital revolution stronger than the industrial revolution. The question is how we shape the digital future,' says Stadler, before adding, 'and we are ready to take risks.'