Let There Be Light
Die deutsche Übersetzung gibt es hier.
The United Nations have declared 2015 the year of light and light-based technologies.
What better way to celebrate this than to visit the one car maker who sees automotive lighting and its advancement as one of their signature technologies, and core field of expertise?
Thus I found myself on a foggy Tuesday in the heart of the world of Audi, Ingolstadt.
A surprising but welcome invitation by their social media team (thank you Enrico!) was the cause. The motivation, my substantial interest in all technologies aiming to make night into day, signified by the two full-LED headlight cars in our garage - though none as clever as what I was about to see.
The event started in the cinema of the Audi museum mobile of the Ingolstadt Forum. A core part (besides the short film) was the passionate speech by Audi head of light design, Mr. Cesar Muntada Roura.
Talking about the important role light plays in our lives from when we are born, he introduced us to the motivation to bring that light into the night as well - to make driving without the sun safer, and more enjoyable.
Afterwards, the main part of the event began, with a transfer to the brand-new lighting assistance centre, within the engineering and development complex of Audi.
We were greeted by a 120 metres long “light tunnel”. Sitting in front of it, something under wraps.
That something, of course, was nothing less than the new R8, which will be revealed soon, or has just been revealed, depending on when you read this.
That day, however, it would be staying under wraps, revealing only some of its light function, courtesy of remote control by the head of development of lighting innovations, Stephan Berlitz.
Still, it was quite impressive to see first the low beam, illuminating only a small part of the light tunnel, then the main beam, illuminating the rest - somewhat at least.
Not content yet, the good folks at Audi decided the wild hog figurine at the end of the tunnel needed to be revealed even more, so the R8 got laser light, too.
Over 120m, this made the difference between a dimly lit hog (LED high beam), and a quite confused one, because suddenly the night turned into bright day (laser beam).
This of course was quite an effective demonstration, showing the sheer length of Audi's magnificent new lighting test tunnel, hinting at the exciting new R8 and proving that before laser light, drivers were quite blind at night. With laser light, the hogs will be.
A new Q7 was standing right besides the new R8, and subsequently got little to no attention. It is thusly not pictured here. It was quite blue.
Next, we were divided into three groups, to complete three “work shops” - more demonstrations than work, really, but pretty much the highlight (!) of the event.
Our group first went to the “dynamic” part, and was greeted by…the future.
Well, not as futuristic as some of the later stuff we would be shown, but we didn't know that yet. So, the modeled rear of a car complete with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) “tail lights” appeared already quite futuristic.
The model demonstrated some of the functions such an - effectively - OLED screen could provide. Instead of being static, light was flowing constantly and in relation to the movement of the car, getting faster and slower, moving from side to side in turns, showing animated indicators and pulsating furiously under braking.
All the functions were quite basic, and therefore intuitive, understandable to all participants even before it was explained.
We were then shown the taillights of the still-current R8, demonstrating its dynamic indicator, which does not just go on and off, but goes from inside to out. As the name says, dynamically indicating the direction of turn.
Another, much lesser-known function of these taillights was also presented, the dynamic brake lights. You will normally never see these, as they only work under full, emergency braking, flashing red to get more attention of following drivers and, when come to a stop, automatically engaging the hazard lights.
Further exhibits at this part included the design model of a “net” headlight, aiming to make the light patterns and functions more 3D than today, and therefore more intuitive to detect and understand.
Also, the LED / Laser light of the Sport quattro Laserlight Concept was there in all its refined glory.
And another concept from a few years before, the A2 made an appearance. Well, its door. Or part of it. But complete with fibre-optic side lights. Fancy.
Another exhibit was the Matrix-LED headlight of a completely new model, which will enter production soon. We were not allowed to take any photographs ourselves and did not get any from the press people. Even if, I could probably only show it here if I shot you afterwards.
Educated guesses as to which new model this headlight would appear in were neither denied nor confirmed. It probably starts with an A. Likely ends with a number between 5 and 3.
What I can say, it looked very good. And should be even better, efficient and cheaper to make than the first-generation Matrix-LEDs in the A6-A8 and TT. Progress.
The next workshop was called “interaction”. Now with even more futuristic…future.
The first item we were to be amazed by was a 3D-screen demonstration of designing the Matrix-LED headlights for the new Q7.
We were shown how the designers and engineers are enabled by this technology to realistically view the headlights, both within the car and “exploded” into their parts. It was then possible to easily see the effect of design changes, for example the different impression made by choice of materials ranging from plastic to brushed steel or carbon fibre.
Next was the “Virtual Engineering Terminal”, which demonstrated different lighting functions by manipulating model cars and touchscreen interface on the lower screen, all of which was reflected on the upper screen.
Functions shown included the dimming of the high beam when recognizing other traffic, directing light around and even between other cars.
The up and coming laser lights also enable a variety of functions. First and foremost of course the vastly increased range, which was shown in comparison to “normal” LED high-beams again.
It should be pointed out that the intention with these laser lights is not necessarily to see 600m ahead, which is often not possible anyways due to pesky things like, say, geography.
However, even then the clear benefit of laser light is that there is much more of it at shorter distances as well. You may not always be able to see farther, but certainly brighter, and thus better.
Other functions enabled by the precise laser light beams are markers, e.g. for things like street side-markings, or to show the width of your car when approaching narrow situations like road works. So now you will know precisely when it is not a good idea to try and squeeze past that lorry.
While all that is technically quite possible already and in or at least not too far from production, the OLED design model we gazed upon next was certainly much more futuristic.
The “car” had OLED elements across the whole body, and was shown to react to approaching people (or at least the Audi™ keys in their pockets) by illuminating different parts of the car, for example door handles. The OLED elements were also inside the model, creating a vision of colour-changing and pulsating future interior lights which have so far only been known to keen users of LSD.
Going back to safety, we were shown the prototype of a laser rear fog light. This has the charming effect of being extremely visible only in actual foggy conditions, and drawing a kind of “marker” about 25m behind the car, on the street. This acts like a (psychological) barrier following you, making it a bit easier for BMW drivers to keep their distance.
Technically, this might even be available for production, but legislative hurdles keep it away from the streets so far.
Audi hopes to resolve this soon, however.
Before moving to the really crazy stuff, an interior lighting model presented us with solutions for the near future, using dynamic and colour-changing LEDs to aid in the situational awareness of the driver.
Green lights on the steering wheel will show us when the car is driving itself, red flashing lights when it would rather we take over.
Red flashing lights in the front draw our attention to an urgent need to brake. Different red flashing lights in the doors indicate that of course we are free to open that door now, but it would make that approaching cyclists crash into it.
Then, a video followed, showing the vision these designers had for the really future future. The 2030-2040 future.
No flying cars. On to the next workshop then.
Well, if you must know, the future is completely connected, lighting is not confined to the head- and tail-lights of the car, but can be across the whole surface, and your laser-beams are not necessarily attached to the car, but flying remotely in your very own personal drone. It even points out parking spots, and - much more important - shopping opportunities.
We interrupted our regularly scheduled program for a concept car reveal. Namely the Audi Prologue, which was shown, without wraps, and to something at least somewhat resembling a “general public”, for the first time in Europe.
Having finished his successful tour in the U.S., head of Audi design Marc Lichte himself was attending to watch his creation presented, and our reactions to it.
Had he been able to look into our minds, I am sure he would have been quite pleased.
This - apparently the spiritual predecessor to the next A8, A7 and A6 - is a stunning beauty, playing with the core concepts of Audi cars, like sportiness, Quattro (with aspects like the wheel arches tracing their roots to the original Audi Quattro) and simplicity of design, where a few strong lines are all that is needed.
The presentation also wasn't just intended for us to ogle the Prologue (but ogle we did). We were also introduced to the important role light technology played for this car, both with regards to design, as well as safety.
In the front, the lights work in combination with the grille, underlining the low and broad stance of the car while providing many functions I talked about earlier, through a combination of Matrix-LED and Matrix-laser lights.
In the back, the horizontal lights really accentuate the width of this magnificent concept, with dynamic functions like brake, reversing and indicator lights increasing attention of following drivers to what you are doing.
More fancy functions of the lights greet you when approaching your car, or guide you home and say farewell when leaving it. These of course serve to turn such ordinary activities into “events”, and make the new technologies behind it more visible to you.
And to get you to not only spend quite a lot of money on such a car, but to actually enjoy that.
I would say, it should prove to work quite well.
After this revelation, our group went to the last workshop… “aesthetics”.
Here, we were greeted by a sculpture of OLEDs, which were fancily arranged to show you either a mess of shiny red squares, or - if you could kindly step over here - “Audi” spelled out.
Or - now kindly step over there - four familiar rings.
We were introduced to the technology behind OLEDs, which at least for cars is still in its infancy, and is basically a complex way to paste organic matter on surfaces with extremely low friction.
Some of the challenges include getting the stuff durable - pretty much solved for flat OLEDs - and getting the things to be in other forms than flat, e.g. twisted, more 3D - not really solved yet.
Another demonstration by a designer showed us the thinking behind Audi's LED daytime running light (DRL) designs - while also showing us that these designers can draw much better than most of us.
My respect to the guy for showing us quite a lot with only a few artful strokes of the pencil.
And now I can tell my wife that our A3 has a “dynamic cut”.
We then moved over to an actual Matrix-LED headlight from the current A8, both in complete form and fully taken apart.
The complete model was actually functional, with the necessary camera attached above. Funny enough, it reacted to the OLED sculpture in front of it and cut it out of the light beam.
The “exploded view” served to provide us with quite a lot of insights into the thinking behind designing and building a contemporary Audi headlight.
It was shown to us that engineers and designers work together in close conjunction, usually meeting daily.
The effects are visible - and sometimes almost invisible - in every part. For example, cables which would usually be colour coded to make engineers' lives a bit easier, were now all black to not disturb the appearance. In the same manner, usually green circuit boards for the LEDs were now all-white.
It was really quite impressive to see the attention to detail, and high regard engineers and designers have for each other's work, contributing to the almost art-like result of these Matrix-LEDs. It is akin to the care Apple puts into their products, the only difference being they paint their circuit boards black.
What also became clear - other car makers bring similar technology to market, some even better. Some even cheaper.
But there is a reason that Audi, at least with regards to lighting, stands above the rest when it comes to the combination of engineering and design. Another thing in common with Apple.
This close cooperation also bears fruit in other, more exotic items, design and technical exhibits.
Among these, old Q7 taillights now filled with OLEDs, “landscape” headlights filled with varying forms of daytime running LEDs, laser “whips” (JJ, take note), silicone optics, and the (their name, not mine!) “Death Star” - a circuit board not only not green, but also not flat, circular instead and filled with LEDs. The Emperor will be pleased.
These things may appear like toys now - and some of them certainly are - but they are also a playground for new ideas, some of which may sooner or later become part of a future product.
What they also make clear - these guys have a lot of fun at work.
And we had fun with this little insight into their world.
Workshops completed, we went back to the Audi museum, for some fancy dinner (compliment to the chefs!), and some driving of current production models.
Yours truly had actually managed to forget his driver's license, and therefore could not be allowed to drive himself. So, I hitched a ride in the passenger seat of an A6 Avant, left the driving to someone else (thank you Jürgen!) and actually enjoyed the night scenery around Ingolstadt, perfectly illuminated by the Matrix LEDs.
This drive certainly underlined the point of that day - the new technology enabled us to see more than what was possible before, through constant full beam, perfectly cutting around other cars.
Not only did it work without fail, but was also a sight to behold, our lights dancing around traffic, and the lights of other participants dancing around us.
If any of us hadn't understood what all the fuss was about before, they certainly did now.
The day's event completed, it was my turn to get into my own car for the drive home. It's (non-Matrix) LED headlights were still magnificent, but felt rather dumb now…
Many thanks go to the organizers of the “Audi future lab: lighting tech and design”, the social media team and especially Enrico for the invitation, and the engineers and designers who provided a lot of insight into the “behind the scenes” of what used to be just some light bulb with a reflector, but is more and more turning into a marvel of technology and design.
The future is (almost) here. And it is a bright one.