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A vindication of vehicles

18/08/17Science & Technology

PEN attended the EuroNanoForum in Valletta, Malta, where Audi’s Berthold Hellenthal introduced the future of the automotive industry

As well as being responsible for the competence centre ‘Robust Design: Electronics and Semiconductors’ at Audi, Berthold Hellenthal is the head of the vehicle manufacturer’s Progressive SemiConductor Programme. Furthermore, he supports the electronic development of vehicles coming through the competence centre, and specialises in electronic hardware reviews and application analysis, as well as semiconductors.

Pan European Networks attended the EuroNanoForum in Valletta, Malta, on 21-23 June, where Hellenthal discussed with delegates and stakeholders from the automotive industry how advanced materials and nanoelectronics are building the future of the transport sector, and how progressive design and manufacture techniques will help to realise an autonomous, cleaner driving future.

Aspiring for autonomy

Hellenthal began his speech by introducing an early example of the future of autonomous driving, and by announcing that Audi’s own vision in this area would be unveiled in July at the Audi Summit in Barcelona, Spain. He said that the design – having now been revealed as the Audi A8 – will be the world’s first ‘level three’ autonomous car, but couldn’t provide any further information at that point.

“If we look into the future,” he said, “a lot of things are grey.” He discussed the importance of the role, and the abundance, of advanced materials and nanoelectronics in the cars of the future, in “nanomaterial coating, masks, specific material, and active materials.” He anticipates that foreseeable models will offer large capacity memory, displays and a computing power which has never before been incorporated into automotive vehicles.

“What we will see in cars will be equivalent to the supercomputers of the 90s. If we look into the car [the A8] we will show the unit itself, which does the autonomous driving, has

the calculation power of the biggest supercomputer in 1995.” The vehicle currently uses 30W and is able to perform autonomous driving functions, although, Hellenthal added, a figure of 100 to 1,000 more watts were needed to power the computers and sensors of fully autonomous vehicles. “The clear message is that all you see in the future is based on advanced materials and nanoelectronics. More than 90% of all car and automotive innovations are based directly, or indirectly, on these two topics.”

© NVIDIA Corporation

Innovation imperative

In incorporating advanced materials and nanoelectronics, Hellenthal said: “We have to use it first, and this is really an interesting game regarding quality and reliability. If you look into nanoelectronics, you usually need a certain amount of usage to find out what those things really do.” As he discussed the implementation of infotainment systems in vehicles, he described “consumer-like cycles” that led to the development of these systems and the demands for such features. Hellenthal added that every 15 to 18 months, Audi puts out new electronic units which double in their performance capabilities, demonstrating how automotive electronics have changed, and how they will continue to change with future advancements.

Whilst designing and manufacturing for innovation, advanced materials and nanoelectronics remain a dominant part of Audi’s practices, and Hellenthal said that the company is completely aware of its dependence upon those two areas of innovation. Cost, he added, is becoming more important due to the growing number of electronics within cars. These mean more nanomaterials, and therefore more innovation, quality, and deadlines.

“Coming from a traditional industry … we now go into a technology area where a lot of the new innovations are based on things that were not our core competence. We have to invest, we have to change, and we have to start working with different companies and different players in the market. This is why we invented, five years ago, the Progressive SemiConductor Programme (PSCP), which is a strategy to help us work with semiconductors.” Within the PSCP, Hellenthal added that Audi works alongside semiconductor companies to focus on incorporating them into the development cycle, understanding what they aim to achieve as a company, what and how they are innovating on, and including such in order to prepare Audi vehicles for manufacture. He said that in the value chain of the future automotive industry, semiconductors are central.

Progression and timelines

In 2014 Audi began to explore the materials aspects and the design tools for the next generation of autonomous vehicles. An original equipment manufacturer (OEM) traditionally involved at additional levels of detail now provides investments and headcounts on advanced material and nanoelectronic topics to push for “the next big thing”. However, Hellenthal added that this would not be exclusive to Audi owing to the financial capacity or volume involved in creating and implementing technology, but would be of benefit to the entire industry. “We see our benefit if we know it first, or, if we know it at the beginning, we can get everything ready to incorporate it into cars, fast.”

Innovative companies that propose technology and products to OEMs such as Audi, should not expect to see their products implemented within the years which immediately follow, but rather an extended timeline of four to six years, Hellenthal said, adding: “2018 is a done deal. 2019 is pretty much done. 2020 is something we are working on, but we’re really looking to 2021.” With this, he outlined that upon OEM approval, start-ups questioned whether their business will still exist in the extended timeline of implementation which Audi may propose. “If we do not learn very early what we will have in four, five, six years, we will not have the opportunity to bring to our customers what you have been working on, especially on advanced materials and nanoelectronics.”

Hellenthal said that as part of the development process, the vehicle manufacturer incorporates and collaborates with new companies and new players, and together they develop new products and features. “If you see what we’ve done with NVIDIA, what we’ve done with Qualcomm, what we’re doing with Samsung today, you’ll be aware that we are investing heavily to get their technology into our cars, fast.”

Intelligent vehicles

Sensor sets are currently holding autonomous vehicles back, and the one sensor set that Audi will lead with, Hellenthal described as “not good enough” to be able to operate as a fully autonomous vehicle. However, he spoke about the advantages of car sensors intelligently “seeing” things with radar and night vision, which human eyes cannot. What the car doesn’t have initially, is experience – a car has to learn and manufacturers therefore need to learn which sensors are necessary, how many more are needed in future models, and what can be executed through nanoelectronics and more advanced materials.

“We want the car to be able to sense its surroundings, to communicate to others and to make decisions. At this point in time it will be autonomous,” Hellenthal added. In the future, a decision between whether to buy an autonomous vehicle or not will no longer be a choice, “autonomous vehicles are the most efficient way of moving people and transferring goods through motor transport”.

Despite advancements, Hellenthal said that there was a need for products, features and technology which are not traditionally included as part of the automotive value chain. He added that there is a need for more electronics and more space – something which could not be taken away from the driver and passengers. “The only thing that gets space in a car is the passenger. If you look under the hood, you’re electronic everywhere. If you look at climate control, it’s only for the passenger. The electronics have to live with how hot it is, and how cold it is.” In other words, vehicles need to incorporate more, to be smaller, and to provide greater performance as a push for the integration of nanoelectronics in cars.

Ensuring the reliability of new technologies, Hellenthal said that failure analysis was of paramount importance to Audi, and that a sacrifice of quality and reliability would never be made in favour of innovation. Moreover, he said that if its failings cannot be reasoned, then that technology or feature will not be used. “If you want to have a new technology, you have to know how to analyse it, you have to understand the errors, you have to understand the failures and go to the root cause, and have the capability to do this.” Illustrating his point, he spoke about extremely new, innovative, and seemingly great technologies which have been neglected because the root cause of problems could not be identified. He also added that questions which are integral must be asked: “How can we do failure analysis? How can we react? Have we really understood that new technology?”


The importance for OEMs in Europe to reinvent themselves is self-explanatory. “What is our new business case? Is that really selling cars only? Or, do we need to be a mobility provider? Do we need to give you fleet access?”. He described the potential for a service, whereby numerous models could be made available throughout the week in order to match and address the various business and personal functions which clients engage in, as part of a possible “mobility flat rate”. The reinvention of business concerns is a question of what people are looking for, and how Audi can provide it, Hellenthal added. Additionally, it was important for Hellenthal to assess whether this was a concern for OEMs, or whether a different party could provide that service.

“If you look at how Europe works, and if you look how premium cars work, you have to push for innovation. This innovation … needs those topics that we are all here discussing,” he said.

Maintaining relevance

The head of the PSCP then asked in what ways is important for automotive? “I can tell you,” he said, “that there is good news and there is bad news. The bad news first: you can’t grow from 90% up, there’s just 10%; but the good news is its 90% already, so this is important. This is not important for Audi as a brand, this is important for the car industry, because this is now a global set-up. The players are changing, and if we don’t stay ahead, it will be very interesting, because a lot of our economic growth depends on the automotive industry.”

Autonomous driving, eventually, will be able to transport consumers when they are unable to drive because of old age, or other reasons. Consequently, it is anticipated that autonomous transport will change society as a whole. “The road to autonomous driving is something that we, from a European perspective, have to invest in and have to drive forward. It cannot stop at countries, because driving itself, and mobility, is cross-country.”

It is necessary, then, that approaches to enable autonomous driving are adopted for manufacturers such as Audi, as well as providing European technologies and materials to operate computer systems, and to later distribute autonomous driving to the world.


This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Science & Technology issue 24, which will be published in October.

Pan European Networks Ltd