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Audi swarm intelligence key to autonomous future

Audi's interconnected car system "Car-to-X" communicates vacant car parks and heavy traffic.

Put a lot of people together and the result is often chaos and confusion, but it will be different when cars are able to whisper among themselves. The time is coming when your car will be able to take you to a vacant on-street parking space because another car told yours about the empty spot.

Swarm intelligence is Audi's name for what becomes possible when cars can communicate in close to real time. "Car-to-X" technology, which allows cars to swiftly share data via the cellular phone network, is the advance that makes swarm intelligence possible, the car maker says. This means useful data collected by one car can be stored on a server where it's available to many others.

The German brand has already developed software to deliver simple swarm intelligence functions. It will begin to offer them in Europe later this year, in A4, A5 and Q7 models equipped with Audi Connect. At the heart of this system is an e-SIM (embedded SIM) in the car.

Audi aims to keep it simple at first, using swarm intelligence to deliver timely warnings to drivers about traffic hazards and changes to road signs. But the possibilities don't stop there.

Swarm intelligence will add real power to precision digital mapping.

The company believes swarm intelligence is one essential ingredient needed to create the autonomous Audi of the future. The other is more accurate maps, and they're working on that, too.

Along with BMW and Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, Audi bought digital mapping company HERE from the Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia late in 2015. Here already supplies most of the maps used by satnav systems, but is working on something much better.

Where current satnav maps are able to place a car to within one or two metres, according to Audi's experts, new High Definition maps HERE is developing will be 10 times sharper, with a resolution of about 10 centimetres.

This kind of accuracy is needed to make autonomous driving possible, Audi engineers say. Swarm intelligence will add real power to precision digital mapping. Data collected and transmitted by cars in the swarm will be crucial to keeping the maps up to date, for one thing.

Audi's Paul Laechelin, who's working on the technology, can't reveal when Here's first HD maps will be installed in one of their new models.

"We already test this map in special markets, so the technology is there," he says.

According to Laechelin, HERE will concentrate on providing HD maps to its biggest customers first.

While Audi's focus is Europe and North America, he guesses other companies buying HERE maps, like Toyota and GM, will want China and other major Asian markets covered.

HD maps will make drivers feel comfortable with autonomous driving.

Australia, with its relatively small car market, is sure to be well down Here's to-do list, so autonomous driving will be further off for us.

Laechelin says HD maps will make drivers feel comfortable with autonomous driving.

"It's really leaving the hands off and trusting the car that it not only drives with its own sensors, but it knows what comes ahead," he says.

"And then I see many uses coming behind," Laechelin continues.

"For example parking. I live in Munich. Parking is horrible. It's terrible. And I can see a world where next year my Audi tells me where to park … where there's a high confidence, a high probability of free parking spots around me."

Would you like to see swarm intelligence features in new cars? Let us know what you think in the comments below.