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Audi mixing AI and big data to play big brother, but in a good way

At the Greentech Festival in Berlin, the automaker announced a variety of methods it is developing to ensure its cars are sustainable beyond the tailpipe.

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Audi

At the 2021 Greentech Festival in Kraftwerk Berlin this week, German automaker and founding festival partner Audi discussed how it is working to improve the sustainability and ecosystem surrounding its growing lineup of electric vehicles, from funding European utilities to increase renewable energy generation and piloting new method for recycling plastics testing the use of a sort of artificial intelligence to monitor its entire supply chain for "sustainability risks." Let's start with that last one, because it's a doozy once you get your head around it. 

Audi is basically building and testing a sort of eco-friendly big brother to watch its suppliers with the goal of early detection of so-called "sustainability risks.'' This "risk radar" uses artificial intelligence to monitor publicly available sources -- including news and media sources and social networks, like Twitter and YouTube -- in more than 50 languages and 150 countries worldwide for red flags, including social triggers -- such as labor law violations, workforce or civil unrest, child labor or discrimination -- or environmental concerns like air pollution, water pollution, water consumption or waste problems. Interestingly, the system also looks for cyber risk topics, including suspected cyberattacks, data fraud or data theft.

If, for example, the AI gets wind via Twitter that a mining company that supplies a battery manufacturer for an Audi E-Tron is using child labor or a news organization reports that an upholstery supplier is a problem polluter, an internal alarm is triggered at Audi, signaling an investigation into the violation and, if necessary, correcting action. The goal is to keep Audi's hands clean and make sure that the cars it builds and the over 14,000 suppliers its uses are as sustainable as they can be, all the way back to the raw material. Still, the concept of AI surveillance through big data is a touch creepy.

Audi's AI risk radar monitors public data in over 50 languages to determine if any of its over 14,000 suppliers are "sustainability risks."

Audi

Much less creepy is the more straightforward goal of increasing the proportion of renewable energy generated in Europe to meet the growing proportion of electric cars sold. Audi has stated a goal of feeding 5 terawatt-hours of green solar and wind power into the European grid by 2025 -- the equivalent of building about 250 new wind turbines. To start, the automaker is partnering with energy company RWE in Germany to open a solar farm with a capacity of 170 million kilowatt-hours fed by nearly 420,000 solar panels. This will be, according to Audi's release, one of the largest independent solar farms in Germany and the stepping off point for expanding to more European countries.

Audi is also piloting a Chemical Recycling pilot project for automotive plastics that will generate high-quality pyrolysis oil from waste plastic, which it can then use to create new plastic automotive components that are of similar quality to virgin plastics. Once perfected, pyrolysis oil recycling should reduce the need for crude oil in vehicle manufacturing. Audi is also looking at other ways to reduce plastic waste; for example, plastic waste from A6 and A7 assembly is sorted, shredded and processed into 3D printing filament that is used in assembly elsewhere in the manufacturing process.

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Audi is also looking modular road filters as a way to keep microplastic waste from tires out of the soil, rivers and ocean.

Audi

In addition to looking at ways to reduce plastic waste in manufacturing, Audi announced a pair of partnerships targeting the removal of plastic from the environment. Teaming up with Clear Rivers and Everware, 3,200 kg of plastic has been fished out of the Danube river to be upcycled, while litter traps have been installed near Brussels and Budapest. 

Meanwhile, a partnership with the Technical University of Berlin is developing road microplastic filters for urban runoff. The filters target the nearly 110,000 tons of tire and road microplastics generated in Germany alone every year -- ending up in the soil, rivers and ocean -- with a modular design that can be adapted to specific data-driven conditions and even the weather. For example, in areas where stop-and-go traffic is common, the filters can target brake dust. On faster stretches, the filters can be optimized for tire wear particles. If a storm is predicted, maintenance crews can even proactively sweep the street before the downpour to reduce debris and help increase the life of the filters.