Audi will position itself as the leader in in-car electronics, is working on augmented reality head up and 3D cockpits displays, and has already integrated NVIDIA's very latest Tegra 2 super processor to power the HMI of the next A3. Those were just a few of the highlights from a keynote speech given by Rupert Stadler, Chairman of Audi, on the opening morning of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
Stadler drove onto the stage in the E-tron Spyder concept last seen at the Paris auto show — here painted a fetching shade of deep red — together with CES founder and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro. They were introduced by actor James Cromwell, who played Dr Alfred Lanning in 2004's film, I, Robot, featuring "science fiction" Audis of the future, thus creating a neat segue into Stadler's talk, which billed Audi's technological push as the "creation of science fact, not science fiction".
The main headline grabber is the new generation of Audi's ‘MMI Touch' interface, which will appear in the new A3, due in 2012. Building off the MMI Touch pad currently seen in the A8, Audi have enlarged the MMI scroll wheel, in order to move the gestural pad on to its top surface, rather than featuring it separately as in the A8. This pad allows drivers to write letters with their fingers as a way of entering addresses into the satellite navigation, and pinch and scroll their way around a map. The controller, and associated 3D color screen onto which multimedia information is displayed, is powered by the latest software chip developed by Audi's hardware partner, NVIDIA.
The inclusion and demonstration of technology running on this new chip, known as the Tegra 2, is a bit of a coup for Audi. The chip itself was only launched at CES, and powers a breed of new 'Superphones' (RIP Smartphone). Its inclusion and demonstration allows Audi not only to talk up its work with an external partner, but also neatly circumvents one of the major bugbears of automotive electronics, which is that the pace of consumer electronics development, and relative sloth of automotive development cycles makes them problematically incompatible.
That's because the chip has been designed to slot into the car in such a way that when an upgraded version appears (on current development cycles that'll mean in less than two years) the hardware box can be swapped, allowing the in-car environment to be upgraded to display the very latest in technology. According to Stadler, this will mean an end to the interiors of five-year old cars seeming desperately outdated, which he acknowledged is a major issue for consumers right now.
As it is, the new system is deeply impressive. Response is instant, the gestural pad is very intuitive and the 3D screen graphics are deep, rich and clear — see our short video for more.
It comes as no surprise to hear people around this show mentioning Audi and Apple in the same breath, and it's clear that graphical display layout and design have something to do with this. It's driven a huge growth in employment opportunities at Audi too, Stadler saying, "When we began, he had an initial staff of 52 software experts in HMI design, real-time operating systems and multimedia. Today, that has grown to over 100."
In the past, Audi's engineers and designers have expressed concern to CDN about the ability to project digital gauge displays at a level of clarity and quality they are happy with. But the NVIDIA technology appears to be changing that too. During his time on stage with Stadler, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang demonstrated ‘next generation digital cockpits'. While these weren't Audi branded, that they were shown during the brand's keynote leads us to believe it might not be too long before we are seeing something similar in one of the company's vehicles. Certainly the 3D displays, which can simulate any material, and render in real-time at 60 frames per second, appear to be of a graphical quality and clarity level that would fit with Audi's brand image — see our video for more.