Audi’s Virtual Cockpit Brings the Dashboard into the Digital Age

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You know in the movies, when there’s a car in the future and all the necessary information is illustrated on the heads-up display? Well, with a partnership with NVIDIA, Audi is taking us one step closer to making that a reality. Sort of.

At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Audi made a joint press conference with the chip maker to announce the partnership that will see NVIDIA’s Tegra mobile processors being implemented into Audi’s future range of cars, beginning with the 2016 Audi TT. The chips will power what Audi is calling its Virtual Cockpit, which essentially replaces the traditional gauge cluster with a screen that can display just about everything the driver might want to know about their car.

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This can range from GPS to the usual media settings, the tachometer, speedometer, fuel consumption, temperature, and so on. The possibilities are not necessarily endless, but certainly many, made more impressive considering the new infotainment system is connected (i.e., it can use a data connection), and is reportedly twice as powerful as its predecessor — thanks to NVIDIA’s Tegra units.

It’s essentially a tablet computer embedded into the Audi’s dash, NVIDIA explains, and it’s controlled with a new generation of Audi’s proprietary control modules, which has been optimized to allow drivers to effortlessly shift the display with one hand while keeping their eyes forward-facing.

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Looking at the module above, you can see that there are very few buttons (fewer still because this example is a cross-section), and the wheel in the center is actually a touchpad. Audi’s handwriting recognition system is built in there, allowing drivers to simply spell out words with their finger, like GPS destinations. “The MMI touch now also recognizes multi-touch gestures, thus facilitating for example scrolling and zooming in lists and on maps. What’s more, drivers can use the rotary controller like a joystick,” Audi says. “A gentle nudge to the left is all it takes to open the function menu. Nudging it to the right opens context-sensitive options rather like right-clicking the mouse on a computer.”

The goal of such a system is effectively to harness the bast amount of technology that’s implemented in today’s cars and present it in an intuitive way that is, above all else, not intrusive to the driver’s line of sight. Automakers have been working fervently to make infotainment systems as natural-feeling and as not distracting as possible, and historically, there have been some seriously mixed results.

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Other companies — namely luxury ones, not surprisingly — have also been experimenting with dropping the analog dials behind the wheel. The new Mercedes S Class features twin screens to present the driver with all the needed data, and the Lexus LFA had to replace its tachometer with a digital unit simply because an analog needle couldn’t keep up with it’s high-revving V10. It’s likely that as the cost of these systems come down, they’ll be found in more cars, as well as more conventional consumer vehicles.

Naturally, these systems come with their own set of issues; troubleshooting will be more difficult, as anyone who has had a smartphone or tablet computer with issues can attest to. Replacements will be expensive, and any glitch could be potentially problematic when traveling at speed. But like every other piece of tech, computer-based infotainment systems will require endless torture testing prior to release.

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