Audi E-tron concept car shows future of in-car tech

Who didn’t watch I, Robot or Minority Report and wonder when we’d actually get to start driving truly futuristic cars like those featured in said films?

According to Audi’s CEO and Chairman Rupert Stadler, it might happen sooner that you’d think. Consumer electronics are changing the design of your next car, and this year’s CES in Las Vegas saw Audi, Ford, Hyundai and others battling to out-do each in the race to be king of in-car tech.

Audi was the first to show its hand, Stadler’s driving onto the stage to deliver his Wednesday morning keynote in the company’s E-tron Spyder concept, which could be coming to a showroom near you as early as 2013.

The E-tron Spyder is an electric plug-in hybrid two-seater equipped with a 221-kW (300-hp) twin-turbo V6 TDI at the rear axle and two electric motors producing a total of 64 kW at the front axle. The car accelerates to 100 km/h (62.14 mph) in just 4.4 seconds, and top speed is electronically governed at 250 km/h (155.34 mph).

But it wasn’t just the sculptural forms of the E-tron that caught our eye. In both the Wednesday keynote and on Audi’s stand, we saw a series of new technologies that the company says will be available in its next generation of models.

Like kids in a candy store, it’s difficult to know where to start. The A7 is Audi’s newest model, so that’s as good a place as any. Described by Audi as having ‘the best head up display in the world’ (known for their modesty, these Germans) the A7 comes equipped with a full colour unit, which projects the car’s current speed, turn-by-turn navigation arrows and speed limit onto the windscreen in front of the driver. As if that’s not enough, it’ll even tell you off if you’re getting too close to the car in front.

It looked impressive enough, but Audi’s taking things to the next level with an ‘augmented reality head up display’. This uses lasers to project sat nav turns onto the actual lanes the driver needs to be in, or overlays arrows onto the turns they need to take, dynamically. Stadler promised it would appear in some of Audi’s next generation, high-end cars. 

But it’s not just Audi’s executive cars that are in for a technological treat. The next A3 will feature 3D Sat Nav, high definition graphics displays, and an infotainment control joystick (MMI in Audi-speak), which comes with a touchpad on top.  The technology is similar to what the company currently offers in its flagship A8, a touch sensitive pad integrating hand-writing recognition, which allows users to simply write letters and numeral with their finger tip on the pad, in order to spell out destination inputs in the sat nav. It’ll also allow them to pinch, pull, and zoom in and out of the infotainment system in a way that’ll please any fan of the iPad or iPhone.

It’s being made possible thanks to Audi’s hardware partner NVIDIA, and the same Tegra chip that powers certain new Superphones and tablets launched at CES. What’s particularly impressed us was that the chip and motherboard module are installed in the car in a way which means they can be easily swapped out and upgraded over the lifetime of the car, as newer, better technology develops. Audi’s hoping this’ll solve the problem of your A3’s infotainment system looking like it was developed by the team behind Pacman, come ten years time.

While on stage with Audi’s Stadler, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang also demoed a 3D cockpit environment. Rendering at 60fps and able to simulate any material, there was no word on whether this was coming to an Audi anytime soon, but the fact that it was shown during the German car company’s keynote leaves us thinking it’s something Audi’s working on.

Not discounting the next generation navigation display for the A8, which features Google Streetview, Stadler kept the biggest piece of Audi technology news to the very end of his keynote. He announced ‘e.solutions’, a collaboration between Audi and Finnish firm Elecktrobit, to integrate third party software into Audi’s future cars. What Audi officials are privately letting on, is that the firm could end up offering its own Apps store, which it could open up to third party developers, to release their own apps on. Rumour has it that it’s also looking at in-car media system running on the Android platform, which would presumably offer up an even mightier host of possibilities.

In the context of all this, we can’t help wondering how anyone will remain focused on the road for long enough to avoid crashing in future. But Audi says we needn’t worry about that, as it’ll apply strict safety criteria to all future technology it allows into its car. Even then, should your eyes wonder from the road, Audi’s Car-2-X technology will detect where other cars are on the road, and stop you having a crash before you even knew it was going to happen.

It all sounds very ‘Minority Report’ to us.