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Audi unveils virtual cockpit, Smart Display tablet at CES

By Matt Degen on January 10, 2014 4:10 PM
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Audi proved to be one of the stars at this year's International CES trade show in Las Vegas, where the automaker's suite of futuristic cars and technology wowed industry insiders alongside the myriad ultra-high-definition TVs, wireless gadgets and "smart" devices clamoring for attention.

Two of the most interesting debuts from Audi were a next-gen display system and a tablet built especially for in-car use. The former, dubbed "virtual cockpit," was one of the highlights of the show and one we're excited to see make its way to production in the not-so-distant future.

The virtual cockpit is a 12.3-inch digital display that essentially combines the functions of a navigation/infotainment system and a traditional instrument cluster. But instead of being mounted in the center dash where you would usually find such a screen, this one sits in place of an instrument panel directly in front of the driver and behind the steering wheel. The real magic is that this high-resolution panel is fully customizable. That means it can display digital images of a speedometer and tachometer, a wide-view navigation map, the song you're streaming from your smartphone or some combination thereof. And because of the screen's location, the driver doesn't have to take their eyes off the road and look to the right to, say, find a road on the navigation system.

2014 Detroit Auto Show: The New Cars 

The new system's eyes-on-the road credo also extends to the way you control it, which includes voice command or buttons built into the steering wheel in addition to a central command dial behind the gear selector. If successfully implemented, this should ease the frustration of systems that require you to hunt and peck at buttons or a screen in the center console.  

The new all-in-one display system is to debut in the next year or so on the new Audi TT. From there it "could become a future direction" for other models, said Anupam Malhotra, Manager Connected Vehicles for Audi of America. The system makes sense in a smaller sports car such as the TT because "real estate demands it," Malhotra said.

Audi's tablet, meanwhile, is farther off and appears something more of a head-scratcher at the moment. At 10.2 inches and encased in a sleek aluminum housing, the Audi Smart Display is a tablet that looks similar to an Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy. Like the latter, Audi Smart Display itself runs on an Android operating system, has access to more than 950,000 apps, and has the digital horsepower needed to run them thanks to an NVIDIA Tegra 4 chip. Like any other tablet, the Audi Smart Display's communication method of choice is Wi-Fi, which by no coincidence Audi offers in its cars (the automaker also announced its partnership with AT&T to offer 4G LTE connectivity, launching first in the all-new, 2015 Audi A3 sedan). Other ways it can communicate is by Bluetooth and near field communication, or NFC.

2014 Compact Cars at a glance

While the tablet is portable like any other, it's designed to cater to passengers in the car. With the tablet, they can have access to audio and video entertainment, maps and real-time information about the car. By using a pair of the units, they could also essentially take the place of a traditional rear-seat entertainment system.

But why would Audi make its own tablet instead of just creating an app with the same functionality that could be used on existing tablets? Audi execs say this one is more durable, with the ability to withstand extreme temperature fluctuations and even crashes of the non-computing kind.

Audi's Malhotra says the tablet is still at least two years away, but other details about it are unknown, including pricing, storage capacity or even where it will be reside in the car. It will also be interesting to see if the Tegra 4 remains the chip of choice. It's cutting-edge now, but we all know how quickly hardware can age in just a few years within the tech sector. If Audi does indeed bring the Smart Display to market, it wouldn't be the first automaker to have a tablet tie-in. When Hyundai introduced its Equus luxury sedan, for example, the owner's manual wasn't printed on dead trees but rather installed on an iPad. 


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