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With Nvidia partnership, Audi brings computing power to dashboard

With Nvidia partnership, Audi brings computing power to dashboard

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At CES 2011, Audi chairman Rupert Stadler explained how the technology beneath the dash of your next car will be as important as the tech under its hood.

LAS VEGAS -- Your next car will be built by as many software engineers as mechanical and electrical engineers, Audi chairman Rupert Stadler said Thursday.

In a keynote address at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, Stadler said that a revolution is already underway beneath the dash, adding connectivity and a wide variety of services to the parallel green revolution going on under the hood.

"What you are seeing here is that the idea of electronics, lifestyle and automobiles are becoming ever more tight," he said.

To underscore the point, Stadler made his stage entrance in the driver's seat of Audi's E-Tron Spyder concept vehicle, an all-electric sports car capable of going 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.7 seconds. (See photo above.)

To be sure, Stadler said that Audi was investing "heavily" in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. But it wasn't the company's futuristic car that best demonstrated Audi's new direction. Instead, it was the company's MMI ("multimedia interface") platform, which provides a layer of driver resources (such as directions), entertainment and an informational window into the car's myriad safety features, such as drive-assist.

"These advances go far, far beyond electronic drivetrains. They include navigation, infotainment, drive-assist and other cutting edge technologies," he said. "We also have the ability to link the way we drive and the way we live, which have now become totally separate."

"For the first time, we are making the Internet mobile in an automobile."

TECHNOLOGY BEGETS SAFETY

Stadler gave the audience a quick overview of the tech-forward features in his company's latest models. He also played a video of a self-driving Audi climbing Pikes Peak using only autonomous GPS -- no driver necessary.

"Are we talking about science fiction, or science fact?" Stadler asked rhetorically, citing the 2002 film Minority Report.

However, you can't distract a driver with technology made to do just that.

"The devices I've just mentioned are designed expressly to attract the user's attention," he said. "But in the vehicle, you want the exact opposite. Drivers need functional integration."

Which explains features such as a vibrating steering wheel -- it activates if you drift into another lane -- a full-color heads-up display and collision-sensing sensors on the front and back of the vehicle.

"Never has something that looks backwards look so forward-looking," Stadler quipped.

COMPUTER, MEET CAR

This is all possible due to the integration of consumer electronics and automobiles -- which is why Stadler welcomed Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang to the stage to show off how its Tegra 2 processor is powering the dashboard -- literally, not just the navigational window -- of the next-generation car.

"The result is the full integration of a traditional automobile environment and the emerging mobile industry," Stadler said. "We are redefining what it means to be a really fast computer."

Stadler said that consumers are demanding "all the Internet has to offer," but until recently, the auto industry couldn't oblige.

"The automotive technology platform until now has been more or less constrained by vehicle life cycles, which has been six or seven years," Stadler said.

He noted that this hurdle diminishes resale value: "Even if the interior after 100,000 miles is flawless, the technology in the cabin is [old]."

Stadler repeated an oft-cited Henry Ford quote: "If I gave my customers what they really wanted, I would have given them a faster horse."

A PLATFORM PLAY

But all this "smart" technology exists in separate sections of the car. That's why Stadler said Audi is investing in the development of MMI, a platform that unifies the car's technological features and the driver.

Among MMI's features are voice recognition and Google-powered voice search, as well as dynamic maps.

"We believe we have invented the most responsive, most intuitive interface out there," he said. "[But] the best interface is only half the battle. We wanted the best interface to offer the best information."

Enter Nvidia. By bringing in the graphical computing performance and energy efficiency found in the next-generation of computers and mobile tablets, Audi hopes to bring interactive technology to the cockpit.

And that's no exaggeration. Huang said a Tegra-powered MMI could power "next-generation digital cockpits," rendering meters, dials and gauges in real time to appear like the real thing in glass, wood or metal.

"If things are presented more realistically, they require less attention [of the driver]," Stadler said. "Software plays a key role in harnessing the power of this."

That's why Audi has entered a joint venture with Finnish firm Electrobit called "E-Solutions," which is staffed by dozens of software experts, specifically in the area of human-machine interface design.

"We never stopped being a mechanical engineering company even as we added electronic engineering," he said. "And now we're adding, with a lot of power, software engineering.

"We are taking the lead in matching horsepower with processing power."

Stadler said he hopes this direction would give Audi pole position in the race to digitize the automobile.

"We see a world where the car is fully connected to the world of the Internet, to other cars, to the cloud as well as other traffic and data streams," he said. "The car of the future is part of the mobile world, in every sense of that word. That is a future we at Audi are driving towards."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure