I’m doing a review of the Audi A7 this week and I currently drive last year’s Audi S5. So far, it seems as if the A7 is probably the poster child for this year's "all you can do in tech" award.
Clearly, Audi has made huge improvements in ease of use. Indeed, comparing the two systems is like experiencing the difference between night and day. Plus, you can really see how the tablet/Apple influence is taking hold.
So let’s talk about this wonderful A7, what is coming in the world of automotive tech, and what it means for the future of the portable man cave.
Hardware vs. Software
Although car hardware changes over 3 to 5 years, the actual hardware interface typically remains the same. Still, the newer Audi boasts a touch pad where you can draw symbols for search or do math. In radio mode, the touch pad is where your preselected stations show up. Other than that the two systems are pretty much the same - on a hardware level. However, big changes have been made to the software.
For example, the menus have switched from the typical line form for everything to a blend of rotating icons and lines. Categories are now very tablet-like and even have a 3D feel to them as Audi begins to explore the raw horsepower of the Nvidia graphics that drive its system.
Navigation has been improved to include relevant information about various locations near you. For example, each exit on the freeway you pass displays icons indicating whether there is food, gas, a place to sleep, or any additional amenities like an ATM. This is actually pretty handy because it is often hard to see signs for these places quickly enough to get off the road in time.
While the older Audi’s system wasn’t that hard to figure out, the newer Audi (reminding me of the iPad) is fun to just play with and discover. It is a little thing, as the older car's UI wasn’t that much of a burden - but the newer A7 system is actually kind of fun to learn on. This is obviously very iPad-like, and one of the things that makes the iPad different than PCs or other tablets is that it actually makes the learning experience fun.
Of course, this does bring up a rather important issue: there is definitely a tendency to play with this thing while you are driving. The fact that the A7 uses a motorized display on top of the dash likely kept me from ending up in someone’s trunk.
This brings me to the cool stuff. Increasingly, cars are using screens that are really large and the Audi is no exception. I understand the new Tesla Sedan may go for a screen that is even bigger - at 17" - than most laptop displays.
At about 8.5" (diagonally), the display screen is one of the larger ones, alhough it is nowhere near as big at the coming 17” monster in the new Tesla sedan. Still, it is quite nice for watching DVDs (no Blu-Ray in a car yet that I’ve found). I also have to say that the surround sound cranked up was actually rather impressive, while the sound field inside the car, to my ears, was fabulous.
But sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference, like the dash button which fires up the rear camera and made me want three more cameras on the front and front sides for parking obstacles. And then there was also the power rear hatch (rather unusual in a 5 door) and launch control. Oh, I so love launch control!
Launch Control may need its own explanation, as few seem to actually know how it works and there are actually a number of cars that have it in some form or other. Launch Control is particularly wonderful in a turbocharged car like the Audi TT because it allows you to build boost.
What you do is put your left foot on the brake, turn off traction control, put the car in spot mode and floor the accelerator. The car will rev up to around 3,200 RPM and stay there. When you release the brake the car engages all 4 wheels and goes to full throttle sucking you way back into the seat and plastering a grin onto your face. The passenger will feel the acceleration more than you do.
This obviously isn’t something you want to do every day, as it really stresses the car, but once in a while it is a great way to capture a wonderful mood. I personally get this big grin every time I try it.
What’s Coming in Car Tech
In reviewing the progression from the S5 Audi (which is what I drive) to the new A7, you can observe a definite technology progression influenced by the use of Nvidia graphics. Nevertheless, even with the above-mentioned improvements, the car isn’t yet exploiting anywhere near the power a graphics chip could provide - which suggests future displays could be even more stunning.
For example, think about a 3D virtual representations of the car with different viewing angles to showcase parking obstacles more accurately in conjunction with more cameras (cell phones are making high quality cameras really cheap).
Imagine virtual X-ray views of the car to showcase features in a virtual, integrated manual tied to actual events with tutorials. Other possibilities include a step by step walk through about how to change a tire or do an oil change - complete with an explicit animation of what happens if you don’t pay attention to the warning. I think many would find this useful, as I once had a relative who thought the oil pressure gauge worked like a gas gauge. Meaning, you only became concerned if it got close to zero or right after the engine seized.
Of course, there are other future applications to consider, such as streamed electronic updates like we get for tablets, smartphones and PCs along with animations (that only works when you aren’t driving) to explain what was updated.
Or how about displaying a picture of the person who is calling on the phone rather than just the number or name? You could even have a video chat feature that would work from a back seat or when the driver wasn’t actually driving like the DVD player does. This is kind of handy if you are stuck in the car waiting for the family provider to finish exploring the Australian outback, or even worse, the shopping center.
Speaking of movies and entertainment, I expect a service like OnLive to eventually make it into cars along with streamed movies (Netflix), as wireless data capability is already in this A7.
Finally, expect a full integration with Google or Bing Maps so you can actually see a real street view pictures while you are struggling to find that badly addressed location. I did this the other day where the address was nearly a quarter mile from the actual location.
Wrapping Up: Falling in Love with the A7
I’m going to miss giving up this car, but I am looking forward to the kinds of things we will eventually see from systems like this Nvidia-powered one in the A7. The potential is just barely scratching the surface of what is ultimately possible, but the improvement from my 2010 car to this 2011 car suggests that by 2015 we can expect something really amazing, vastly richer, and even more stunning.
How about the car, you ask? Well, this is probably the best choice for an upwardly mobile affluent couple with kids and/or pets that needs the room of a station wagon but doesn’t want to give up looking cool.
Frankly, the A7 is one of the most beautiful cars I’ve ever driven - and I’ve driven plenty of exotics over the years. There is something to say about getting it right, and with the A7, Audi got the 5 door hatchback right.
Back to car tech, it is clear that the kinds of things you can do on your iPad are making ti into cars as features. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, because many of us husbands may now be willing to drive to even more stores (as long as they can stay in the car) with their wives. In short, think of what’s coming as the portable man cave. Now that is something I can definitely get behind.