The nerve centre
The continuing evolution of the Audi cockpit.
Virtual cockpit, MMI, and head-up display – Audi cockpits have evolved at a rapid rate over the last 50 years, becoming all the more intuitive, connected, and state-of-the-art.
3 January, 2020
Massive rocker switches, push buttons, and a dashboard full of switches – in the Audi 100, you can revel in the nostalgia overload, or for those not old enough to remember this groundbreaking model, it represents a window back to another time.
State-of-the-art in their day, the analogue displays simply can’t cut it in the modern world, where more vehicle systems and information need to be displayed and the driver given greater flexibility to control what’s going on inside the car.
“The demands of traffic conditions are much higher nowadays, and the conditions are more extreme. With the increase in traffic and higher driving speeds, the Audi cockpit and control concepts take on much greater importance than they previously did,” says Ivo Muth, head of user interface / user experience development. Every day, he and his colleagues work to make the Audi control concepts even more intuitive and easy to understand and respond to the increasing amount of information that needs to be relayed top the driver.
There is one question that is constantly being asked, and that is how can the ever-increasing number of car functions be manageably integrated into the control concepts? To answer these questions, experts are looking into standards that were already in use in the old Audi 100 from 1970. Even back then, all controls needed for driving were organised around the steering wheel, with lights controlled on the left (on European cars), while other car-related functions like the rear window heater, warning lights, and central heating were to the right. “Turning the lights on and off from the left of the steering wheel is a standard that we have just become accustomed to. And that also gives it staying power,” says Oliver Stauch from the user interface / user experience department.
The ongoing question is how to best integrate the ever-increasing number of car functions into the control concepts
The 1990s brought us digital displays and GPS devices. Slowly but surely, cars without digital maps were disappearing
Few things have changed as dramatically at Audi in the last 50 years as the control concepts. A good example is the car radio. In the Audi 100, it still blasted from the passenger side, but in the Audi V8 from 1988, it moved over to the centre console, putting it closer to the driver. Together with the additional quattro controls, which were first introduced to the mid-sized luxury class in the Audi V8, this formed a highly structured centre console surrounding the car radio. Essentially, the car radio was a predecessor of the modern infotainment system.
The 1990s brought us digital displays and GPS devices. Slowly but surely, cars without digital maps were disappearing — as they still are today. “For the first time, digital screens made it possible to display multiple functions in a very compact area. The Audi A8 display from 1994 to 2002 was the first to combine GPS, entertainment and communications functions in a single device. It was the birth of the modern infotainment system,” says Thomas Manfred Müller, head of development for electrical and electronics. It’s all there where the radio in the Audi V8 was once placed.
Without taking his eyes from the road, the driver could control the device using a rotary-push-button within easy reach. In 2002, this concept was optimised for future generations: the display was enlarged and relocated to the dashboard and the controls shifted further down to the centre console. Known as the Audi Multi Media Interface, or MMI for short, this design allowed the driver to blindly operate the controls.
With the third generation of the Audi A8 in 2009, things went to a whole new level. With this model Audi added the first touchpad to the cockpit, making handwriting input possible. Without looking at the display, the driver could write letters on the touchpad — making it possible to enter a destination safely and reliably, even while driving. The system is able to recognise even scrawled, overlapping letters.
Then in 2013, Audi took things to another level again when it launched a model with the first-ever virtual cockpit — the Audi TT. The Audi TT combines the centre console’s instrument display and touchpad in a single display screen. “The virtual cockpit gives the driver all of the necessary driving-related information directly in his or her line of sight behind the steering wheel,” explains Ivo Muth. It unites the rev counter with GPS, smartphone, and media player — all in HD. The driver controls it via the small buttons and dials on the multi-functional steering wheel.
Then in 2013, Audi took things to another level again when it launched a model with the first-ever virtual cockpit
The two MMI touchscreens in the centre console are pressure-sensitive and react to touch or the proximity of a finger with haptic feedback
The display is now available in various sizes for all Audi models, and in some, such as the Audi A8, A6 and A7 Sportback models, the virtual cockpit is additionally enhanced with Audi MMI Touch Response. The two MMI touchscreens in the centre console are pressure-sensitive and react to touch or the proximity of a finger with haptic feedback. This means that using the touchscreen feels like pressing a mechanical button. This is made possible by an electromagnetic actuator, clicking noises, animations, and colour changes. The upper MMI touchscreen contains the infotainment system while the lower screen is positioned optimally for handwriting input. Customers can control the system intuitively, much like a tablet or smartphone and an optional head-up display also shows GPS details on the windscreen in the driver’s direct line of view.
But the evolution doesn’t stop there, as Audi continues to find ways of further enhancing the technology to be even more intuitive, efficient and safe. With the increasing use of artificial intelligence, these changes are happening at an even greater pace than ever before. The software in numerous Audi models, including the new Audi e-tron models, can already recognise logical relationships and analyse commands in the cloud, allowing the driver to adjust the air conditioner with a voice command or interrupt the system with new commands. Then there is the Audi Connect plus which brings the surrounding environment into the car to open up a host of new online services.
Around 200 employees in the user experience and user interface departments are currently working on these and future technologies.
In particular, studies on autonomous driving are changing the demands on the control elements. For example, if a driver leans the seat of the Audi Aicon back into a comfortable reclining position, he or she is further away from the cockpit. This will make new technologies like voice control, surround-displays, remote control, 3-D controls, VR, and holography increasingly important. If that’s the case, will we even be able to touch the cockpit of the future? Perhaps the option to do both drive or relax and let the car take care of things will be the answer, as seen in some of the new Audi concept studies. One thing is certain – it will not take long to find out, and the future will not be boring.
In particular, studies on autonomous driving are fast changing the demands on the control elements of tomorrow
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