Summa Cum Audi
Imagine a highway where cars drive themselves, passengers watch movies on a virtual screen, and you’re never disconnected from the wireless world. It’s just around the corner.
By Tara Weingarten
My earliest memory of a car of the future had George Jetson piloting a little putt putt spaceship through his residential neighborhood of stylized glass houses. The exhaust note, like a whir from a Mixmaster, was not at all like the one emanating from the Earth-bound and ordinary car my mom drove. And it swooshed through the air, as if it was a tossed Frisbee. I loved that cartoon spaceship. I was certain Jetson’s ride would one day be parked in my spaceport.
Well, I’m still waiting.
But the good news is that fun things are coming. Audi is spending big bucks to create technology that will make our morning commutes and long family drives less stressful, more entertaining and increasingly productive.
Look Ma, No Hands!
Engineers are building cars that can pilot themselves through congested traffic. Here’s the idea: you’re in stop-and-go traffic, wasting valuable time that could be better spent reading a book, catching up on work, or talking with friends. You push a button and voila, the car takes over. You take your foot off the brake and gas pedals, you take your hands off the steering wheel. You open your book and read, completely oblivious to what’s happening on the road.
Not to worry. The car’s radar sensors, laser scanners, visual cameras, adaptive cruise control and telematics are doing all the work, negotiating through the jam. As the traffic in front of you creeps along, so does your car, automatically and at a safe distance from others. Theoretically, there could be trains of auto-piloted cars on the highway, each with a driver who is catching up on chores, reading emails or relaxing with a book. When the traffic begins to move at a more clipped pace, the car notifies you that it’s time for you to take control. Meanwhile, you might have gotten a good amount of work done.
You might think it’s odd that a car company so dedicated to performance and German driving characteristics would take away the very thing that makes this automaker unique. But according to Audi of America’s President Johan de Nysschen, it’s hard to access performance when you’re stuck on the highway. “When I want to have fun, I drive,” he says “Otherwise I’d let the car take over.”
And though Audi engineers say the technology works, and it could be implemented soon, it’s likely we’ll wait years – if ever – to see it. “One car maker can’t do it alone,” explains de Nysschen. “It has to be an industry-wide adoption because of legal issues.” And there’s the rub. We are such a litigious society, it’s likely the lawyers will keep us from enjoying the technology, or at least make it very expensive.
A Virtual World
While we wait for that technology to arrive, Audi is working on the next generation in Heads Up display. At the moment, Heads Up, available as an option on many American and import brands, shows a digital read-out on the lower end of the windshield of the speedometer, navigation and audio channels so that a driver need not take his or her eyes off the road. Some carmakers have a night-vision camera also hooked to the Heads Up so that dark roads appear bright, revealing wildlife or pedestrians in the path.
Audi’s plan is to make Heads Up controlled by hand gestures. Imagine a virtual page on the windshield. The driver can flip through pages of content to access navigation details, entertainment options and graphics of on-board technology options.
It might display a list of nearby Italian restaurants that you used voice command to find. It could even display a menu and pricing. All of this is done while your car is parked, by the way. Then, with a wave of your hand, say, from right to left, you “page” through your list of restaurants and menus. When you find one you like, you can use voice command or your Audi Connect, the company’s proprietary telematics, to make a dinner reservation.
“As you add more functionality to the electronics of the car, things can get very complicated and overwrought, causing drivers to get distracted as they try to access menus and sub-menus,” says de Nysschen. “Audi’s answer is this, the Heads Up display. It divides up the information into easy-to-read pages.”
The Heads Up technology will also be used to offer movies to the car’s passengers. Using the same methods we now employ to buy movies from our home television, we’ll be able to rent films and show them on a virtual screen on the windshield. All the car’s passengers will have a clear view of the screen but it will be blocked so that the driver can’t see it or be distracted while driving.
We Can All Be Early Adopters
And finally, Audi recently announced it has introduced updatable technology into its Audi Connect system so that as new technology is introduced, the car’s telematics can keep up. No more outdated navigation systems or Internet limitations. Just plug in a new chip to keep the car in up-to-date condition with regard to technology and computing. “This will allow our cars to have the same life cycle ability as the whole tech business,” says de Nysschen. “Traditionally, technology in cars has lagged behind the tech business as a whole because we couldn’t update our systems. Now we have a modular approach where we just plug in the next thing and we’re up to date.”
For the early adopters and the technologically inclined, such wizardry is exciting. Just as cell phones morphed into so much more, our cars are starting to do the same. We can now order movie tickets from the front seat of our sedan, see images of Google Earth from our very slender pop-up navigation screens, and access the Internet from our car’s very own “hot spot.” Thrilling, yes. But I still want to know when George Jetson’s little saucer will be parked in my spaceport.