How the Audi control concepts have developed
Massive rocker switches, push buttons, and a dashboard full of switches: in the Audi 100, you can revel in the nostalgia overload. But for all the charm the analog displays might have, they just aren’t up-to-date anymore. The modern Audi control concepts, on the other hand, are real all-rounders. And they have to be. “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.
Era of round analog gages
One question is especially tricky: 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 organized around the steering wheel: lights were controlled on the left, 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 car radio as the predecessor of all infotainment
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; in the Audi V8 from 1988, it moved over to the center 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 center console surrounding the car radio. This means that the car radio was a predecessor of the modern infotainment system.
The Audi multimedia interface
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 – 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 optimized for future generations: the display was enlarged and relocated to the dashboard; the controls shifted further down to the center console. Known as the Audi Multi Media Interface, or MMI for short, this design allowed the driver to blindly operate the controls.
Using your own handwriting to reach your destination
How to take the whole thing to the next level? With the third generation of the Audi A8, of course. In 2009, Audi added the first touchpad to the cockpit, making handwriting input possible. Without looking at the display, the driver can write letters on the touchpad — making it possible to enter a destination safely and reliably, even while driving. The system is able to recognize even scrawled, overlapping letters.
The virtual cockpit enters the race
A playlist that blends in with the rev counter: in 2013, Audi launched a model with the first-ever virtual cockpit — the Audi TT. The Audi TT combines the center 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.
Touchscreens with haptic feedback
The display is now available in various sizes for all Audi models. In some models, such as the Audi A8, the virtual cockpit is additionally enhanced with Audi MMI Touch Response. The two MMI touchscreens in the center 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 color changes. The upper MMI touchscreen contains the infotainment system; the lower screen is positioned optimally for handwriting input. Customers can control the system intuitively, much like a tablet or smartphone. An optional head-up display also shows GPS details on the windshield in the driver’s direct line of view.
A computer for driving?
Artificial intelligence meets the Audi A8. The software in the A8 can already recognize logical relationships and analyzes commands in the cloud. This allows the driver to adjust the air conditioner with a voice command or interrupt the system with new commands. 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?