In Depth: Audi’s new all-digital cockpit kicks gauges to the curb

In Depth: Audi's new all-digital cockpit kicks gauges to the curb

Goodbye gauges

Audi has plenty of experience when it comes to in-dash infotainment systems. Its Multi Media Interface (MMI) platform has been a core feature of its automobiles for over a decade. But enter the 2016 Audi TT and TTS sports cars, and the German car maker has radically rethought infotainment in a way that lets you focus on driving and not the screen situated inches from your eyes.

Out are traditional speed gauge and fuel level indicator and in is a massive digital screen located smack in the center of the dashboard. Called the virtual cockpit, it’s a single, unified interface for everything from basic driver information to directions, music playback, and more.

In-dash infotainment systems aren’t new, and neither are attempts to digitize instrument clusters. But what makes Audi’s virtual cockpit unique is how it combines the two into a single interface that is attractive, easy to read and always viewable while driving.

Audi describes this approach as «driver-centric,» and it makes a lot of sense. Instead of having to look over at your radio to see what song is playing or glancing at your navigation screen for directions, you can simply glance down at the instrument panel. As a result, you have fewer places to look and, ideally, fewer things to pull your attention away from the road.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

Meet the Audi Virtual Cockpit

I got to check out the 2016 TT and TTS’ virtual cockpit at a recent press event in San Francisco. While Audi wouldn’t let me drive the nearly $50,000 cars myself, I got a walk through of the new system firsthand.

The cockpit combines the functions of a traditional driver instrument panel and Audi’s MMI systems. It’s all centered around a 12.3-inch, 1,440 x 540 display located behind the steering wheel.

A traditional-looking speedometer lives on the right side of the screen and the tachometer (which reads RPM) rests on the opposite left side. It looks like a standard dashboard, but instead of dancing needles, the display simulates everything you’d normally see with digital doohickeys. The space between the two digital gauges also changes to show maps, what song is playing on the radio or current weather conditions.

At the heart of the virtual cockpit is a Nvidia Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip, the world’s first quad-core mobile processor. This chip was designed for performance and rendering video at up to 60 frames per second and in 24-bit color.

Thanks to the chip, the cockpit screen is fast and responsive. The Tegra 3’s processing power even allows for some unique touches, such as a 3D map view that lets you see the real-world contour of the roadway and landscape ahead of you.

Audi isn’t the first to use Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chip, however. The Tesla Model S, for instance, utilizes a similar chipset to drive a massive 17-inch touchscreen that’s as responsive as a smartphone.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

Crisp screen, clean interface

The experience of actually using the virtual cockpit all starts with the screen, and it’s a good one. It’s bright and crisp with nice color and minimal glare. I sat in the TT convertible outside with the top down in the middle of the day, and I could easily read the display without any difficulty. It was a mostly cloudy day with filtered sunlight, so I can’t say for certain how easy it would be to read in full, direct sun.

Though the screen isn’t even approaching HD quality with its 1,440 x 540 resolution, one of Audi’s design goals is to make the screen sharp enough that you can’t discern individual pixels from a normal viewing distance. Thanks to antialiasing tricks and from the driver’s seat, it actually looks plenty sharp. However, peeking at it upclose will let you pick out individual pixels.

The virtual cockpit’s display isn’t a touchscreen, which makes sense given its position behind the wheel. After all, it’d be awkward to reach your hand around and through the wheel to get at touch gestures and control the vehicle at the same time.

Not all gauges appear onscreen, however. The fuel and temperature gauges are integrated into two smaller slits below the main display and utilize a more traditional light-up display. The emergency indicators also aren’t part of the main virtual cockpit display, instead sitting above it. This is a good design decision, and ensures you won’t be completely in the dark, information-wise, should your virtual cockpit screen fail for some reason.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

High-tech physical controls

Instead of touch, the virtual cockpit’s control mechanisms are more traditional knobs and buttons used to navigate through the interface, as well as voice search. Audi placed controls on the steering wheel for easy access while driving, but it also included a second set of controls on the center console for someone in the passenger seat to use, too.

The whole setup actually has fewer buttons than Audi’s previous MMI incarnations, which should make it much easier to find the button you want without having to avert your eyes from the road.

Control at your fingertips

Audi Virtual Cockpit

A large puck-shaped knob on the center console control panel lets you scroll through menu items. The surface of this knob actually doubles as a touchpad input device that lets you trace letters, numbers and other characters with your finger, useful for when you want to enter directions into the GPS and it’s too windy for voice commands.

It’s a pretty neat concept, and in my brief hands-on time, it worked reasonably well. Its character recognition was fairly spot on, but wasn’t perfect. It would mistake my lower-case «T» as a plus sign («+»), so you’ll likely have to play with it to see how well it picks up your lettering.

Entering queries one character at a time can also get a little tedious, but I found the knob’s surface large enough to scribble on comfortably, even without looking down, and the system was reasonably quick at recognizing letters as I traced them.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

A view button on the steering wheel toggles between multiple views on the virtual cockpit, each one focusing on different content. The speedometer and tachometer are always visible, but they may appear smaller in some views to allow more space for other info. For example, if you switch to the 3D map view, the gauges will shrink, leaving you with more space for driving directions.

The speedometer and tachometer are digital renditions of mechanical instruments complete with customary red needles. Audi felt it was important to keep a more traditional feel with the gauges: it’s a familiar layout, after all, and one that’s easy to understand.

The physical knobs and buttons themselves feel good to the touch. They’re nice and clicky, and they give plenty of tactile feedback — a must for when you’re adjusting them by feel as you drive.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

Borrowed bits

Granted, I used the system only briefly, but I found the controls to be intuitive and logically arranged. And the control system borrows heavily from existing input devices and methods.

For example, the main control knob and menu navigation reminds me a little of the clickwheel on the now-discontinued iPod Classic. Audi also borrowed the concept of left-click and right-click from the PC: pressing the «left-click» button lets you switch between various modes (switching between audio input sources, for example), while pressing the right-click button lets you get at contextual menu items.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

In a novel twist, the controls for the air conditioning and fan systems live on the vents themselves, which means fewer knobs cluttering up the car’s main façade. This setup is reminiscent of the Nest thermostat, as you turn the circular knobs on the vents to adjust heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) settings, and press them to turn the respective systems on or off.

Small displays in center of each knob also shows the status of each HVAC function, and each of the knobs are within convenient reach of the driver. It’s a clever piece of engineering and worked well enough, though the interface may take a little getting used to.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

Connected drive

The 2016 Audi TT and TTS will come equipped with 4G LTE and Wi-Fi, an increasingly common feature in automobiles. Audi also included the customary voice-activated search and hands-free calling features: press the hands-free button on steering wheel, and then speak your command at the tone.

I couldn’t get a good read on how well the voice recognition system worked, though, since we were out in the open in a noisy part of downtown San Francisco and it couldn’t quite make out what I was saying.

As for music playback, you can listen to old-fashioned AM/FM radio, but the TT and TTS also support SiriusXM satellite radio. Alternatively, you can upload your music over the car’s built-in hard drive if you like, or play music off your phone via Bluetooth. 4G LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity also mean you aren’t stuck listening only to music you downloaded onto your phone — just pop open the Pandora or Spotify app and rock on.

Audi Virtual Cockpit

A solid first impression

Based on my initial time with it, Audi’s new virtual cockpit seems like a thoughtful, well-considered addition to some sharp-looking sports cars. Granted, the real test will come when you get behind the wheel and take it for a drive, but if my first impressions are any indication, Audi has done an admirable job at simplifying in-car controls and making the driving experience that much more enjoyable.

But what about support for CarPlay and Android Auto, Apple and Google’s respective automotive connectivity technologies? According to Audi’s Mark Dahncke, the virtual cockpit will support CarPlay beginning with the next-generation Audi Q7, which will arrive early next year. Android Auto support will arrive at the same time as well.

If you’d like to test drive the 2016 TT and TTS, you won’t have to wait long: they should arrive in dealers later this month. The TT coupe starts at $42,900 (about £27,470, AU$58,292) with the roadster starting at $46,400 (about £29,711, AU$63047). The TTS coupe starts at $51,900 (about £33,233, AU$70,521).

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