LAS VEGAS – Audi certainly was the automotive belle of the ball here at the International Consumer Electronics Show, an annual tech fest that is attracting greater interest from automakers and suppliers because of the rapid confluence of home, office, personal and mobile computing.
On Monday night, Rupert Stadler, chairman of Audi’s board of management, kicked off CES with a keynote speech emphasizing safe connectivity while behind the wheel as well as allowing cars to drive themselves.
“We are equally committed to redefining mobility,” Stadler says after rolling out on stage in a classic Horch 850 from the early 1930s.
“That includes everything from how the automobile is powered – with advances in electronics, hybrid-electrics and advanced diesel technology to closing the gap between consumer electronics and automotive electronics, closing the gap between how connected you are in your vehicle and how connected you are in your life, closing the gap between science fiction and the reality on the road.”
The evening was punctuated by technological achievement, such as the Audi Connect concept car that drove slowly out on stage without a human inside.
Stadler also highlighted the new Audi TT 2-seater, which arrives later this year with what he describes as a virtual cockpit with a unique operating and display concept.
“The display is customized for each driver. It automatically presents the most relevant information, depending on whether you are parking or stuck in a traffic jam,” Stadler says. “Information is easy to locate, speech functions are optimized and system performance is outstanding. The future is almost here.”
At a standing-room-only press conference the following morning, Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi board member in charge of technical development, says the virtual cockpit concept allows gauges and instrument clusters to be extremely thin and lightweight.
“The virtual cockpit is fully digital and driver-focused. It is an operating tool that is very easy to handle,” Hackenberg says. “It offers extended safety and comfort features and enhances system performance and brilliant graphics.”
Audi was the first automaker to introduce LED-based headlamps in 2007. At this year’s CES, Audi breaks ground again with laser-based headlamps seen on the Sport Quattro Concept car.
“We see a trend to smaller light sources with greater range,” Hackenberg says. “That’s why we see a future in laser-light technology. It’s even safer, even sharper and more efficient, and it has the potential to enhance LED lights.”
The laser beams on board the Sport Quattro Concept displayed here are three times stronger than state-of-the-art LEDs. “The light beam extends the length of five football fields,” he says, promising Audi will be the first car brand with laser lights in production. However, he does not say when.
Standard high-beam headlamps have a range of 820 ft. (250 m), but laser-based lights can double that, says Ricky Hudi, Audi’s head of development for electrics/electronics.
In April, the laser lights will be featured on the next-generation R18 eTron Quattro race car, which also will appear at the 24 Hours at LeMans in June.
Hackenberg says 90% of all automotive engineering innovations are related to electrics/electronics, which explains why Audi in 2014 will strengthen partnerships with Google and graphics partner Nvidia.
He says the move is being done “to bring their expertise on mobile devices to our cars. It’s to benefit of our customers.” Specifically, Hackenberg says cozying up with Google and Nvidia will allow next-generation hardware components to be integrated with a vehicle’s infotainment system more rapidly.
“The more connected cars become, the more connected we need to be,” he says.
Despite Audi’s optimism, questions will continue to nag the auto industry as it embraces more consumer-electronic devices in vehicles.
Among them: Who owns all the data that is collected by these amazingly intelligent vehicles? Who is legally responsible if a self-driving car has an accident? Will people who already pay for wireless Internet access on handheld devices be willing to pay again for access in their cars?
Hudi concedes there are many technological hurdles ahead, but the industry will clear them.
“We go step by step,” he says, adding that fully autonomous driving will come only after piloted driving has been proved safe and effective.
Why? “Because, like in aircraft, the final responsibility rests with the driver, so we start with (automated) traffic-jam pilot and park pilot” before moving on to more advanced systems.
More immediately, Audi is preparing to bring its first plug-in hybrid/electric vehicle to the U.S. Available for lease and sale across the U.S. in first-quarter 2015, the Audi A3 e-tron sportback has a 1.4L gasoline engine to kick in when the electric range has been exhausted.
Fuel-economy and range estimates will be announced closer to launch.
Audi of America President Scott Keogh says the car will be made available to every dealer and investments are being made to expand the charging infrastructure at stores and in service bays.
“Dealers will need to make the choice if the business case makes sense in terms of volume, things like that,” Keogh tells WardsAuto. “Facts are, I know our dealers want to be part of this. We will roll out more and more plug-ins.”
Sales volumes for the A3 e-tron may be small, but Keogh says, “As we look to future products, the dealers know they will need the infrastructure.”
Asked if Audi will matchpricing of the all-electric i3 in the low-$40,000 range, Keogh says the sticker will be competitive. “If I look at the Audi buyer, the demographic, I think we will have a lot of success with this car. It’s a real car without the compromises.”