A record number of automakers brought new apps, new infotainment, new fuels, and new smart home integration to CES 2014. But one standout really knocked our socks off.
Audi brought the interior for its 2015 TT Coupe, the next-generation of the Teutonic two-seater, featuring Audi's showpiece Virtual Cockpit infotainment display.
It features a large, 12.3-inch IPS LCD display in the gauge cluster instead of analog dials, and a groundbreaking user interface and control system. The whole setup is logical and well-laid out, taking into account a variety of input methods drivers may choose to utilize in different cases, including voice.
While the car's exterior remains a tightly-kept secret, we've spent a solid half-hour nestled in the new TT's well-bolstered leather seats, playing with Audi's next-generation infotainment system. As a whole, the 2015 TT's interior is an impressive blend of high technology and stylish minimalism, integrating infotainment deeper than ever before into the driving experience.
Virtual Cockpit is powered by an Nvidia Tegra processor and runs on top of QNX's in-car software platform. No, it's not Android, and Audi's engineers tell us there are no plans to port this particular interface to that platform just yet.
The user interface bears a resemblance to Audi's existing MMI software, but it adds new functionality and a deeper level of menus. Those menus are off to the sides, with bracket-like icons indicating whether there are other options you can dig into. These can be accessed with the matching steering wheel controls or buttons on either side of the main control cluster.
This user interface is intuitive and combines the necessary tachometer and speedometer on screen at all times, changing from a big size to a smaller size depending on the driver's preference. A switch between dial sizes just takes a quick tap of the mode button on the left steering wheel spoke.
Audi's main control dial is getting bigger in upcoming cars, and will come with a top-mounted touchpad as standard. The circular touchpad lets you finger-sketch letters to spell out GPS destinations and names of contacts. The system quickly parses your inputs and offers suggestions drawn from point of interest information, as well as the contacts on your smartphone. Multitouch two-finger scrolling lets you zip through long lists with smartphone-like ease.
Because of all the condensed functionality in the TT's Virtual Cockpit system, Audi was free to rearrange the HVAC controls. You won't see temperature dials or a big fan speed selector anywhere in the center stack. Audi integrated the most important temperature controls into the knob at the center of each air outlet—the two outermost outlets let you select the level of seat heating, and the three in the center are temperature, fan speed, and vent controls.
We weren't expecting a healthy mix of physical controls in this demonstration. Thankfully, the upcoming Audi TT's interior doesn't rely on the Virtual Cockpit for everything. The aforementioned HVAC controls help reduce clutter, but functions like headlights, traction control, and even audio controls can be activated with buttons.
We also got the lowdown on the tech behind the pretty displays. Even though Audi and Nvidia announced that future vehicles will feature the next-generation K1 processor, the TT interior featured at CES 2014 was running on an existing processor family—Tegra 3. We're not sure if Audi plans on upgrading the processor for the release version, but we do know that the system is built around Nvidia's Visual Computing Module design. It's a modular standard designed to shorten the lag time between infotainment hardware upgrades for automakers, which should help Audi and other Nvidia licensees release cars that run the latest tech.
All in all, we think that Audi's system has tons of potential. Not only is it smooth, responsive and direct, it also represents a new movement in car infotainment. We were impressed, and awarded it with our coveted CES 2014 Editors' Choice award.