Four decades ago, automotive engineers dealing with electronics had to make sure the distributor’s rotor kept whizzing, the air conditioners didn’t kill the alternators, and nothing would cause shorts to put the eight-track on the fritz. Times have changed. Now such engineers are involved in every area of a car company. For proof, here’s a peek at what Audi’s electronics department, headed by Ricky Hudi, has been up to lately.
Audi Virtual Cockpit
Audi’s Virtual Cockpit as seen in the 2016 TT roadster.
A3 Virtual Cockpit
Is there a limit to how low in the Audi range the automaker’s high-powered all-digital instrument cluster can go? It seems not, as next year, the customizable screen will end up in the face-lifted version of the A3 sedan and hatch, Hudi told us. “In the future, there are not so many [of our] cars that will not have it integrated, even into the smaller cars. Next year in the A3, we will also integrate the Virtual Cockpit,” he confirmed.
Developed originally for the newest TT, the system has already spread into the R8 and, as an option, the Q7 and the next A4. It can show either a digital replica of the traditional analog two-dial dash or be customized in multitudes of ways to deliver just about any information to the driver.
According to Hudi, “the customer who chooses the base A3 won’t choose this option. If they choose a higher engine or a higher, well-equipped car then they will choose it—no doubt. The price reduces very fast with more people using it and the Virtual Cockpit is an Audi signature now.”
2015 Audi S8 Plus
We don’t know what the next-generation A8 will look like, so here’s a picture of the S8 Plus.
The 1-TeraFLOP A8
A claimed auto-industry record of more than a teraFLOP of computing power will be stuffed inside Audi’s next A8, we’ve been told. With Audi spending four times as much on developing in-car electronics as it did just five years ago, everything it knows will be brought to bear on the next-generation A8, due in 2017.
According to Hudi, booming demand for gadgetry and new systems has put unprecedented strains on his department. “It is a significant double-digit percentage of Audi’s total research and development spend today,” he said. “There will be more than a teraflop of computing power in the A8. It will need it, and it’s affordable.” A large slice of that computing power will be soaked up by the adoption of touch screens for both the multimedia and ventilation systems, plus the next iteration of the Virtual Cockpit.
“If you just look to the camera in the [all-new 2017] B9 A4, it’s a 3D camera that does everything from recognizing traffic signs to active cruise control with its Mobile Eye. It has 245 gigaFLOPS of computing power. The world’s biggest supercomputers only just had that 15 years ago. To give you an example of how it’s moving, I now have a budget four times more than when I started in 2009 as the head of the electronics development.”
Staying Ahead of the Hackers
A team of professional hackers gets access to every Audi before it ever reaches the market, we were told. Having its vehicles offer constant internet connectivity is now standard operating procedure for Audi, Hudi took exception to suggestions the cars were as vulnerable to being hacked as, say, Fiat-Chrysler’s fleet.
“Our internet systems are encrypted and when we think we are at the point where the concepts are right, we regularly pay people to hack them,” Hudi said. “We pay companies to take our cars away to hack them, before they get to production. We give them our cars and say, ‘Take as long as you want, but please try to attack it, in whatever way you can.’ Basically we tell them they can use all ways available, including straight vandalism, to get access to control the car’s electronic systems. For what I can see, that’s the best way to improve security,” and he admits that the hackers have shown Audi ways to defend its cars and drivers.