The recently-launched Audi Connect is among the most advanced infotainment systems currently available in this country, launching at a time when seamless connectivity and ease of use is becoming an increasingly important factor for new car buyers.
The computer that put a man on the moon in 1969 had 64 kilobytes of memory and operated at 0.043MHz. In comparison, the iPhone 5S has 1,048,576 kilobytes of memory (and up to 67,108,864 kilobytes of storage memory) and dual-core 1300MHz processors. That’s a big difference, but it’s the pace at which technology has evolved.
The speed at which car companies have kept up with technology, however, is painfully slow. While our phones could send emails and browse the Internet more than a decade ago, it has taken many years and regulation changes to bring the same technology inside the cabin. Even now, it’s only really available on premium-brand cars (Holden’s MyLink excepted), with Audi being a prime example.
The first in-car satellite navigation system was built in Germany in 1984, called Homer (after a device from a James Bond movie that kept track of the agent’s Aston Martin DB5). So while the Americans and Japanese have been innovators in the consumer technology sector, the Germans have never been outdone when it comes to gadgets in the car.
In Europe, the Audi Connect system replaces the Audi MMI system used for the last decade, and is essentially an Android smartphone connected to a car. It has apps, it has internet access and it can do anything from providing information on your upcoming flight as you drive to the airport to providing train timetables and reviews of local restaurants, and more.
In Australia, its functionality is slightly limited, mainly because the services that provide the European data don’t yet exist in Australia. Nonetheless, there are a lot of cool features that are surprisingly useful.
To test Audi’s latest and brightest in-car system, we borrowed an Audi RS6 – not only because it has 412kW of power and 700Nm of torque, or that it can go from 0-100km/h in just 3.9 seconds while exuding an exhaust note that is worthy of the Gods. We borrowed it because it can search Wikipedia on the go…
The Audi Connect system is standard on the RS6, A8 and Q7 4.2 TDI (3.0-litre diesel and petrol can option it with the Technik package). It’s also an option on the A4, A5, A6, A7, Q5 and their performance derivatives ($800 for A4/A5/Q5, $1100 for A6 and A7, $1200 for Q7). The recently-launched Audi A3 range curiously misses out.
The system connects to the Internet either via a dedicated SIM card (3G only) or via tethering system to a Blackberry or some Android smartphones. It doesn’t work with phones that don’t support a SIM access profile, which includes the iPhone and dozens of Android phones. This is unlike the BMW iDrive and Mercedes-Benz COMAND NTG5 (available on the new S- and upcoming C-Class) systems that can tether from an iPhone.
Nonetheless, it’s best used with a separate SIM card regardless, so the syncing issues are not worth worrying about.
Its most useful feature is the satellite navigation system, which overlays Google satellite images on top of the standard sat-nav display. While iDrive and COMAND both do their best to render buildings in 3D, Audi took a smarter path and went straight to the best in the business.
Google satellite images on top of the sat-nav system are as good as an overview as you’re ever going to get. It displays what’s around and in the event that you’re looking for something recognisable, it’s much easier to see where it is with proper images rather than just an address and poorly rendered streets.
Best of all, if you happen to be really stuck or want to know exactly what it is you’re looking for, you can quickly switch to Google streetview and actually see your destination, so you know exactly what to look for.
This is very handy if you’re heading to a place you don’t know, particularly at night.
Audi’s Google integration goes even further with local search, allowing you to quickly look up restaurants or services around the area or the area of your destination or even in an entirely different town.
A quick search will bring up matching businesses and their distance. Though this service has been available in nearly all modern in-car sat-nav systems, they all rely on an existing database that may or may not get updated once a year. With Google local search all results are accurate and up to date.
If you like exploring, Google’s satellite image overlay also presents a connection to Wikipedia, with known destinations having their Wikipedia entry readily available for display. You can quickly educate yourself about your destination for some useful dinner conversation later that evening.
All that aside, what we found most useful with Audi connect was the in-car Wi-Fi hotspot system. This allows passengers to seamlessly connect tablets or other gadgets to the Internet via the Audi system, a great feature for families with tech-savvy kids in the back seat.
With all the features in full use, the Audi Connect system is likely to use just a gigabyte or so of data per month – it stores the Google satellite image overlays for destinations you frequently visit so it won’t download the data all the time - which means a small data-only plan will do the job for a trivial monthly fee.
The real question, though, is what does it do better than a modern smartphone? The answer is absolutely nothing, except that it’s illegal to use your phone while driving, so the Audi system provides a legal alternative.
However, with more and more manufacturers integrating Apple’s Siri eyes free system and its Android equivalent – which allows you to simply press a button on the steering wheel and verbally ask your phone to perform a task – it creates two competing schools of thought on how in-car technology should work: in-car processing or smartphone-processing with deep integration.
Of course, Audi Connect also responds to voice commands, but it’s a far cry from Siri or Google Now’s ability to understand natural speech.
What most buyers would be more than happy with is to leave all the processing and computing to their smartphone, but to have a clear link between their car and their phone, so much so that their phone’s display can be beamed directly to the car’s display. Watch this space.
While BMW's iDrive system is for the first time lagging behind in terms of speed, innovation and ease of use, Audi Connect and Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND NTG5 are the two best examples of an in-car technology system.
Audi Australia is likely to bring more and more Audi Connect features to our market as its further enhances the technology.