Audi is revamping the dashboard in its higher-end cars with science-fiction-inspired technology, including pressure-sensitive touch screens and an intelligent assistant that learns drivers' habits.
The technology, shown to journalists at a recent demo day in Munich, could be incorporated into the Audi A8 luxury sedan as soon as 2018.
"It's closer to coming to market than you would imagine," said Niko Spachtholz, head of connected development electronics for the German car maker.
The new screens differentiate between light and hard touches, giving them the ability to simulate physical instrument panels. On-screen icons are more like physical buttons, requiring slight pressure to activate. The icons even emit an audible "click" when pushed.
It's a good way to prevent the unwanted or accidental inputs that often happen with regular touch screens, Spachtholz says.
Audi's concept dashboard also features three organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens that are similar in look and resolution to televisions currently sold by the likes of LG and Samsung. The screen behind the steering wheel is curved, a further nod to the TV manufacturers' products.
Drivers will also be able to call up information on one screen – say, navigational directions – and move it over to another by swiping it left or right, as if it were technology seen in movies such as Minority Report or Iron Man.
Audi's next-generation dashboard isn't likely to incorporate true OLED screens right away, Spachtholz says, because the display technology is still expensive and isn't yet certified to withstand temperature extremes.
Initial screens are more likely to be AMOLED, or Active Matrix OLED, a cheaper and more durable hybrid technology.
Audi is also planning to introduce the Personal Intelligent Assistant (PIA) to the A8 to pro-actively offer functions to drivers based on their past uses.
The self-learning assistant will be able to adjust seats and mirrors based on who is driving, suggest routes depending on traffic conditions and display shortcuts on-screen for commonly used features.
It could, for example, automatically display a phone number if it learns that the driver regularly calls a particular contact at the same time each day.
Ultimately, the PIA is intended to further personalize and change each driver's vehicle over time.
"It will look different when you buy the car compared to after four or five years of driving it," Spachtholz says.
The revamped dashboard is a necessary move for Audi, which is facing fierce competition in the luxury-vehicle space. Car makers are increasingly using technological bells and whistles to differentiate their vehicles from competitors.
Mercedes-Benz, for example, has a reconfigurable dashboard and high-end screen in its S-Class car. Cadillac has also showed off a curved OLED concept display.
"In a mature market like ours that's so competitive, every manufacturer is trying to bring new technologies to market," says Robert Karwel, senior manager of the automotive division for consumer trends tracking firm J.D. Power Canada. "They have to."
Audi is also trying to fend off incursions by technology companies with its personal assistant. The car maker's PIA offers similar functionality to Google Now, a self-learning assistant found on Android smartphones. Google is pushing further into vehicles with Android Auto software, as is Apple with CarPlay.
Personal-assistant functions could be slower to roll out than configurable dashboards given the inevitable privacy concerns. With software functions, there is always the potential for abuse with stored personal information. Driver data could also be hacked.
"How comfortable will people be with vehicles being able to keep track of their whereabouts or recording their whereabouts?" Karwel says. "It's a competitive edge, too, but I don't think you'll see it get out there as quickly."
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