Keynotes at the giant Consumer Electronics Show blanketing Las Vegas this week tend to drag on in self-glorifying clockwork fashion. A comic or some PR flunky warms up the crowd, then the CEO strides out to unveil a series of gizmos slightly better than last year’s gizmos. There’s music, guest stars, and manufactured desire. Rarely are they as entertaining as they pretend to be. It’s hard theater to get right. See Qualcomm’s keynote last year, a real cavalcade of the bizarre.
Auto industry executives usually don’t fall prey to dunderheaded theatrics. After decades of running their own car shows in Detroit, New York and Frankfurt, they’ve honed their acts into lean, athletic paeans to luxury and performance. On Monday night, Audi AG Chairman Rupert Stadler took the CES stage–and did a pretty good job. There was a clever opening video with a slacker chauffeur who sends his autonomous Audis to clients all over Hollywood while he motors around in his own red TT. There was the obligatory B-list as master of ceremonies, the actor who plays the Indian astrophysicist on the CBS show The Big Bang Theory. (I had to look up his name. Hello, Kunal Nayyar.)
At least he was a relevant casting choice. Stadler’s keynote was entirely an attempt to emphasize how technically advanced Audi is as a carmaker, in keeping with its slogan Vorsprung durch Technik. Audi, which comprises half of the profit of the Volkswagen Group, the world’s biggest carmaker by revenue, introduced the world’s first automated touchpad with Google Earth for navigation. Last year at CES it demoed its Matrix LED headlights and a “piloted driving” feature that lets drivers go handsfree while in stop-and-go traffic (we’ll have road video of that later), we well as cars that park themselves. This year it showed a “piloted” A7 bristling with laser, radar, ultrasound and camera sensors, all tied back to a single computer brain small enough to tuck into one wall of the trunk. Last year’s autonomous car had to use the entire trunk to fit the computer gear.
Stadler also rolled out the Audi Sport Quattro Laser Light Concept, shown first at a European car show in the fall. It has lasers in its headlamps. Lasers! They’re three times the lumosity of LEDs and the beams go the length of five football fields. As Jalopnik pointed out, staring into these headlights “for even a few seconds is four times more dangerous than gazing directly into the sun with a telescope for six hours.” Supposedly they’ll be widely available in 2014 and beyond. The car is an electric hybrid, with a 110 kilowatt motor and a V8, giving it the equivalent of 550KW or 700 hp. It’s a muscle car and an efficient plug-in that the company says goes 190 miles on a gallon.
Stadler brought out Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility, to announce that Audi will be the first carmaker worldwide with on-board embedded 4G LTE from AT&T, which will be replacing T-Mobile as Audi’s telecom partner. He was joined on stage by Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, who announced that more Audis in more regions will ship with the Nvidia’s powerful Tegra processors to run the cars’ on-board infotainment systems. At one point soon, yet to be announced, the most advanced Audis will have Nvidia Tegra K1 processor with 190 cores, something approximating a modest supercomputer.
Stadler said we’re entering the fourth era of the automobile. The first one was the creation of the machine, which engineers pushed to its limits in their goggles and helmets. Then came the era of taming the machine and turning it into an everyday tool. The third era is the one we’re still in now: constant refinement and gains in safety, luxury and features. The fourth era is one in which we move from continuous refinements to a redefinition of mobility. Self-driving cars, connected cars. He flashed some images of a new Audi TT concept dashboard in which the screen between the gauges is customized for each driver. What’s on the screen changes depending on whether you’re stuck in traffic or parking. ”Our customers tell us what they expect and they want offerings that allow them to be efficient while they’re driving and want options in situations where driving is more of a chore than a pleasure,” said Stadler.