Audi, starting with A3, aims to update in-car software faster

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MENLO PARK, Calif. -- In an era when smartphones are replaced every year or two, and seem downright prehistoric within five or six, Audi AG has decided that the auto industry’s standard product cycle is too long to bear for in-car software.

With the launch of the A3 sedan, Audi has launched a new modular strategy for its multimedia interface, just as Volkswagen Group has consolidated its global vehicle platforms into just a few modular “toolkits.”

All models will now follow the A3 in using the new modular infotainment toolkit, known as MIB, said Mathias Halliger, head of architecture for Audi’s multimedia interface, in an interview at an A3 press event here.

But while the modular platform strategy is largely about reducing engineering costs across Volkswagen Group’s broad portfolio of companies, Audi’s modular interface strategy is about getting the latest computer technology into cars more quickly.

The setup allows Audi to swap out a graphics card while keeping most of the computer hardware the same, cutting development time from 6 years to 2 years, Halliger said.

“There are more and more functions which are coming in from mobile devices,” he said. “For the customer experience that goes along with this, you don’t want to show old things in the car. You want to be state of the art -- and that’s why you need this technology.”

The strategy comes at a time when automakers are grappling with the future of vehicle computer interfaces. Technology giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft, which dominate the global industry of selling operating systems for PCs and smartphones, are showing greater interest in standardized interfaces for cars -- posing tough questions to automakers, which prefer to control their own software.

With the next-generation MMI system, Audi is sticking with its own in-house software, operated with a rotating knob in the center console and a touchpad that allows drivers to trace letters and numbers.

The software includes a wireless system called Audi Connect, which uses a Qualcomm chip for a dedicated 4G cellular connection with service from AT&T. It will be the first vehicle in North America to have a dedicated 4G LTE connection, Audi says.

Audi of America on Monday announced pricing for the Audi Connect service in the A3, which lets passengers check the weather, flight statuses and local events – or turn the car into a mobile hot spot for wireless devices.

Audi said all A3 buyers will get a six-month trial period, after which they will have the option of buying another six-month, 5-gigabyte 4G plan for $99, or $499 for a 30-month, 30-gigabyte plan. That is somewhat more than what Audi charges for its 3G data plans: $450 for unlimited data for 30 months.

Thanks to the modular design of the new MMI system, Audi will not have to wait an entire product cycle to replace the Nvidia graphics chip used in the A3, Halliger said. Instead, that could happen halfway through the A3’s life cycle -- perhaps during its mid-cycle facelift, in two or three years.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.


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