by Phil Atkin

With its 2010 model lineup, Audi’s in-car “infotainment” systems get a boost from NVIDIA, taking visual computing on the road. A powerful and rugged automotive-grade GeForce processor works in the heart of Audi’s sleek and full-featured MMI 3G system, which brings everything from navigation to music to climate under one elegant interface control. Drive one of these and you’ll definitely find yourself communing with your car – how much you indulge your secret Knight Rider fantasies on your commute is up to you.

Euro Map

The result of more than three years of close collaboration between the two companies, the MMI 3G uses NVIDIA technology to process graphics in an environment where 3D maps and topographical terrain are generated in real time. The system uses a high-resolution, color, 7-inch LCD screen to display information and a central control knob with buttons and joystick to operate a range of driver assistance and convenience technologies. Drivers can also control navigation, radio and phone operations through voice commands.

The successful collaboration with Audi is just one step in NVIDIA’s drive into the automotive space, where GeForce GPUs, Tegra computers-on-a-chip and CUDA acceleration will make future NVIDIA-powered vehicles easier, greener and safer to drive and will deliver state-of-the-art entertainment options for driver and passengers. To give you a sense of how quickly the technology is moving, the very same device that’s now powering the MMI in Audi’s new cars is a version of the same GPU family that the car-body stylists used to design the vehicle. That means that in the short time it took Audi to bring these models to market, the highest-performance 3D chip of its day has migrated down to the navigation system. It’s a powerful observation of Moore’s Law and the forces that shape NVIDIA as a company.

Audi first revealed its partnership with NVIDIA at the 2008 NVISION conference, where the auto maker demonstrated an MMI-equipped A5 coupe and a Q5. Just a year after these forward-looking demos were shown, the MMI cockpit systems have become available in the U.S., thanks in part to the quality of NVIDIA technology.

MMI Knob Audi Chief Engineer for Infotainment System Architecture Mathias Halliger used his NVISION keynote to talk about how NVIDIA GPUs are helping Audi achieve its vision of in-car visual computing. As in-car systems get more sophisticated, the balance between complexity of the information and the simplicity of the design becomes more important. The “Man-Machine Interface,” as Audi calls it, must be responsive without being distracting, and it must integrate seamlessly with other functions – such as entertainment and navigation – without performance hang-ups when different functions are executed at the same time. With the MMI, GPUs become central to the driving experience.

If you didn’t get a chance to peek at the system during last year’s NVISION conference, you can get a feel for it in this Flash demo on Audi’s site. Or you can always go out and get your own A6.