Audi A6 fully loaded — and connected
This new Audi A6 gives new meaning to the term "mobile computing."
Seattle Times staff columnist
Please excuse any typos here. My fingers are still tingling from an incredibly fast wireless device I tested last week.
This one costs nearly $60,000, plus $30 a month for a data plan, and it weighs 4,045 pounds.
It's the 2012 Audi A6 sedan that went on sale last week.
Audi provided a fully loaded model with a supercharger, eight-speed transmission and a wireless system that turns the car into a rolling Wi-Fi hot spot that connects up to eight devices at once.
The wireless system — called "Audi Connect" — is available with a $4,220 option package on the A6, which starts at $41,700.
Earlier this year, Audi became the first carmaker to offer a factory-installed hot spot. Previously, cars connected to information services via satellites, embedded wireless devices or drivers' phones.
Audi's A6 and A7 are also the first cars to use Google Earth in their navigation systems. They display the search giant's aerial imagery and use its local search to provide details on restaurants, hotels and other points of interest; there's even a touch-screen input system.
Automotive electronics are going through a surge of innovation, parallel to what's happening with smartphones and Web tablets.
The number of cars shipping with factory-installed telematics systems will leap from less than 10 percent last year to more than 62 percent in 2016, according to an ABI Research report in January. Analyst Dominique Bonte said in the release that carmakers are "borrowing the hugely successful application store paradigm from the mobile industry" to release products more quickly and at lower costs.
Audi is extending its wireless technology from higher-end models down through its product line, but it's still a pricey system. There's convenience in having a connected car, but there are other options, including new phones that function as Wi-Fi hot spots and portable, puck-sized modems that connect multiple devices to the latest wireless networks.
My guess is that systems like Audi Connect won't take off in the U.S. until the prices come down further and wireless companies move toward pay-as-you-go metered data plans, similar to those in Europe. Under that approach, customers use the same data plan for multiple devices — phones and cars — instead of paying $30 a month for each one.
The Audis connect to T-Mobile's 3G wireless network, using a SIM card that fits into a slot on the dashboard. After a six-month trial period, "unlimited" data plans cost $30 a month or $324 for a prepaid yearly plan. T-Mobile doesn't specify a usage limit, but the contract says the carrier reserves the right to throttle your data throughput in a given month if usage is excessive.
The taut and sprightly A6 showed two to five bars of 3G coverage while driving around Seattle and Bellevue. The Speedtest site measured download speeds of 267 to 798 kilobits per second.
Most important, the A6 passed the Netflix test: In an experiment, a passenger could watch a movie streamed to an iPad over the Wi-Fi connection while driving. It took a while to get started, but then played without a hiccup at a decent resolution.
Google Earth imagery is fun but nonessential. The navigation system gives you the choice of displaying regular maps or Google's aerial photos on a 7-inch diagonal color screen that slides out and flips up when you turn the car on. The computer uses an Nvidia processor and middleware from Ottawa-based QNX.
Spinning a control knob on the console, you can zoom out to see the entire globe or down to a particular block. Audi and Google are working together to eventually display "Street View" street-level images as well.
The aerial imagery is realistic enough that you may be fooled into thinking it's a live image, but your car's not on the screen and things outside the window don't look exactly the same. It also made one of my passengers feel a little queasy, watching aerial images scroll around as we drove.
Applications on the system include a Wikipedia search and news feeds, which can be customized via an Audi website. It also provides real-time weather, traffic and nearby gas prices (provided by Kirkland's Inrix). The system is also used to choose music from the radio, an attached device or the car's hard drive, but it won't play video content.
There are multiple ways to control the system — too many, perhaps. You'd probably settle on a preferred control method after driving the A6 for a while, but several days of testing made me think the interface isn't yet as smooth and refined as the rest of the car.
The primary control is a large knob on the center console that you twist and press. It's encircled by 11 buttons — four for navigating on-screen menus and four for launching primary functions: navigation, radio, hands-free calling and stored digital media. There's also a back button, one for car settings and one that calls up on-screen menus. I was grateful for the "back" button.
Nearby there's another knob and buttons for controlling the music volume and track selection.
The touch pad on the console is about the size of a credit card. When I first heard about it, I thought it would be like a touch-screen PC or phone that reads handwriting, but it only reads one letter at a time and works best if you write carefully with capital letters. It reminded me of the game where you write with a finger on someone's back and they guess the words.
You can also select letters using the knob and an on-screen menu. Either way, it's too tedious to use while driving.
The touch pad can also be used to enter radio stations or navigate maps with a fingertip, but I kept changing stations when trying to use the map, and ended up mostly using the knob.
That's not all. The system also works with voice commands and buttons on the steering wheel.
Fortunately, there are detailed instructions: The A6 manual is 295-pages long, plus a 106-page supplement for its Multi Media Interface.
That's another way connected cars are just like computers and smartphones: By the time you've figured out all their tricks, a more powerful model will be on sale. Audi is testing a new version that connects to faster 4G LTE networks, for instance.
In the meantime, A6 buyers who pony up for the wireless option will probably use it mostly to keep passengers occupied with gadgets, so they can enjoy the drive.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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