Audi CEO Rupert Stadler addresses CES

Audi CEO Rupert Stadler underscored in his keynote speech that infotainment is key to Audi’s future

LAS VEGAS - The car is rapidly becoming part of the mobile world “in every sense of the word” and Audi wants to be leading this trend, Rupert Stadler, CEO of the German premium carmaker, told the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here Thursday.

In a keynote address to the annual gathering, Stadler expressed confidence that consumer electronics would play a role of growing importance in the car. He spoke of a “revolution” in progress in vehicle electronics.

But the Audi chief also made clear that the brand, which is part of the Volkswagen group, will keep tight control over infotainment in the car and doesn’t think much of initiatives to attach smartphones, iPads and other devices to the vehicle as a replacement for proprietary systems.

“The devices I just mentioned are designed expressly to capture the user’s attention. In a vehicle, you want the exact opposite, “he said, citing safety and usability concerns. “You want to minimize the input and attention required from the driver to get the information they seek.”

Infotainment, telematics and mobile phone services providers are pushing the integration of their products and services in the car. They have been working with the car industry to create common connectivity standards and interfaces. But automakers, citing safety concerns, have been reluctant to provide greater outside access to their in-vehicle electronics.

Stadler said “functional integration“ is the key to bringing new infotainment technologies to the car. “Bolting on existing technologies isn’t the answer.”

The Audi chief acknowledged the entertainment industry’s frustration with the much longer automotive development and life cycles. “We want to accelerate the pace of innovation in automotive infotainment,“ he said.

To achieve, this the brand will be launching next year a modular infotainment platform built around a so-called Multi-Media eXtension board. This MMX computer module can be exchanged anytime to update the system.

On the software side, Audi has formed a joint venture with its Finnish embedded software partner Elektrobit called e.solutions. The company, which employs 100 people, is tasked with developing the software for Audi’s high-end multimedia systems.

All premium carmakers are rapidly introducing new and higher quality information technology into their models. And expectations are that, with the coming of fully electric cars, more sophisticated systems will also enter the volume segments. “The ideas of electronics and automobiles are becoming ever more closely tied,” Stadler said.

Stadler sketched an automotive future characterized by much greater connectivity than today. Navigation, infotainment, new driver assistance systems and other cutting-edge technologies will change the way people drive and make driving safer, he said.

“Ultimately, we see a world where the car is connectedto the world of the internet, to other cars, to the cloud, to traffic and weather data streams,” he said.

Audi plans to invest about 11.6 billion euros between 2011 and 2015 in new products and technologies. It plans to hire 1,200 experts this year, primarily to bolster electromobility and lightweight construction expertise.

About 80 percent of the investment will go toward developing new products and new technologies, including electric and hybrid drive systems.

The CES is the biggest consumer electronics show in North America. And for the first time this year, automotive technology will play a big role, underscoring the tech industry’s desire to further develop the car as a mobile extension of the home or the office.

Next to Stadler, Ford CEO Alan Mulally will also give a keynote speech. That address will be on Friday.

More than 2,700 technology companies are exhibiting at CES. Attendance is expected to top 120,000.

-By Arjen Bongard