Is it easier to drive on a cartoon map or one with real 3D roads, buildings, and sometimes even people? Audi (and Google) believe that more real is more better, so they’ve incorporated Google Earth into Audi’s sat nav. (This feature is also available in some VW models as well.) It’s not a completely new feature, but it’s been upgraded substantially over the past few years to be much more than just nav with satellite photos.

In this short video Dave Anderson, NVIDIA’s Automotive Applications Manager, walks us through the nav feature on an Audi A7 that was parked on the show floor at GTC 2013. In our exercise, we charted a course from the San Jose convention center to downtown Detroit – a 2,400 mile trip.

One of the cool things about Audi’s implementation is the way you input your destination. Instead of tapping out letters on the touchscreen keyboard or spinning a dial to select each character, the Audi system allows you to use your finger to trace out letters on a small touchpad mounted on the center console between the seats. It seemed to work well, allowing Dave to quickly spell out ‘Detroit’ as our final destination.

Once the system knew where we were going, we could zoom in and see the Google Street View (or was it Earth View?) of downtown Detroit. With this, I could spot the exact locations where I would be robbed, have my car stolen, or be set on fire. Very helpful feature. Just kidding, Detroit. (No, he’s not.)

The video shows how nav works with Google maps, but there’s more to this. Audi has an “Audi Connect” package that pulls all sorts of information from the web in real time. When you subscribe to Audi Connect, a special SIM card in the car is installed and activated. This allows the car to connect to the web through a 3G (soon to be 4G) connection. This is how the car acquires navigation data, and it gives you the ability to set up a route on your PC and use the ‘send to car’ option so that the Audi can retrieve it when it’s time to head out.

The system also pulls Google data to tell you about your destination, interesting points along the way (and probably many not-so-interesting points), weather conditions, and even gas prices. The car is also a wifi hotspot, allowing up to eight devices to connect at a time. As the miles pass, your passengers will be happily tapping away on their phones, tablets, and notebooks… web surfing, looking at cute cat videos, and keeping up on Facebook… all on your dime.

None of this cool tech is free, of course. You have to buy the higher-end trim level to get Audi Connect, and it’s not yet available on all models. You get six months of free use when you buy the car, but then will need to buy a data plan in order to keep the service running. Right now, data plans start at $30 for a month-to-month plan, $324 for 12 months, and $450 for 30 months.

Audi’s provider, T-Mobile, recently launched a new data plan with more aggressive pricing that alludes to “…virtually unlimited data access…” I don’t know how “virtually unlimited” compares to just plain “unlimited,” but I’m sure there must be some 3-point print that lays out the terms and conditions.

All in all, the state-of-the-art in car tech is pretty damned impressive these days. Sure, there are some additional costs involved, but there’s enough potential benefit to give you a decent shot at building a TCO-based justification: “Okay, the tech package is $4,200 more. But it has more efficient routing algorithms with live traffic detours. Conservatively, this should save us 8% in terms of miles traveled and 10% in time. Using the gas price feature will save us $0.03 per gallon on average, meaning we shave $0.55 off the cost of a fill-up. This can really add up over time… click on tab 6 of the workbook, and let’s run through the scenarios…”

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