As automakers drive toward a world of electrified and self-driving vehicles, one of the biggest questions centers on the design of cars of tomorrow.
In many ways the coming technological revolution frees up many of the constraints that have hampered automotive designers. What this means for consumers is that the sort of vehicles we see in futuristic movies may become real — potentially much sooner than expected.
At the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, autonomous vehicle pioneer Audi presented a vision of how its new cars coming in the near- and long-term will look. Setting the stage for the brand’s transition to higher levels of automation and electrification is the new Audi A8 flagship sedan, which can pilot itself up to 37 mph.
The A8 is a so-called level-three autonomous vehicle, but Audi also displayed its visions for even more advanced level four and fully automated top-of-the-scale level-five capability, respectively the Elaine and Aicon concepts.
The Elaine concept is an SUV-style development of the sleek and sporty e-tron Sportback revealed earlier in 2017. As such, it is close to production, with two electric motors good for a combined 429 horsepower and more advanced autonomous hardware and software that allows self-driving up to 81 mph.
Audi chief designer Mark Lichte says the Elaine is very close to reality and signals the appearance of one of two related new models that will be in production next year.
A key exterior design element of the Elaine that will distinguish Audi’s forthcoming electric cars from rivals is its front-end look. “Some brands who are going electric are losing their face by removing the grille altogether,” says Lichte. “That’s a problem in my view. Our answer is to have the same shape of grille as we do now, but invert it, make it body color and set it in a black surround.”
Lichte’s solution recognizes that a conventional radiator air intake grille is not needed in an electric car, but that it’s important to have a recognizable front end on a vehicle. “This is the face of our future electric vehicles,” he notes.
If the exterior and interior of Elaine will seem somewhat familiar in the context of today’s vehicles, Audi’s Aicon takes design into new territory, especially in terms of cabin layout.
“This is our vision for a fully autonomous, level-five vehicle,” says Lichte. “There is a clear line connecting the exterior design, from the A8, to Elaine to Aicon, especially with the muscular shoulders.”
Similarly, the Aicon interior design builds on the glass cockpit displays of the A8, but takes the occupant experience to a far more futuristic level. Aicon does away completely with a steering wheel, foot pedals and the minor controls and switches found in today’s cars. Instead the lounge-like cockpit features four seating positions (the front two seats can swivel) and a wraparound black panel.
In designing the Aicon interior, Lichte says the biggest challenge was figuring out how the driver operates a car if he or she is not sitting in a fixed point. “We came up with an idea we call the ‘black panel’ graphic” says Lichte, “where the displays are almost invisible and integrated into the panel surface.”
Sensors detect where the “driver” is sitting and activate the nearest part of the panel with controls and displays. “You can decide if you want to operate the car by touch, by eye-tracking or by voice. We follow you around the car. This is not just a concept idea, it works.”
Some futuristic concept cars have featured front seats that rotate by 180 degrees, but Lichte says Audi’s research shows that occupants feel uncomfortable facing to the rear while in motion. Allowing the seats to rotate by up to 20 degrees is sufficient to allow interaction with others.
As well as the black panel wraparound display, Lichte says the windshield of the Aicon can be darkened and used as a screen for reading emails or watching movies.
Audi has not revealed when it thinks consumers will be ready for a production version of the Aicon. But company chairman Rupert Stadler says that by 2025 every third Audi sold will be pure electric.
Assuming a production version of the Aicon is one of those electric models, then that’s not long to wait to turn science fiction into reality.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com.