Even with a steering wheel available for manual driving, Audi’s new AI:ME autonomous concept car proves that self-driving technology will greatly alter the way we interact with our car’s interior. For example, instead of cup holders, the AI:ME has magnets that can hold metal cups and plates for on-the-road meals.
Earlier this month, ahead of its debut this week in Shanghai, Audi teased the AI:ME concept with a couple rough design sketches. With those teaser images, I wondered why an autonomous car would have a steering wheel. Today, we learn why: AI:ME is intended as a Level 4 self-driving car. That means AI:ME can drive itself on autonomous vehicle-friendly routes like highways or heavily mapped urban environments with the appropriate self-driving car-friendly infrastructure.
Level 4 Autonomy
When not on those automated driving approved roads, however, the human driver will be required to, well, drive. So, sometimes, the steering wheels and pedals will be necessary.
When they’re not, however, AI:ME is transformed from cool electric car into a serene rolling spa-type environment. When in automated driving mode, the pedals and steering wheel retract. The wheel is then hidden underneath an open-pore walnut wood panel. Occupants can then enjoy the OLED monitor that runs the entire width of the windshield. It can be controlled by touchpad, voice command, or the car’s eye-tracking technology.
AI:ME’s self-driving system will drive incredibly smoothly, too. It will avoid hard acceleration or deceleration situations. This, so the occupants can relax and completely disconnect from the drive itself. Noise canceling technology allows passengers to relax and escape the sounds of the megacity around them. This allows for meditative-like silence or a music experience that Audi brags will be “concert-hall quality.”
AI:ME creates a world unto itself for its passengers inside — passengers that this Audi will work constantly to interact with and learn about. Outside, however, the car interacts with its environment, too. With abundant matrix lighting throughout the bodywork, AI:ME can communicate to pedestrians and cyclists — as well as other cars around it. In fact, it can read signals given off by other cars and amplify them.
Communication Is Key
For example, say the car in front of AI:ME has its emergency flashers on. AI:ME can read this and will amplify them to the other vehicles behind.
With a 170-horsepower electric motor that drives the rear wheels and an electric platform underpinning the car, designers worked to maximize interior space. As such, the exterior dimensions are close to that of a compact car on today’s market. However, the interior space is akin to a modern full-size sedan.
Audi imagines that cars like AI:ME will become a third living space for people in the future, along with homes and workplaces. While I might normally bristle at the idea of spending a third of my time in my car, I don’t when I imagine spending time with AI:ME. With real wood and plants throughout, air filtration and sound canceling technologies, automatic window tinting, AI:ME sounds absolutely dreamy.
I do imagine, though, that those moments when AI:ME requires me to take over the driving duties to be exceptionally annoying, especially when I’ve just been having a snooze. So I imagine that once customers get a taste for full automated driving that they’ll rarely want to take back driving duties. Surely, it’ll be a slippery slope.
Three quarters of Americans may not trust self-driving cars right now now. But once they have a nap in their absolutely silent car or watch some Netflix while on the way to work, they’ll never want to not have an autonomous car ever again.