Driven! Audi AI:ME Concept

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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Audi’s AI:ME concept is an autonomous electric city car designed to be part of a future mobility service. Originally shown at Auto Shanghai in April 2019, the AI:ME was available for demonstration drives at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. We hopped in and got a glimpse into a possible future where car ownership has been supplanted by a brand subscription.

  • The Audi AI:ME is a Level 4 autonomous car that’s the size of a compact but has the interior dimensions of a larger vehicle.
  • Suicide doors allow easy access to seating for four, in two front bucket seats and a rear bench that resembles a couch.
  • Power comes from a 65-kWh battery that feeds a rear-mounted, 125-kW electric motor.

Audi AI:ME ConceptThe AI:ME is a futuristic mobility pod that still looks like a car – which is kind of the point. (Photo: Audi)

One piece of the puzzle

Appreciating the AI:ME takes a bit of imagination, as it is not just a concept car, but a car that is part of a larger concept – and it’s that big idea that’s really interesting. Audi imagines that once autonomous vehicles become a reality, that rather than necessarily selling them, the company could provide vehicles in an on-demand service. But here’s the cool part: Subscribers would get to choose whichever Audi design would best meet their transportation needs for each trip.

To date, Audi has created four concept cars that could form the basis for such an enterprise. The AI:ME would cover lower speed, urban transportation. The AI:CON, Audi’s autonomous concept from 2017, would be the preferred mode for longer, higher-speed trips. This large and luxurious sedan is imagined as a true Level 5 autonomous vehicle, with no steering wheel. Also part of the family: AI:TRAIL, an electric off-roader that can drive itself, and AI:RACE, an electric sports car that looks like it could be the successor to the R8. This last one you’d still drive yourself – a key part of Audi’s mobility philosophy, which presumes that even after the introduction of autonomous vehicles some people will still want to enjoy driving.

Audi AI:ME concept interiorWith the steering wheel retracted, the erstwhile driver can use the dashboard as a desk. (Photo: Audi)

Chasing the dragon

The AI:ME demonstration took place on a rooftop parking garage in Las Vegas. It was unclear exactly what hardware Audi had installed into the vehicle, which is not uncommon for concept car drives, where technology is speculative rather than production-ready. For the purpose of our drive it didn’t really matter, as the point was to simulate an experience.

Easing into the front seat, the minimalist interior of the AI:ME looks like nothing in any production car. Audi stressed that the materials were all selected to seem more like those you would find in your living room – provided that you have very nice furniture. Although the AI:ME still has a steering wheel and pedals, they retract for Level 4 driving, theatrically folding and disappearing before the car gets underway.

With no pedestrians or traffic to contend with, the hand-built AI:ME concept didn’t have much to prove. It trundled along its course at low speed while an Audi engineer in the backseat demonstrated some of the high-tech display and interface features, which can track your eyes and respond to touch surfaces secreted in the door panels. But then he produced the real showstopper: a virtual reality headset.

Slipped over our heads, the goggles transformed the parking garage into a Chinese mountain vista, with the car’s real-world motions synchronized to follow a flying, computer-generated dragon. Even with nothing for the AI:ME to run into, at first it was a little nerve-racking to be sitting in a driverless car with no view of the real world. But Audi imagines that these sorts of programs could be one of the ways autonomous cars might turn gridlock into a time for relaxation, a respite from stress rather than the cause of it.

Audi AI:ME concept lightsThe AI:ME uses LEDs in its front fascia and embedded in its fenders to communicate with pedestrians. (Photo:Audi)

Seeing things

Drivers are not the only ones who find urban congestion stressful – pedestrians are also frustrated by heavy traffic. It encroaches on sidewalks, impedes crossing the street, and lurks constantly in the background of city life, presenting an existential threat to everyone not in a vehicle. Autonomous cars are supposed to improve on this, with a promise to decrease traffic accidents. Yet that theoretical imperative is still something that pedestrians will have to learn to trust.

Which brings us to the AI:ME’s most interesting design feature: fields of LED lights embedded in the fascia and fenders, like high-tech turn signals with a much larger vocabulary. The lights still illuminate the road and function as flashers, as in any other car. But they can also be used as a communication system for signaling pedestrians and other road users, letting them know the intent of the AI:ME’s self-driving software.

Think about it: When its passengers are all wired up in virtual reality, it’s going to be up to the car to let the outside world know that it is operating in autonomous mode and that everything is okay – or not. And once you have this system of communication, it stands to reason that the car should also tell pedestrians what it intends to do. So by displaying some universal symbols, say a red “X” on its LED headlights, the AI:ME can warn pedestrians not to cross, that it is about to drive through an intersection.
Audi AI:ME conceptWe may never see a real-life Audi that looks much like the AI:ME, but the thinking behind it will most certainly influence the next generations of Audi vehicles. (Photo: Audi)

Winning

While the AI:ME is “just” a concept car, its importance to the Audi brand cannot be understated. CES was rife with concepts for generic mobility boxes, many of these competing visions showing vehicle software given top billing over the hardware, and assuming that consumers will care only about what they can be doing while traveling to their destination. Yet if the car is rendered a commodity, it’s the car guys who will surely lose. Audi stands apart in imagining a future in which the arrival of autonomy doesn’t automatically render car design obsolete.

 


About the Author

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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