Autonomous Cars

Audi sees a future where the commuting is easy

autonomous cars, self-driving vehicles design
Driving into the future. Source: Renault

Pia greets you as soon as you settle into one of the armchairs. She turns on your favorite radio station and knows what kind of lighting you like, because she recognizes you by your smartphone. She activates the massage function if your neck is tense and can turn on the seat heating if you’re chilly. Pia is the voice of an artificial intelligence service designed to make your time in an autonomous Audi car as pleasant as possible.

Driverless vehicles will be on the roads before long, and one thing is already clear: The people sitting in them will no longer be drivers but passengers. Drivers in Central Europe currently spend an average of four years of their lives behind the wheel, but that will change. With more free time on the go, the automobile industry must now rediscover what features customers want and redesign car interiors to cater to those needs.

Management consulting firm PwC estimates traditional manufacturers and suppliers, which currently account for 70 percent of profits in the automobile industry, must make do with only half of their profits coming from cars by 2030. Providers of networked technologies and digital services are inserting themselves between the manufacturer and the customer — think of ridesharing services that allow customers to order cars with their smartphones. Only companies that focus on technology, comfort and design compete in this new world of mobility.

The Aicon concept car from Audi chief designer Marc Lichte is an example of that focus. The AI-controlled vehicle, conceived as an intelligent living room on wheels that adapts to the preferences of its passengers, introduces itself with a female voice as Pia. It picks up its users at their front door, using an integrated drone to light the way as they get in and out of the car. “We have designed the Audi Aicon as a luxury vehicle of the future, intended primarily for long-distance journeys,” Mr. Lichte said.

Virtually all car manufacturers are working on autonomous cars. With the Sedric, Volkswagen has developed an autonomous minibus that can be used as an office or meeting room. Chinese-Irish supplier Yanfeng Automotive Interiors recently unveiled a concept car that switches between four modes: Drive, Lounge, Family and Meeting. BMW hopes to have its first self-driving cars in production by 2021 and has already shown a car that can be controlled via hologram controls. With its Symbioz, Renault has designed a lounge-style luxury limousine: The seats can be turned toward each other, light enters the space through a glass dome roof, and gray fabric seats, copper-colored fittings and an extendable marble table offer the comforts of home.

From rolling offices to mobile luxury suites and sleeping pods on wheels, everything is possible. When cars no longer need a steering wheel and electromobility eliminates the bulky internal combustion engine, the interiors can be designed more flexibly than ever before. This is a golden age for automobile designers.

Lutz Fügener is one of them. “Carmakers are now trying to define the image of the future, so that it isn’t left up to big technology companies like Google,” said Mr. Fügener, a professor of design at the Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences.

Automakers will have to redefine the premium concept.

The interiors will play a major role in autonomous cars’ image and value. In a future where vehicles drive themselves on highways at a constant speed of about 130 kph (80 mph), the factors that differentiate cars today — acceleration, horsepower, engine noise — will be irrelevant.

“Today carmakers are still performance-driven and are very much focused on the steering wheel,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, professor of automotive economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “If that doesn’t matter anymore, they will have to redefine the premium concept. The interior and artificial intelligence will be key in the car of tomorrow.”

Mr. Fügener, for his part, predicts autonomous cars will also be shaped differently, with much more latitude in designing an electric car’s exterior. Manufacturers could use exteriors to differentiate themselves from the competition, for example, cars without windshields or cars with extremely high hoods, design maximized for passengers’ comfort. For the Audi Aicon, the interior was developed first, with much more legroom than a normal car, and the matching exterior followed.

Autonomous vehicles’ windshields could turn into screens for movies and news programs. Passengers could exercise or get a haircut on the way to work. Mr. Fügener thinks such services on wheels are conceivable, depending on what the industry offers and what customers demand.

And because not all people have the same habits or the same financial resources, Tobias Phleps, managing director of design agency Brand Union Germany, believes the industry will create cars for varying purposes at varying price points. Mr. Phleps, who advises carmakers on innovation issues, predicts future vehicles could include small sleeping pods and large, living-room-style luxury cars in which every journey becomes a business-class trip on the road.


Sophie Burfeind covered this story for WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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