Audi Ai:Me autonomous concept revealed in Shanghai

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Audi is showing its vision of the urban automotive future with the Audi AI:ME compact autonomous city car concept at this week’s Auto Shanghai 2019. The idea is an urban cocoon, a “high-tech refuge during rush hour.” The battery powered AI:ME has Level 4 autonomy and high tech communication and entertainment features, but Audi says it can also be just a place to relax. There’s even an under-dash ottoman, for the “driver’s” tired feet.

The name is supposed to make artificial intelligence seem more personal, AI for me, as it were. According to Audi, not only will our cars be smarter in the future, they’ll apparently have feelings too; the VW Group brand says that its AI system is not just capable of learning and thinking, but also will be “empathetic,” continuously interacting with the passengers and their surroundings. Perhaps Audi will hire Star Trek‘s Marina Sirtis to be a spokesperson, reprising her role as empath Deanna Troi.

At 14 feet long and 6 feet wide, the AI:ME has the footprint of a regular compact vehicle but with a 109-inch wheelbase like those found in larger, more luxurious market segments. That compact yet roomy architecture benefits from the use of electric power, which eliminates the driveshaft tunnel for more interior room. Replacing a conventional powertrain also makes shorter overhangs possible at the front and rear of the AI:ME. A single 125-kW, 168-hp electric motor drives the rear wheels, powered by a 65-kWh battery pack. Range is not specified, but Audi makes it clear that the AI:ME is for urban rather than interstate use.

Billed as a “2 plus-x seater,” the AI:ME has bucket seats up front and and a bench seat in the back, to accommodate up to four adults. Because Level 4 autonomy (where the vehicle is fully autonomous-capable in certain scenarios, but the driver can also take over) is location-limited to highways and urban areas, the AI:ME has a steering wheel and acceleration and brake pedals for manual driving.

As sedate as the AI:AE is supposed to be, it’s surprising Audi didn’t call it the Xanax. The AI system is designed to avoid high cornering forces or rapid acceleration to provide a calm, relaxing ride and the AI:ME will spend most of its theoretical operational life between 12 and 45 mph. The polar opposite of an engaging enthusiast car, the AI:ME will allow “occupants” (not “riders” or “passengers”) to “be able to detach themselves mentally from the traffic around them.”

Calling it a “luxurious refuge” and a “third living space,” Audi prioritized the interior design, not compromising it for exterior styling purposes. The design team focused on the time spent in the vehicle, not on things connected with driving, like steering wheels and instrument panels, so the controls all retract to hide behind panels of open-pore walnut. In self-driving mode, the pedals retract and can be replaced with the aforementioned ottoman. Console and cockpit covers open up to reveal magnetic cup and plate holders. Plate holders? Yes, Audi expects passengers, er… rather, occupants, to be able to eat sit-down meals in the AI:ME.

The operation of the vehicle, as well as its communications and interactive systems, is controlled by voice input, eye tracking, and touch sensors. Menus on the dashboard-wide 3D OLED screen apparently can be chosen by just eye movement.

If the idea of a car so autonomous that people will be able to turn it into a dining room might be disconcerting, just wait ‘til one drives by you with everyone wearing VR goggles. These are also onboard for an immersive gaming or entertainment experience. The AI:ME can sync with your other electronic devices so you’ll be able to continue watching a movie or concert that you started to watch at home.

The AI:ME is all about keeping things inside serene, far from the madding crowd. The audio system features active noise control that “completely” suppresses any outside noise from filtering into the cabin, allowing for “meditative silence” when needed. Electrochromatic glass in the windows and roof can shield intrusive light, and the concept even has living plants potted in the interior. The greenery is supposed to improve interior air quality, after advanced filtration tech is used to keep objectionable odors from reaching the inside of the car. There are even systems to determine occupants’ stress levels.

Audi is calling the vaguely wedge-shaped AI:ME an “alternative design” that is taller than most compact vehicles. Opposite-opening coach-style side doors give unfettered access to the interior.

Though Audi is currently a technological leader when it comes to road lighting, the automaker expects headlights and taillights to become less important when cars drive themselves and nobody has to watch the road. The AI:ME’s road lighting will function on highways but as the vehicle approaches denser areas, the AI systems will conceal the headlights and taillights, leaving LEDs integrated into body panels visible to other vehicles. That system is deactivated when the driver takes the wheel.

Communication with other vehicles will be critical in the autonomous driving age to come. Digital matrix luminous surfaces with moving graphics, originally seen on the Audi AI-con concept, will display signals understandable to AI systems on other cars.

Projectors can signal to pedestrians that it is safe to cross the street and are used to light ingress and egress. The lighting system can even enhance dimly lit emergency flashers on cars up ahead.

While no production plans have been announced, if the AI:ME becomes reality, you probably won’t be able to buy it. Audi is looking into making it available under the Audi In Demand ride sharing application. From their phones, customers will be able to book a vehicle configured to their personal preferences in terms of exterior color and interior tech. It will even autonomously arrive already heated or cooled to their specified temperature, with everything from personal seat settings to favorite music already set to go. You could even specify a child seat or seats if you’re running carpool.

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