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Our Driverless Future: What Will It Look Like?

When it comes to the road ahead, the Audi Aicon concept car is the shape of things to come

  • The Audi Aicon. All photographs courtesy of Audi

As digital technology continues to develop at an exponential rate, it’s not always easy to envision how we will live and work in the near future. But the driverless car is one innovation that is now well and truly on our doorstep. After decades of research and speculation about the possibility of AI-controlled vehicles, the question is now not “if” they will appear, but, ultimately, what form it will take. Freed of the responsibility of handling the steering wheel, or changing the gears, what will drivers do, and how will the designs of the future facilitate that?

Audi, of course, has never been shy of confronting such questions. Since the late 1970s, when the German car brand first started researching its innovative quattro system – one of the first truly road-ready all-wheel-drive transmissions – it has made designing the future a key part of its mission. As we approach the driverless era, Audi already boasts one of the most intelligent vehicles on the market, in the form of the new A8 – out in 2019 in its most advanced iteration, it will be the first production vehicle to boast level-three autonomy, and will be able to self-drive in traffic jams at speeds of up to 37mph. But the brand is also looking further ahead with its Aicon concept car, unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor show in late 2017.

  • The Aicon develops Audi’s sporty design language, with oversized, 26in wheels and a sleek shape that tapers towards the front and back

In the Aicon, Audi allowed itself to imagine what driverless driving really means in terms of design – that is, an opportunity to strip back all unnecessary features. On the exterior, the car develops Audi’s sporty design language, with oversized, 26in wheels and a sleek shape that tapers towards the front and back. But in contrast, the interior – free from dashboard and steering wheel – feels exceptionally spacious and calm, with its high-pile carpet and hotel lobby-worthy swivel seats (which slide back for extra room if you don’t need to use the two-seat bench in the back). Acknowledging that, in a driverless world, car users will be able to fill their travel time with other activities, the Aicon comes with software that allows users to watch films, browse the internet, play music and use social media applications, selecting the appropriate options via wrap-around haptic touchscreens, voice control, or even eye-tracking. Providing assistance and personalisation, an AI helper called PIA (Personal Intelligent Assistant) recognises each user by his or her phone and anticipates requirements accordingly. And the Aicon isn’t just intelligent on the inside. In place of traditional headlights, it features a series of digital display surfaces that are able to form characterful, eye-like shapes which make “eye contact” with pedestrians by following them as they pass. Taking this concept one step further, the car is also able to project warning messages and information onto the surface of the road around it, enabling it to intuitively communicate with other road users that can’t see the car directly.

  • The new Audi A7 Sportback

Granted, the Aicon is a vision of the future – but it’s one that’s already happening. In fact, you can begin to experience it already in a vehicle like Audi’s new A7 Sportback, which will be available with 39 driver-assistance systems including adaptive cruise assist, which helps to guide the car to the perfect lane position, and is able to automatically control its speed (as well as stop and start the engine) in bottleneck and traffic situations. On top of this, like the Aicon, it boasts a range multimedia and navigation software that’s controlled through a touch-screen interface with haptic feedback. Of course, it doesn’t quite drive itself. Not yet, anyway. But with its dynamic all-wheel-drive, adaptable suspension and ultra comfortable slimline seating, taking it for a spin is hardly what you would call “hard work.”