Meet Audi's latest vision of the autonomous city car of the future. The adorable Audi AI:Me concept debuts this week at the 2019 Shanghai Auto Show combining self-driving technology, electric motivation and a gorgeous, high-tech cabin with a dash of virtual reality tech. It's the automaker's answer to the unsexy reality that even with the all of promises of autonomy, traffic isn't getting better anytime soon.
The smaller sibling of the 2017 Audi Aicon concept, the AI:Me looks a lot like that previous self-driving vision on the outside, albeit at a smaller and more urban-friendly scale. However, where the Aicon was a long-range Level 5 autonomous car, AI:Me is designed around Level 4 tech. The difference being that Level 4 systems' autonomous functions are limited to specific areas or conditions -- for example, highways or specific self-driving city zones -- so the AI:Me concept features a traditional steering wheel and pedals that retract into the dashboard during autonomous operation, like during a traffic jam, and reappear when it's time for a human to take over.
The AI:Me concept is designed around the idea of urban driving starting with its compact dimensions. The concept measures only about 169 inches from end-to-end, 109 inches of which are wheelbase, and sits about 60 inches tall. For comparison, that's slightly shorter than an Audi A3 with a wheelbase as long as an A4 and more headroom than a Q3 -- this thing is basically all cabin.
Audi was able to get so much space into such a small footprint partially because of the compact electric powertrain. The AI:Me is powered by a 125 kW (or about 168 horsepower) electric motor mounted on the rear axle. This removes the need for a transmission tunnel and frees up space in the cabin.
Supplying power is a 65-kWh battery pack that provides a "sufficient," but unspecified range. According to Audi, the AI:Me's mission as a city car means that long range is pretty much irrelevant -- as are extreme acceleration, top highway speeds and cornering ability, which Audi calls "obsolete" in its release. Since the AI:Me will spend most of its time creeping through stop-and-go traffic below 45 mph, the ability to remain mobile for many hours, rather than many miles, is more important. I'd still like to see more specific estimates, but specificity is rarely the point of a concept car.
While AI:Me is autonomously inching through rush hour, its passengers will be enjoying what Audi calls a "high-tech refuge." The concept's interior design emphasizes the spaciousness with open-pore walnut wood and an open electro-chromatic greenhouse that lets in lots of light. When the steering wheel and pedals are retracted, the driver can rest their feet on an ottoman-like support under the dashboard and relax into the lounge seats. Magnets in the wood center console serve as cupholders, holding metal bottles or plates in place. Above, the use of real plants and wooden struts in the roof area create a sense of nature while helping the vehicle's filters to improve cabin air quality.
Too bad the passengers will be too immersed in virtual reality to enjoy any of it. The concept is equipped with VR goggles that integrate into the infotainment system, granting the ability to browse the web, watching movies or play games in a virtual environment. This is similar to the Holoride system that Audi demonstrated at CES 2019 in Las Vegas earlier this year, a compelling alternative to just staring out of the window at the poor schmucks stuck in traffic.
And since you can't be in VR all of the time -- at least part of the time, a human will have to be driving the Level 4 AI:Me -- its cabin also features a multifunctional, three-dimensional OLED monitor that runs along the entire width of the windshield. Passengers can interact with it via eye tracking, voice input and touch-sensitive zones on the doors and center console.
The Audi AI:Me concept is the third in a quartet of concepts that include the Aicon, theand a fourth concept that will debut later this year at the at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September. Until then, stay tuned to the rest of our coverage from Shanghai for even more photos and details.