At various points in automotive history, there have been times when auto show concept cars have graduated from shiny turntable baubles into something of far greater importance. The so-called Atomic Age of the 1950s was one such moment. Aeronautically inspired, fuselage concept cars with canopies, tail fins and turbine engines not only epitomized America's Post-War optimism, they helped to define it. Free nuclear energy for all, a car in every driveway and a chicken in every pot.
There's reason to believe that the world is once again approaching one of those special moments. The catalyst? Self-driving technology.
More and more automakers are coming out with steering-wheel-free show cars that throw accepted automotive convention to the wind. Part of this can be attributed to designers letting their hair down, ushering in a new age of experimentation. But just as importantly, car companies are spending millions in part because autonomy requires a paradigm shift in thinking. These companies need to figure out what consumers will actually want in their future autonomous car, and they need people to get comfortable with the very idea of a self-driving world.
Audi has been at the forefront of developing autonomous hardware for a number of years now, but the Long Distance Lounge Concept seen here may just be the luxury brand's most ambitious undertaking yet -- even though it's completely static. The company recently invited me to take a tour of its new interior concept at its Ingolstadt, Germany headquarters, and even as a die-hard driving enthusiast, it's hard not to share its exuberance and optimism.
On its surface, the Long Distance Lounge (LDL) is the latest in a slew of pod-like monoform concepts that have made the rounds the last few years. Almost pejoratively, they've often been referred to as "living rooms on wheels." Indeed, the Audi has elements of this, including a power-reclining lounger and a pair of rounded captain's chairs with mid-century-modern overtones. But the LDL is significantly more thoughtful and complete than that, with much of its flexibility and technological capability hidden at first glance.
Let's start with the platform -- the LDL isn't a running vehicle, but its layout is predicated on full Level 5 Autonomy, where occupants never need to take control and where vehicle crashes are infinitely rarer than today thanks to connected-car telematics. Thus, there's no need for a steering wheel, pedal box, or even seat belts. The design also presupposes in-wheel electric motors and flat-pack batteries, so the chassis is something of a blank canvas upon which to build.
Enter the Lounge through its massive single door, as I did, and you're immediately struck by how massive and airy it feels. It gives off an aura that's almost more "upscale tiny studio apartment" than it is automotive. Despite this, the LDL isn't out of scale -- it's about the length of Audi's A8L flagship sedan and slightly lower in height than a Volkswagen Multivan. Not having massive crumple zones or a space-hogging engine bay claws back a lot of lebensraum.
My tour guide, Enzo Rothfuss, has been head of interior design at Audi AG since 2012, and his enthusiasm on the topic is infectious. He and his team have been working on this project for a long time, and I'm the first outsider to see what they've come up with. "This is very, very special, because nobody ever has seen this before, despite our members of the board," he says. He invites me to sit in the "captain's chair," which is perched slightly higher than the seat next to it.
"Let's think about the fully autonomous car. What would it look like? And what does that make an Audi?" he asks. This cabin is for a long-distance cruiser, but it's just one possible environment. "We are thinking of completely different [vehicle] configurations. If you need [something] for a business journey, you can rent a business environment. If you are fully concentrated on working for five hours with a couple of people, then there should be the perfect moving object for you." Note that Rothfuss says "moving object" and not car -- that's how different this type of machine is to him.
Scanning around the LDL, I remark about the pattern on the wooden floor. It's then that my host lets me in on a secret -- the chair I'm sitting in can be moved almost infinitely, and is locked in place by powerful magnets. The design is patented, as is the high-frequency vibration generator under the floor that agitates loose dirt to the periphery of the cabin, where a built-in vacuum sucks it up. Clever.
These are neat features, but the LDL's jaw-slackening centerpiece is its augmented reality tech that can bring in the world rushing by outside or keep it out depending on the occupants' particular needs. Rothfuss walks me over to a separate interior buck to show me a working demonstrator of this technology.
I sit across from the 52-year-old designer, a small table between us. He places a smartphone on its surface, and a screen embedded inside comes to life, mirroring its content. We're both able to interact with the information on the small surface, but Rothfuss then shows how it's also possible to swipe laterally and have the information appear much larger on the side window. TFT foils embedded in the glass make it possible to both see directly outside like a conventional window and view work on a computer screen. You can even turn the entire window opaque, so it's easier to watch a movie or take a nap. Rothfuss notes that OLED foils are possible, too, they just couldn't get them in time. ("[They] will be in the windscreens within a couple of years, and affordable!")
Those foils are just this side of magic, if only because of how they blur the line between the analog world outside and the digital one in the car. You can drive along the mountains or seaside and watch as subtle brackets appear around features in the scenery, allowing you to tap on them to get more information. That boat you see in the harbor? It's a 50-foot Fountaine Pajot catamaran, it sleeps six and you can spin a model of it on screen to take a closer look. That cloud visible through the panoramic roof overhead? It's a cumulonimbus, and there's a 40-percent chance of rain at your destination. (I wish I could show you exactly how well this worked -- and how futuristic it all looked -- but Audi AG was unable to clear footage and photos of some parts of my demo.).
Thanks to a network of sensors and facial recognition cameras, the Long Distance Lounge knows where you're seated and what you're looking at, so it can display information accordingly. Spotted something really cool and want to share it with your companion, who is sitting on the lounge? Swipe the blue light cursor on the aluminum rail sitting just below the window ledge in the direction of the recipient and the content will appear on the screen nearest to them.
Of course, there's a potential downside to all of this -- too much information, especially when advertisements inevitably creep into the picture. Audi's Melanie Goldmann refers to this possibility as "cognitive overload." Goldmann, who is the company's head of trend communications and cultural affairs, sees both a problem and an opportunity: "A premium car, an Audi, could be kind of a membrane, that only lets in information that you as an individual person want to have, [information] that is important to you. Not all the advertising. Not all information that is not relevant for you at this specific moment… you will get the right information at the right time."
In other words, an upscale vehicle like the LDL could act as a careful content curator, tailoring what it shows based on the preferences it learns -- preferences saved in a MyAudi profile that you carry wirelessly from vehicle to vehicle, whether you own it, borrow it from a friend or summon it from a car-sharing service. In this new idea of premium, luxury means having all the information you want, when you want it, without unwanted bits and bytes getting in your way.
In fact, the idea of a vehicle adapting to you -- not you to it -- is a big theme in the Long Distance Lounge. Whether you're taking part in an office teleconference, catching a quick nap or looking at vacation photos with your family, Audi's vision for future luxury is the car as a facilitator. It's all aimed at recovering what Audi officials call "The 25th Hour" -- that period of the day traditionally lost to hands-on-the-wheel commuting.
In the future, it's likely that a luxury automotive experience will also necessarily extend to more services outside the vehicle. Today, some premium automakers offer concierge-like services that include things like picking up and dropping off your car when it goes in for repairs. Rothfuss is thinking bigger: "You need a whole ecosystem around it [the car]. That way it's always cleaned up, [and] the batteries are fully loaded (charged)." And it's not just basic upkeep -- Rothfuss hypothesizes Audi could one day have a network of owner- or member-only lounges dotting the road like rest areas. "You want to stop sometimes, get something to eat, refresh, whatever. We just go to the Audi Lounge, have something to eat. You go further on with your trip, and I go somewhere else from the Audi Lounge, because at the Audi Lounge is my vehicle to go to a different point."
Of course, Rothfuss isn't suggesting that Audi is poised to get into the travel plaza business, or even thinking about it formally at all. He's just engaging in a bit of exuberant blue-sky thinking -- the type that one can't help but indulge in when presented with something that opens a door in your brain to a potential new reality. That, after all, is exactly what good concept cars do best.
Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.