Concept Cars

Audi's Aicon is a self-driving 500-mile-range EV with its own drone

Gigantic Audi 2+2 concept features a lounge-like interior and does without conventional head and taillights.

Audi
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In late spring, I got an exclusive look at Audi's Long Distance Lounge concept, a glimpse into a possible automotive future built around Level 5 autonomy. The spirit of that ambitious interior design study lives on in Audi's new Frankfurt Motor Show star, the Aicon concept.

Audi's worked a bit too hard to get "AI" -- its name for various mobility technology -- into the vehicle's moniker. But unfortunate name aside, the sleek five-door EV seen here is loaded with interesting tech. Unusual features include fully digital exterior displays instead of traditional head and taillights, as well as a mini-drone that functions as a "light companion" to guide you to and from the vehicle at night. Clearly, this isn't a car you can expect to see in your local Audi dealer in a few years' time -- it's an ambitious, down-the-road look at how self-driving technology could transform luxury automobiles.

The Aicon's size is tough to gauge in these images. You might think this is some sort of next-gen Tesla Model S killer, but it's a bit bigger than that. Despite only offering a two-plus-two seating configuration, the Aicon is deceptively massive, spanning some 17.9 feet long -- shadowing the Model S by a foot and a half. In fact, it's over 9 inches longer than Audi's new long-wheelbase A8, yet it sits lower. 26-inch wheels would be cartoonishly oversized on a more ordinarily scaled vehicle, but here, they don't look out of place.

Each wheel is individually powered by an electric motor and total system power is given as 349 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. Those aren't particularly impressive figures in this day and age, but bigger numbers aren't as important because of this car's focus on effortless long-range cruising over dynamic performance. The fully self-driving Aicon doesn't have seat belts, let alone a steering wheel or pedals, so a total cruising range of around 500 miles is more important than spec-sheet metrics like 0-60 mph times or top speed. In fact, the German automaker hasn't even bothered to release such performance stats.

Audi claims its slipstream Aicon can be charged to 80% of its solid-state battery pack's capacity in under 30 minutes using an ultra-high-output 800-volt charging system, and the car includes wireless induction charging, either of which can be triggered without a driver stepping inside.

Given its fully autonomous nature, company designers believe traditional headlamps and taillamps will become superfluous, so instead, the Aicon's face is covered in "light fields" that use 600 3D pixels each. The multicolor arrays allow for animations and various graphics that can be used to communicate the vehicle's actions and intent to other motorists and pedestrians. Audi envisions the Aicon's nose as having facial-like characteristics, including the ability for lights to expand "to resemble wide pupils or [be] squinted for an aggressive look. If the car detects passers-by or other road users, it literally makes eye contact with them and follows them with its 'eyes.'"

A sleek, U-shaped dashboard does without a steering wheel or pedals.

Audi

Despite its innovative exterior, it's the Aicon's cabin that may be its most futuristic feature. Like Audi's aforementioned Long Distance Lounge concept, this showcar's cabin is notable for its generous proportions and furniture-like swivel-and-slide lounge chairs that can be positioned for work or relaxation.

A horseshoe-shaped dashboard that rings the two main seats employs touch-sensitive panels, but you can interact with the car using voice commands, too. The system even uses eye-tracking cameras to help simplify menu selections. Up above, OLED lighting and a glass roof with electrochromic variable opacity set the mood.

It'll likely be many, many years before you'll see anything like the Aicon in driveways. In the meantime, thanks to its generous dimensions, ultra-posh interior and some autonomous tech of its own, Audi's new 2019 A8 may just be the next best thing.