What does the future look like? It's a perennial question, one that for cars feels more pertinent than ever. This, the Aicon, is what the future looks like according to Audi.
You'll know that cars are becoming battery powered (or electrifying - as the industry likes to call it). You might have also used a shared mobility service like Zipcar. And you'll probably also have heard a lot of fuss being made about driverless, or autonomous cars.
Put those three things together and you've got a massive change for the car industry — so at the Frankfurt Auto Show we saw a number of concept cars that look at what this future means and envisage how the car might change. The Audi concept is arguably the most interesting, so here's what you can expect.
Audi Aicon: Exterior designed for autonomy
At over five metres long, the Aicon is actually the same size as today's Audi A8L (which was also launched at Frankfurt this week).
The 26-inch wheels are pure concept car, though, but the front and rear lights — which Audi calls swarm lighting — are something the company has been developing for a while and wants to get into production. We saw it as long ago as 2013, at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show as it then stood for).
So the front and rear ends of the Aicon being completely dominated by lighting could become a reality — especially as cars that drives themselves will need to do more than just light the way and indicate, they'll need to communicate with pedestrians too. Audi's lights, which is like a digital display board, can configure to pull faces and convey different messages.
The closed wheels are designed so that the car is more aerodynamic. Because it's electric, and the car can drive itself, the need for massive brake discs is reduced, so Audi has mounted these further inboard and reckons they won't get as hot — so the wheel doesn't need to be open to allow air to cool the brakes.
Despite all those nips and tucks away from convention, the Aicon still looks quite car like. No, it's not the prettiest Audi ever, but it's not a box on wheels either. Indeed, the overall exterior design reminds us in some ways of the Mercedes F015 concept, which also previewed an autonomous, electric future. Hmm.
Audi Aicon: A glimpse at the UI of the future
Still, it's inside where you really need to be, because there is no steering wheel and no pedals — rather like the Smart Vision EQ ForTwo that we recently wrote about.
That's because Audi is imagining the Aicon as a car you'll never need to drive yourself, which has allowed the German maker to fit a pair of lounge chairs up front, while the passenger side is designed to shuttle back and recline into a position that's far more horizontal than you'd ever expect to be in a car (if not quite a full BA Club World 180-degree lie-flat seat, as per an international flight). Once reclined we felt a bit like we were at the dentist... which we're sure isn't what Audi intended.
The seat also slides back miles from the dashboard, so we were wondering how we might change the music, tell the car where to go, or just do the things you might generally interface with a car for. Well, Audi has come up with a number of clever ways to allow this.
Firstly, and most simply, the interface wraps right around the car, so those black panels in the upper door are actually screens. The interface menu will follow you as the seat moves around the car — so it's never out of reach.
But it can't do everything, so to help more Audi has thrown in some artificial intelligence (hence the "AI" at the start of the Aicon's name, see what they did there?). There's a personal assistant, called PIA, as represented by the triangle icon, with whom you can talk. PIA seems pretty good at picking up your requests and commands, we had a great chat (although she's a bit too heavily on-brand).
But the coolest part of the interface is the gaze selection. By simply looking at one of the menu tiles on the main dashboard for a couple of seconds it is selected. a double tap of the wooden section on the door is used to enter that menu. To our amazement, it worked. And — if you haven't experienced gaze selection before — it feels like magic, as if thinking actions into life.
After all that, the giant head-up display feels like a small detail, but in truth it's pretty cool. It's possible to turn the front seats inwards and outwards by 15-degrees too.
Back seat passengers get a bit of a raw deal on a 2+2 bench. But if the front passenger seat is fully reclined you'll not want to be sat behind it anyway. We felt that seemed a bit crazy in a car that's over 5 metres long.
Is the Aicon a concept we'll ever see? Given that Mercedes has already shown a car similar to Audi's, and that Renault has its Symbioze concept — all of which are thinking along similar lines — you could say it's looking like the future could be steering-wheel and pedals free.
But while we're excited about autonomous driving, we don't quite buy it. It doesn't paint a vision that's massively attractive or representative of the way people live. And experts are beginning to caution that "Level 5 autonomy" — where cars truly drive themselves and don't ever need human input — might be further away than we think.
The impressive, and most important take-away aspects of the Aicon lie with its interface. The fact that it worked so faultlessly for us, in a one-off built concept, suggests the technologies employed in the cabin here will be here way before any car that's truly able to truly drive itself. And that in itself is also rather exciting.