Audi AI:ME future mobility concept uses VR to lift you out of traffic
Audi isn't going full-time autonomous with its latest concept for CES 2020, but if you do choose to let the AI:ME drive itself, you can strap yourself into a set of VR goggles and swap your dull city crawl for a bird's-eye flight through the hills.
Part of the fun of concept cars in recent years has been watching car companies struggle with what the heck to offer people when the (sometimes dubious) pleasure of driving ceases to be a factor. When cars start driving themselves more often than not, performance and handling and all the things groups like Audi pride themselves on go straight out the window, and creature comforts become the name of the game.
So here's Audi's latest effort: the AI:ME, an empathetic wellness pod and relaxation center on wheels. It's fully electric, naturally, and designed either to drive or be driven depending on your mood.
First up, it gets to know your driving habits, including commonly run routes and destinations, examined each time you hop in against the current time and traffic conditions to calculate suggested routes – something Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) system already does. Then it gets to know you, learning your preferred seat position, temperature, radio stations or media options, and interior fragrances. Once it's pretty certain it's got a bead on you, it'll start pre-loading these things automatically. There also appears to be some sort of biometric monitoring that allows the car to respond to your moods, going so far as to change to cool, blue "wakey wakey" interior lighting if you look like you're nodding off.
The interior is sparse and pretty, its beige cloth and wooden accents feeling much like an ultra-modern lounge room. The manual control scheme is laughably simple, with half a steering wheel, a power button, drive selector and accelerator and brake pedals being all you need. When you're not driving, the steering wheel folds and tucks away as a little wooden desk tray comes forward for your laptop-balancing pleasure.
A screen stretches across the entire front dash, a dual-layer beauty 122 cm wide and 15 cm high (48 x 6 in) that can be entirely transparent, letting you see through to the road, or partially transparent, or totally opaque with a deep black background depending on what you're doing with it. Eye-tracking systems allow you to make menu selections hands-free.
This is backed up with a 3D mixed-reality heads-up display, which Audi says is capable of painting nav arrows right onto streets as you approach them, making it extra-clear where you're supposed to turn. With views generated for both your left and right eyes, information can be positioned in 3D space, where you can view it without having to refocus your eyes.
And then there's the built-in VR system. Stick the car in autonomous mode, and if (as is very likely) you're not so keen on sitting in traffic, slip on a headset. Audi is planning to build inspirational outdoor VR experiences, like flying through the mountains or rolling through a forest, that can react to the motions of the car so your perception of inertia doesn't pull you out of your glide. A moment of relaxation in a busy day, albeit one you can get pretty close to right now with an Oculus Quest and an Uber ride.
Interesting, isn't it, that such a high-tech urban mobility system strives to make us feel happy and relaxed by helping us pretend we're not in an urban space at all. We've constructed these towering productivity centers and flocked to them hoping for a better life than our rural cousins, and where do we want to go to feel good? Anywhere but a damn city. These spaces are great money-making systems, but frustrating and depressing for a lot of humans.
Anyhoo ... Exterior-wise, there are lights to alert other road users to your intentions, a set of coach-style doors for easy access, and a body shape that Audi won't be impressed to hear reminds us of a Toyota C-HV. Will it make production? Of course not. But it's a fun little pamper parlor that gives us a sense of where Audi sees this whole car thing going.