The head of Audi Design on the future of individual mobility
A technological sea change is causing a U-turn in the design process
IAA show car reveals production-oriented perspective on the interior as a new world
What direction is auto design heading? This question imposes itself as more and more electric models arrive on the road. The most beautiful cars that have ever existed, some say. Too traditional, others grumble. Audi Design chief Marc Lichte has a clear perspective on this. In recent months, he and his team have been looking intensively at that sea change. In the interview, he gives an overview of how the technological changes have turned Audi’s design – even its design process – upside down.
Question: Mr. Lichte, it is not yet six months since Audi extravagantly presented the e-tron GT1. It is a fully electric Gran Turismo and you said that it was the most beautiful car that you had ever been able to design. What can follow that?
Marc Lichte: Quite a lot. In fact, I would say that we’re just at the beginning. What we’re experiencing right now? With electromobility, the car has already been fundamentally changed in its construction. The visible power center is no longer the engine, but rather the large battery block in the underfloor. In addition, there are possibilities for digitalization and, above all, automated driving. This will fundamentally alter the automobile in the coming years. It’s a change that can probably only be compared with the transitional moment when the carriage was superseded by the car.
It’s an enormous technical challenge, that is undeniable. But what does it mean for auto design in concrete terms?
Lichte: That can be explained quite clearly. In its 135 years, we have always designed the car from the outside moving inward. In other words, in the beginning, there was the question of what vehicle segment the model was to be positioned for and what engine drives that segment. From there, we came up with the vehicle body and, consequently, the exterior design. We would only concern ourselves with designing the interior when all of that was set.
And now you want to shake up that established process?
Lichte: Yes, exactly. Because automated driving is changing an elementary point that previously seemed unchangeable in all cars worldwide: in the future, drivers will no longer have to constantly keep their hands on the wheel. Without the task of actively driving, they will gain new freedoms and can structure their time themselves. Work, entertainment, or relaxing – these are all possible. And at the same time, we are also gaining – without a steering wheel or pedals – new design possibilities for the interior and, quite simply, more room and a better sense of space. For users, the interior will become their personal free space; for us designers, it’s the new design nucleus of the car. So the design process begins with the question: who will be sitting in a new model and what all would that person want to do there? It’s a 180 degree turn. In the future, the car will no longer be designed from the outside in, but from the inside out.
“From the inside out” – other industries and car manufacturers have adopted that motto for themselves for a long time. Why is Audi joining their ranks now?
Lichte: It’s not about a slogan, but rather a fundamentally new understanding of individual mobility. Here’s an example: Imagine a traditional luxury sedan – over 5 meters (16.4 feet) long, tinted windows, and painted black. Where does the customer sit? In the driver’s seat? No, he’s sitting in the back right seat, possibly using the rear-seat entertainment, while the chauffeur drives the car. But in the future, if the task of driving ceases to apply, then it would be much more attractive to the customer to sit right in the front in a comfortable seat with an unobstructed view of the outside or a large onboard entertainment system like you would want at home. For me, that’s first-class traveling.
You mean traveling in a way that has been reserved for VIP airline guests until now?
Lichte: Yes, although I would sooner compare it with a private jet than an airliner. Time in the car becomes quality time. No more displays, buttons, or switches, but rather ample space with a feel-good atmosphere. So something like a third living space, alongside the home and the workplace.
The new luxury for long distances. That’s all well and good, but is that also the solution for people who like sports cars? For families? For people in big cities?
Lichte: It doesn’t have to be, by any means. I’m firmly convinced that different vehicle models will differ from one another to a significantly greater extent in the future. The time when the car was a compromise between a lot of contradictory demands or a kind of all-in-one solution is over. Instead, there will be more and more cars whose entire concepts are tailored for a particular purpose or use case, be it a short trip into a big city or a fast circuit around the racetrack.
Sounds like a vision?
Lichte: Not at all. In 2017 and 2019, for example, we introduced the Audi AI:CON and AI:ME concept vehicles. They were vision cars. With them, we were looking ten to twenty years into the future. Now, by contrast, we’re working intensely on implementing the series. We’ll be sending the first example to the IAA in Munich in September with a production-based show car, the Audi grandsphere concept. The name essentially says it all.