David Zax

A View from David Zax

Audi's Vision of Driverless Electric Cars

Do electric vehicles need to be this flashy?

  • December 14, 2011

First, a disclaimer: File this one under “wildly speculative.”

We’ve brought you word of driverless cars, and we’ve brought you word of electric cars–but how about electric driverless cars?

Inhabitat reports that Audi and BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) recently brought to Art Basel Miami a concept for just that. The project envisioned a Tron-like future in which, as Inhabitat put it, driverless electric cars would be integrated “into advanced roadways that guide the vehicles, eliminating curbs, traffic lights and other types of space-gobbling infrastructure to hand the city back to pedestrians.”

The idea goes something like this: that surfaces on which we walk in the cities of the future would themselves be like giant touchscreens, registering exactly where pedestrians are standing or walking. That information would be fed to your driverless vehicle, which would automatically calculate its path through the crowd. It sounds insane, and probably is. BIG put together a video to give you an idea.

The project is part of a larger project Audi has been undertaking, which it calls the Urban Future Initiative. Bjarke Ingels, the architect who envisioned this particular project, calls his touchscreen-like roads “digital streets.” Says Audi: “The model shows a street without limits–one that can continuously change its function from a highway to a pedestrian zone, and even to a recreational area.”

And what kind of car will populate this futuristic vision? The Audi A2, of course. Audi’s concept electric car debuted at the recent International Motor Show in Frankfurt. The concept car is just 12.5 feet long, 1.7 feet wide, and 4.9 feet high. “[E]ven so,” promises Audi, “it makes an elegant, powerful and sporty impression on the street.” A few other innovations: it includes next-gen LED technology known as a “matrix beam”: a set of LEDs and microreflectors that generate non-glaring high-beam light. It even has a fancy rear fog light, produced by laser diodes, that “is seen as a beam of light in fog and projects a red triangle onto the road as a warning.” The A2 product description, in fact, seems to be much more excited with all its lights than it is with the fact that it’s electric-only. The word “electric” is discarded after the first paragraph; the word “light” or some variant thereof appears 22 times.

Whenever I read descriptions that treat electric vehicles as though they were a prop in a laser show, I think back to an interview I once conducted with CODA Automotive’s then-CEO, Kevin Czinger. “This is just like a regular car except it doesn’t use an ounce of gasoline,” he told me of his decidedly non-flashy CODA sedan. “That, to me, is what’s cool. Do I care that it doesn’t look like a spaceship and isn’t beating its chest saying, ‘I’m electric, I’m electric’? No.”

Concept cars, with their Tron-like smart roads and flashing laser fog lights, are all very cool. But we should keep our focus on what’s really exciting about EVs: a future whose vehicles are powered by a more sustainable energy source than gas.

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