An automaker unveiling an autonomous concept car isn’t really headline news. It’s still unclear when riding in a self-driving car will become an everyday occurrence, but self-driving concept cars have already become an auto show cliche. Now, it looks like Audi is preparing to put a new spin on the idea. Debuting at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, the Audi AI:Trail Quattro looks set to take autonomous driving off-road.
Audi isn’t providing any details on the AI:Trail Quattro. The only clue is a teaser image showing a pod-like vehicle with chunky off-road tires. The word “Trail” in the name indicates some rugged capability as well, while the “AI” seems to hint at autonomous driving.
We’ll have to wait until the car’s Frankfurt debut for official confirmation, but it looks like the AI:Trail Quattro will also have an electric powertrain. There just doesn’t seem to be any room for an engine. With no hood or any apparent area forward of the cabin, Audi would have had to stuff the engine under the floor, à la the Toyota Previa. That seems unlikely.
The podlike design should make the AI:Trail Quattro good off-road, at any rate. The wheels are pushed out to the edges of the vehicle, leaving virtually no overhang on either end. That should help the AI:Trail Quattro negotiate obstacles and steep inclines, since there is less bodywork to get caught on something.
Audi’s current lineup of SUVs doesn’t have the off-road capability of, say, a Land Rover, but the German automaker does have an illustrious rallying heritage. Today, self-driving car development tends to focus on cities, where companies plan to use the vehicles for ridesharing and delivery services. But one of the earliest concerted efforts to develop self-driving cars was the DARPA Grand Challenge, a contest aimed at creating autonomous military vehicles. To ensure the technology was military-tough, competitors had to drive across a desert.
The idea of an autonomous off-roader for civilians hasn’t really caught on, but human-driven electric vehicles may hit the trails soon. Bollinger Motors attracted lots of attention with its minimalist design, although development seems to have stalled. Rivian plans to begin production of a high-end electric pickup truck and SUV in 2020. Rivian has said its vehicles will have “Level 3” capability, meaning they will be able to steer, brake, and accelerate autonomously on highways, but will need a human driver at the wheel at all times.