Although Audi has long had a reputation for design, the advent of electric cars places even greater emphasis and importance on the vehicle’s design according to the brand’s design guru, Marc Lichte.

Bernd Zerelles

Robert Fischer

29 October, 2020

Chief of Design at Audi, Marc Lichte, began his career at Volkswagen in 1996 while studying for adegree in transportation design. He took over as head of Audi Design in 2014 and is responsible for a team of over 400 designers as well as the colour and trim division. He also oversees the design of racing cars. With his Audi Prologue concept in 2014, Marc redefined the future of the luxury car at Audi. His first vision of an Audi electric car followed in 2015 with the Audi e-tron quattro concept and has gone on to create vehicles as diverse as the AI:TRAIL, AI:ME, AI:COIN and AI:RACE. Here, he shares his thoughts on an exciting new chapter in automotive design.

“There has never been a more exciting time to be a car designer. Right now is the best time to rethink and reconceive automobile design – in short, to take car design into the future. The electric mobility transformation is paving the way for this. Car design has always been approached in the same way over the past 100 years. At the heart of everything was the masterpiece – the engine. A nice-looking body was then designed around it. And finally, an interior was specified. 

“The approach will be exactly the opposite in the future. That’s because the technological masterpiece – the combustion engine – no longer exists with electric mobility. The focus is shifting to the customer and their wishes. What is the intended use for the car? Long distance, city, leisure? How should the interior look? Should I be able to work, read, or sleep in it? And last of all, we designers then conceive the exterior. 

“The Audi e-tron motors are mounted on the axles, the battery in the floor space in between, the vehicle cabin in the centre grows in terms of its dimensions and shifts the larger wheels (needed to bear the weight) outward. The A-pillar moves much further forward – after all, there is no longer an engine under the bonnet. Huge wheelbase, huge wheels, small overhangs: These completely new proportions define the unique character of electric vehicles.”

“The Audi Singleframe links the radiator above and below to form one unit. But what can be done when there is no longer a radiator on an electric vehicle? How do we show that it is an electric car, yet still an Audi? My team came up with an idea that is both simple and ingenious. The Singleframe grille is always black on an Audi with a combustion engine, because it is open and ventilates the radiator situated behind it. On the Audi e-tron the Singleframe is visually inverted, always in the car color with a dark surround. As a result, you can tell from a distance that it’s an Audi, but an electric one. The Singleframe lets an Audi be an Audi. Even an electric Audi.”

“Each of our designs must first and foremost radiate a presence: Here comes an Audi. But of course an electric car must also very clearly say: Here comes the future. And the future is digitalisation – like the lights on the Audi e-tron. The production version of the Audi Q4 e-tron concept, for example, features digital daytime running lights, of which I am very proud.

 The great thing about them is that every customer can individually design the digital daytime running light graphics. One person might like three Xs in the light silhouette, while another may prefer a horizontal strip. This isn’t just personalisation; above all else, it is digitalisation made visible.

“We are already working on enabling the headlights to communicate with passers-by in the future. This is a requirement of autonomous driving. After all, if there is no longer any eye contact between the driver and the pedestrian in urban traffic – because the driver is reading emails while the car drives itself, for example – then the headlights will have to take over this communication role. 

“When it comes to electric mobility, the heart of the vehicle is no longer the engine beneath the hood, but the battery in the floor of the vehicle. What is its capacity? How light is it? What is its range? Accordingly, every Audi e-tron has an expressively designed sill that very clearly signals the location of the car’s beating heart. The front bonnet on the Audi e-tron has a much more sedate design. Power domes on the bonnet are a thing of the past. 

“Talking of the battery, in contrast to the conventional Singleframe, the air intakes on the front, left, and right of the Audi e-tron Singleframe are open in sections of the louver. They channel air to the battery in the vehicle floor to cool it down. That’s because a heated battery charges more slowly. The Audi e-tron models have an especially efficient cooling system and therefore charge very quickly.”

“It’s not only progressive design that is firmly rooted in the Audi marque, but also progressive thinking in terms of sustainability. It goes without saying that all Audi models are formed in a wind tunnel to make them as efficient as possible. Less wind resistance means fewer energy resources are needed for propulsion. That is why we are once again carefully focusing on aerodynamic design on all of our Audi e-tron models.

“The overall body of our Audi e-tron range is a streamlined droplet shape with a fast, sleek roof – the lines taper off at the rear and flow into deliberate, sharp separation edges. Along the side line, the wheel outlines at the front and rear produce a straight separation edge. The entire underbody of the Audi e-tron features streamlined paneling, flowing into the rear diffuser. And even the new wheels have aerodynamic trims and yet still resemble a sporty wheel with spokes. 

“Last but not least, our virtual exterior mirrors also contribute to the low air resistance – and make Audi’s Vorsprung visible.”

“Sustainability can be found in every facet of our approach. For instance, our engineers have developed a paint for the Audi e-tron that reflects considerably more sunlight. As a result, the vehicle doesn’t heat up as much and the air-conditioning unit doesn’t need to do as much cooling.

“And just a brief mention of the e-tron’s interior to round things off: Recycled material will replace leather in premium vehicles in the not too distant future. Audi will also have a vegan line for the interior.”