It took a village (plus robots and a supercomputer) to design the new Audi A7

“My favorite part of the new A7? It’s the rear end, but I also like the belt line,”

Audi design boss Marc Lichte told us with the smile of a proud parent as he examined a life-sized clay model of the car.

The second-generation A7 made its official debut in mid-October, and Lichte explained the path from a clay model to a real car that runs and drives was long; his team began designing the swoop-y fastback about four years ago. We visited Audi’s brand-new design center to get behind-the-scenes insight into what the process is like.

Old- and new-school techniques

Technology is everywhere these days, but a robot programmed with artificial intelligence can’t design a car on its own – at least not yet. The 2019 Audi A7 started life as a sketch, likely just a basic silhouette, which in turn morphed into a series of increasingly detailed sketches. The drawing part of the process is important because it gives designers the opportunity to let their imagination run wild as they brainstorm ideas. In this case, they wanted to incorporate styling cues from the handsome Prologue concept introduced at the 2014 edition of the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The sketches get more realistic week after week. Starting with a roof line and oversized wheels, designers add character lines to emphasize a particular dimension or surface, and they pencil in trim pieces that make all the difference between a car that gushes dynamism and one that embodies luxury. They also sketch out every part of the interior, including the dashboard, the seats, the gear selector, and the center console.

When they’ve narrowed the project down to a handful of well-defined ideas, the stylists move on to what’s called the digital design phase. They create a realistic prototype they can tweak and rotate as-needed using computer-aided design (CAD) software. That’s nothing new, CAD has been around for decades, but Audi has a neat trick up its sleeve.

Technology is everywhere these days, but a robot programmed with artificial intelligence can’t design a car on its own – at least not yet.

The company relies on an immensely powerful supercomputer to generate preview images so realistic you have to fight the urge to walk up to them and slip behind the wheel. They’re projected on the kind of massive screen you’d normally expect to find at an IMAX theater. The design team can show the car in black, in red, at 3 pm on a cloudy day, or at 9 am on a sunny day. All it takes is a click of a mouse to teleport a car deep in the French Alps, and a second click to send it to the chaotic streets of Los Angeles a split second later. They have the computing power to make an A8 teeter on top of the Washington Monument if they really wanted to.

The software is an invaluable tool when the time comes to get the design signed off by senior executives because it provides an accurate idea of what the car looks like in real life without needing to build expensive prototypes. It also lets members of the design team change the proportions, or tweak key styling cues like the width of the grille.

It takes a village… and robots

Data points from the final CAD model are fed to a computer that controls a drill-like device attached to a robotic arm. It sculpts the basic outline of a car with surprising accuracy, taking into account the trim around the windows, the slats that make up the grille, the belt line, and variations in the sheet metal. This used to be done entirely by hand over the course of several days. The robots speed up the process because they never stop for lunch, and they can keep chiseling away through the night.

Think of the clay models as a blank slate. Stylists are able to stand back, examine their work in natural light, and make changes as they see fit. Clay is highly malleable (it has roughly the same texture as Play-Doh), so lowering the hood line is just a matter of using the right tools to scrape off excess material. Every modification is scanned and sent back to the CAD software, which automatically creates new renderings. Going back and forth between CAD and clay is part of a new design process at Audi.

Interior designers use roughly the same process in the cabin. Once the design is locked in, it’s passed on to a special department that selects the type of leather, stitching, wood trim, and carbon fiber offered on a particular car. Tastes and a keen eye for fashion are of utmost importance, but we’re told a big part of the job is simply figuring out what customers want. This obviously varies from market to market. A buyer in America, where a lot of luxury cars are leased, will ask for something different than a buyer in Germany, where luxury cars are normally made-to-order.

Meanwhile, members of another department are busily working on in-car tech. We’re not talking about building the actual software, or ensuring hackers can’t maliciously meander their way into it. The team’s job is to design an intuitive infotainment system that looks good. Designers move icons and menus around on a magnetic board until they end up with a configuration that meets their expectations. Once it’s locked in, they test the basic functions (like entertainment and navigation) by building an HTML prototype and loading it on a Windows tablet installed in a makeshift interior. A separate software lets members of the same team fine-tune the configurable digital instrument cluster.

When the process comes to a close, designers know exactly what to expect from the final product because they were deeply involved in creating every aspect of it. And yet, a clay modeler told us it’s always a surprise to witness it all come together and see the real thing in person for the first time. No one looked disappointed when the A7 drove out on stage during its presentation.

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