Article by Mark Stevenson. Photos by Mark Stevenson and courtesy of Audi.

Automotive writers rely on certain stereotypes to provide colour to stories, such as no-nonsense, engineering-focused Germans and emotional, flamboyant Spaniards (not so much in Canadian automotive journalism, but across the pond these traits are mentioned for effect for than once).

At the Audi booth during the North American International Auto Show, I had the pleasure to speak with a German and a Spaniard as we stood beside the brand new Q7. Both work in different areas of design for the four-ringed automaker. Karl-Heinz Rothfuss, an excitable and passionate German, is head of Audi interior design. Cesar Muntada Roura, a much more deliberate and visually reserved Spaniard than his German counterpart, is head of Audi exterior lighting design for concepts and production vehicles.

Together they lead the two areas for which Audi is known — lighting design (to reflect its leadership in lighting technology) and interior design (to highlight the well-crafted materials and workmanship put into every Audi).

Mark Stevenson: Automakers have been doing full TFT instrument panels for a while. What’s new with Audi Virtual Cockpit for the Q7?

Karl-Heinz Rothfuss: For TT, we moved everything towards the driver. Now, on the Q7, we have something for the passenger too. On the TT, there’s just the cockpit, nothing else. It’s a sports car, driver orientated. On the Q7, we have the middle screen for the passenger to look up an address and other things.

MS: But, it’s still not a touchscreen.

KHR: It’s the Audi MMI system, but the next step is with big touchpads so you can conveniently write any letters — Chinese letters, this was always a problem if you have too small of an area — but now you can basically write anything!

MS: What can I do with Virtual Cockpit that I can’t do with the current instrument panel?

KHR: You can configure it to show items that you want to see all the time — whatever it is. On an analog instrument, you have the two clocks [speedometer and tachometer dials], and you can’t get away from those two clocks! Now you’re able to configure it to see what you want to see.

MS: Audi is known for being a benchmark in interiors. How do you stay at the top?

KHR: We always push technology right up to the edge. What is possible? It’s a tough fight — with the engineers, with the guys in production. But we always try to get to the limit of what’s possible.

MS: In Los Angeles, Audi introduced us to the Prologue concept. From that concept, where do you see interior design going in the future?

KHR: The Prologue showed a lot of what we are going to see in the future in production cars. It was not just a show car. We won’t get everything, but a lot of it.

MS: Comparing Q7 to Prologue, the interior of the Prologue is much brighter, more open. Is this a characteristic of concept cars versus production models? Or can we expect to be welcomed by more open, airy, and brighter interiors?

KHR: Technology enables us to a lot of new things. All the bits and pieces are getting smaller. This is good because what we always want to do is provide the feeling of a light interior. We want to shrink everything down, slimming it down, so you’re given the illusion of a floating dashboard. Audi is a leader in lightweight technology but we want the customer to experience this, too. Nobody will ever put a car on a scale and measure it to see if it’s really light. You should experience it [lightweighting], you should see it. Technology enables us to really show it.

MS: Audi is known as an innovator in lighting technology. How do you design a headlight to reflect that technology leadership?

Cesar Muntada Roura: We give a character to the car — we call it the signature — meaning you can recognize the car. You can recognize it first, from far away, as an Audi and, closer up, which Audi. By knowing how each lighting technology performs, it is then when you can do the design. It is not the same to work with LED lights and other lights. The performance and quality [of the light being emitted] is completely different.

MS: Exterior designers talk in terms of ‘A surfaces’ [this is the primary surface of a car]. But, a headlight has an ‘A surface’ outer shell (lens) and then another 3D design inside. How do you manage that complexity?

CMR: This is the most challenging design subject for us. The lights are not very big and are full of technology. It’s very difficult to find the right space. We have constant discussions with the technical department to find the millimetres we need. But, the signature of the light also has a dialog with the body.

First of all, you have to identify the lines of the body, the character of the car, and then you have to distribute these elements and find where you’re going to place these elements.

[At this point the interview became a full presentation of the Q7 headlight: where the body lines flow into other line structures within the headlight itself, where certain lines in the light match up with bars in the grille, and where other lines, though not meeting up with the headlight, still have a relationship pair with something inside the headlight. It was all very interesting but makes for a boring read thanks to my constant interjections (“You mean here? *points* And here and here? *point point point*

Sorry, folks.]

CMR: Even though these elements don’t touch, they have to have a relation. It is important when we design the objects, it doesn’t matter what car it is, the light design has a relationship to the body. It’s like a sculpture within a sculpture. The headlight is a sculpture on its own, but it must correlate with the rest of the sculpture — the body.

MS: How do you manage the need to come up with new designs against not changing too much and losing Audi’s design identity?

CMR: This is a secret of good design, I would say. We have a very clear principal when it comes to designing lighting elements. But, when you look at each car — the A6, A7, A8, TT, Q7 — each one has its own personality. From a distance, you will always recognize it as an Audi, with its long lines, it’s very precisely designed. But, when it’s closer, you can see the differences. The TT has a focus on vertical elements, which ties in with our Le Mans cars. The Q7 also focuses on these vertical elements but, of course, has more body and horizontal lines.

MS: Audi has adopted lightweighting as one of its core pillars. Can you show a lightweight quality through lighting design?

CMR: Indeed, we can. On the A8, we show it through the blade [there’s an element within the A8 headlight Cesar shows me], you see how thin this structure is and it gives this car a lightweight character. You show that this car immediately talks about lightweighting.

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