Audi's AI Wheel Designer Knocked Off a Bunch of Old Wheels

Audi created an artificial-intelligence system to come up with new wheel designs, but it spit out a lot of copies of old VW, Alfa Romeo and BMW wheels.

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Image for article titled Audi's AI Wheel Designer Knocked Off a Bunch of Old Wheels
Photo: Audi

2022 has been a big year for machine learning. We all had our fun with DALL-E over the summer, and now everyone’s playing with ChatGPT and feeding their faces into Lensa. But it seems we’re not alone in wanting our computer-generated entertainment — car companies, always quick to go all-in on flash-in-the-pan trends, now want to adopt AI into their design processes.

Audi is the latest to delve into the computer-generated waters, with a new program that uses AI-designed wheels as “inspiration” for human designers. The company claims its machine learning system can create wheels “so deceptively real that even the human eye cannot, or can only barely, distinguish them from real photos.” Is Audi... is Audi sure?

Image for article titled Audi's AI Wheel Designer Knocked Off a Bunch of Old Wheels
Photo: Audi
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Just look at the wheels presented in Audi’s press shots here. Few of them have regular, even spokes the whole way around, and many seem to lack any form of structural integrity. A few even seem to push the boundaries of what’s possible with modern wheel production methods, which s a very kind way of saying that they can’t physically be built. Besides that, though, the designs seem great.

Of course, the best designs on the list are the ones borrowed from actual real-life wheels. The photos show wheels clearly inspired by the Volkswagen XL1, late-aughts Audi S4, and aftermarket options like the Enkei PF01. Even the distinctive five-circle wheels of Alfa Romeo make an appearance on Audi’s big screen.

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Look at the satin silver, split seven-spoke wheel in the bottom-right corner of the top image. Tell me it’s not exactly this 2007 Audi S4 wheel.
Look at the satin silver, split seven-spoke wheel in the bottom-right corner of the top image. Tell me it’s not exactly this 2007 Audi S4 wheel.
Photo: John Lopez, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

So it seems Audi has developed a high-tech system that takes existing wheels and fucks ‘em up a little, then sends them off to actual car designers to fix. This doesn’t sound like an incredibly productive use of anyone’s time, but it does sound perfectly within the wheelhouse of current AI tech. When you’re working with algorithms trained on specific input images, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the resulting images look a lot like those inputs.

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To its credit, Audi is only using generative AI as a piece of its design process. The company’s designers, with their human intelligence, can likely recognize when the software has handed them an existing wheel and simply ignore it — meaning the company avoids all those pesky art theft accusations. Still, with so many AI-generated wheel designs ending up functionally useless, one has to wonder: Is this really useful to the world of car design?