EACH year, alloy wheels with new designs are introduced on new car models or as updates for existing models. The designs are varied, some purely aesthetic while others have functional features to improve cooling of the brakes or aerodynamic efficiency, especially for electric vehicles.
For original equipment wheels, ie those installed at the factory by the carmakers, the designs are usually done in-house (although there may be times when specialised wheels are provided by suppliers). This is just another part of the work at the design department and often, the designers are on the look out for new ideas and inspiration.
But where to find untapped sources of inspiration when it comes to designing wheels? This is where Audi’s design department is leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), a goal the German carmaker has set itself on its way to becoming a data-driven company.
With FelGAN, the company now employs software that uses AI to open up new sources of inspiration for designers at the Audi Design Studio in Ingolstadt, Germany.
‘Thinking out the box’
An in-house development by Audi’s IT department and Audi Design, the AI-based software FelGAN enables ‘thinking out the box’. The project is now enabling creative people to draw from a practically unlimited pool of ideas. Interacting with the software lets designers discover motifs from completely new perspectives, giving them suggestions that they can further evolve and work into their creations.
In concrete terms, FelGAN works either by rapidly proposing a large number of photo-realistic designs itself or recombining existing designs in a targeted way. In this way, the system acts as a kind of spontaneous idea hub for Audi’s wheel design team, allowing them to exchange new versions and variations. The tool lets designers easily experiment with shape, colour, surface structure, and other parameters in real time.
How AI learned to design wheels
The name ‘FelGAN’ is a mix of the German word for ‘rim’ (Felge) and ‘GAN’, the latter being an acronym for Generative Adversarial Networks. GANs are a special form of self-learning computer program in which two algorithms compete as opponents during the so-called ‘training’, becoming better and better in competition with each other.
It works like this: One of the two algorithms, the ‘generator’ makes artificial images of a specific motif – in the case of FelGAN, a vehicle rim. The discriminator – the ‘competitor’, so to speak – sees a selection of images, consisting of real wheel photos alongside images from the generator. Now the discriminator decides whether each image is a creation of the generator or a real photo. This process is repeated again and again until training is completed.
Both algorithms are designed to learn from their mistakes and improve continuously. After enough runs, the generator’s creations are so deceptively real that even the human eye cannot, or can only barely, distinguish them from real photos.
The application’s intuitive user interface, which is based on Streamlit technology, creates short development cycles and quick feedback between the design and IT team. So that designers do not have to rely on high-performance local hardware when using the software solution, the components of the AI application – which require a lot of processing power – are run in the cloud.
Cooperation between humans and AI
Another benefit of FelGAN is that the software assigns a mathematical value to each design that the AI makes. Referred to by developers as ‘DNA’, these values can be used at any time to reproduce designs. Audi designers can also feed the program with their own designs and photos, adding them to the virtual experimental surface. This is based on special algorithms that determine the appropriate DNA values for the images that designers feed in.
Often, designers only go on to use individual elements from FelGAN’s creations, refining them into a harmonious overall design. In addition to mastery of the tools of the trade, a creative eye and professional experience play the decisive role here. Finally, the experts at Audi make the virtual design a reality by producing a prototype of the wheel, either in plastic or aluminium, using a high-tech milling machine.
“In the modern age, data brings immense added value for companies and their employees. Audi has committed to the goal of becoming a data-driven company. To this end, we are going to use AI in many departments. So our data team is always on the look-out for new technologies,” said Thomas Knispel, Head of Machine Learning & Data Science at Audi.
In the future, the technology behind FelGAN could be expanded into a comprehensive AI design platform that could also serve as a source of inspiration for designers from other Audi departments. Furthermore, an AI rating system is currently being developed in which each rim generated by FelGAN will be assessment with regard to its carbon balance.