It often feels like the automotive industry has hit a creative wall where every concept vehicle has to be another electric vehicle offering next-generation connectivity and some self-driving claims that will later be tamped down. We’ve gotten used to being disappointed but there has been one brand that’s been furnishing concept vehicles that are at least interesting.
In 2018, Audi debuted the PB18 E-Tron Concept (AI:RACE) in an attempt to highlight what’s possible with a pure EV using the skateboard platform. Without a driveshaft hogging interior space, the automaker felt it could build a supercar with an interchangeable driving position that allowed the pilot to transition from a central F1-style cockpit to something that’s more suited to the daily commute. The company has since decided to build on that idea with the Skysphere Concept, which alters the roadster’s exterior based on whether it’s you or the car that’s doing the driving.
In its autonomous mode (Level 4 SAE), the Skysphere exists as a lavish grand tourer that can chart its own course in a leisurely manner. But swapping into its human-driven mode causes the front of the vehicle to retract 10 inches to shorten the wheelbase and make it more eager when chucked around corners. The car also squats about an inch and a half closer to the ground while the necessary pedals pop out of the footwell so you can have your moment before handing driving duties back to the car’s computer. This also requires the rocker panels to slide beneath the vehicle while the front grille changes its lighting configurations to indicate which mode the vehicle is currently operating in.
Audi said it looked way back into its past to settle on the Horch 853 as the Skysphere’s main inspiration and the vehicle does have some of the design flair associated with high-end roadsters from the 1930s — specifically the long nose and tapered rear end. But we assume the Horch reference was just to keep things related to Audi’s own heritage. Volkswagen Group could have just as easily claimed the model was inspired by a dozen other luxury ragtops from the Great Depression.
But, unlike those vehicles, the Skysphere is entirely dependent upon a single electric motor sitting at the rear axle. Audi said the unit was capable of 624 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque and could put the two-ton automobile on pace for a 4-second sprint to 62 mph. What’s more impressive is that the convertible concept is supposed to be able to reliable traverse 310 miles between charges (on the forging European WLTP cycle), though that’s only when driven in autonomous mode. Actually driving the vehicle in a matter designed to create a sense of enjoyment is estimated to bring that number down.
Steering inputs (front and rear) can also be adjusted by the driver, creating a car with more prompt turn-in or something a bit more relaxed. The aluminum double-wishbone suspension is similarly adaptive based on road conditions and preference, though Skysphere remains a squat 47 inches tall.
The interior is a menagerie of touch screens (meh) and offers the maximum amount of connectivity. Audi wants the hypothetical owners of such a product to be able to do anything they might on a personal computer with the same amount of ease. This objective is reinforced by the steering wheel retracting into the dashboard in autonomous mode, so the surface can be temporarily rejiggered into another touch-based interface.
With the Skysphere’s 80+kWh battery being situated primarily at the vehicle’s rear, that long nose seems to be almost wholly devoted to the transformational gimmick. The only cargo mentioned is two proprietary overnight bags that go beneath the glass trunk. But that’s still more thoughtfulness than most concept vehicles receive and the Skysphere is ultimately supposed to serve as a jumping-off point for three other “Shpere cars” that are coming out next year.
“These concept cars feature a new design that ultimately reimagines the interior, the passenger compartment, as the center of the vehicle and no longer subordinates the passenger experience to the requirements of the technology,” explained Audi. “This is reflected in the variable layout of the interior, the disappearance of the controls, and the sheer expanse of the cabin. In Grand Touring mode, this not only allows both passengers to enjoy a smooth and pleasant journey, but also combines it with new service offerings.”
The Audi Skysphere is scheduled to make its first physical appearance at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance later this month and was rumored to appear at the now-canceled New York International Auto Show.
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