The new Audi skysphere concept takes the idea of a “convertible” to new extremes.
The first of three cutting-edge prototypes the German automaker plans to reveal in the months ahead, skysphere explores the extent to which autonomous and electric drive technologies will transform the auto industry.
The long, low roadster’s roof can retract, but that’s just the start. It can even change its wheelbase at the touch of a button. And, when you get tired of putting the skysphere through its paces, the steering wheel and pedals tuck away, transforming the cabin into a luxurious lounge on wheels.
“New technologies like electrification, digitalization, and autonomous driving gave us the opportunity to create an experience that goes way beyond the one that typical roadsters offer today,” said design project manager Gael Buzyn.
A fondness for extreme machines
Audi has had a fondness for unusual concepts and has been taking advantage of the way electric propulsion opens up vehicle designs. With batteries and motors mounted under the load floor, freeing up space normally devoted to the engine compartment, all sorts of things can happen.
In the case of skysphere, the show car retains classic roadster proportions, Audi officials saying they were strongly influenced by the Horch 835, one of the most celebrated German luxury vehicles of the 1930s. Horch was one of the four brands that eventually became Audi. (Horch, in German, means the same thing as Audi, in Latin. In English it’s “to hear.”)
The design is far from retro, however. About the only visual connections to Audi’s prestigious past comes in the form of skysphere’s suicide-style doors and 23-inch wire-style wheels — and even here, it’s a rather abstract link.
A retractable roof and a platform that can stretch up to 10 inches
Like any good roadster, the two-door’s roof retracts. But here’s where Audi engineers pulled off a neat bit of magic. As a roadster, skysphere measures about 194 inches in length. And, with its low-mounted two-part battery pack and motors, it should be capable of scooting nimbly around corners.
The show car uses a single electric motor that punches out 623 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque through the rear wheels. Audi claims that will launch the roughly 4,000 pound skysphere from 0-60 in just 4 seconds.
But when you’ve had your fun and now want to go for a comfortable cruise, skysphere transforms into a mobile lounge. The wheelbase stretches by nearly a foot, to 204 inches, nose-to-tail, as body and frame components pull apart. At the same time, the traditional driver controls vanish, the prototype now operating at Level 4 autonomy. That means it can go anywhere, anytime, without ever needing a driver’s intervention.
Skysphere was developed digitally at Audi’s advance research facility in California. But it bears the imprint of Marc Lichte, the brand’s global design director. He’s a fan of minimalism — at least when it comes to traditional knobs and switches, and the new concept goes well beyond what we’re seeing with Audi’s latest production models. The instrument panel is, essentially, a pillar-to-pillar, 56-inch video display, with an additional touchscreen at the front of the center console, as well as by your fingertips on the doors’ armrests.
Audi has been teasing the arrival of the skysphere for several weeks and formally released these images today. The concept will arrive in solid form at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance next weekend.
It’s just the start, however, with Audi saying its part of a trio of concepts, set to be followed by the “Audi grandsphere, and, coming in 2022, Audi urbansphere.” These collective will serve as the brand’s “showcase (for) its vision of progressive luxury. In the process, Audi is creating a vehicle experience that goes far beyond the purpose of merely spending time in a car to get from point A to point B, and even far beyond the driving experience itself.”
It might be easy to dismiss the skysphere as just a fanciful fantasy in chrome, but Audi leaves us wondering just how much it might influence the brand’s future products. “A vehicle like the Audi skysphere concept,” it says in a statement, “will become a platform for experiences that expand horizons beyond the mere ride in just a few years.”