Does anyone need a luxurious high-riding four-door coupe that converts, at the touch of a button, into a pickup truck? Possibly not really, but then few firms in history have ever got rich delivering customers things they know they want. The trick is to develop something no one had any clue they wanted.
Hence Audi’s new Activesphere concept car. It’s a curvaceous four-seat, four door coupe that – yes – can also be a pickup truck. With a style that’s clearly inspired by Audi’s recent Dakar off-road racer (the one you can see on YouTube scrambling up impossibly tall sand dunes with rally legend Carlos Sainz snr at the wheel) the Activesphere rides high on large 22-inch wheels and extra glass at the bottoms of the doors so that you can see the rocks you need to avoid.
Air suspension gives the concept a maximum possible ground clearance of 248mm for off-roading, or it can drop down to just 166mm for better aerodynamics when cruising on the motorway.
Inside, there’s a dramatic red-and-black interior, whose steering wheel and pedals can retract into the dashboard when it’s under autonomous control. Instead of lots of buttons or screens on the dash, there are “mixed-reality” goggles that you can wear, which display floating screens in front of your fingers (wonder what An Garda Síochána would make of the potential for distraction of those?).
Oh yeah, and at the touch of a button, the rear bodywork and glass can slide out of the way, leaving you with an open load bed, pickup truck style. Like we said – the thing you never knew you needed.
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Underneath all of this concept car frippery is something more serious – the PPE electric car platform, which Audi is making along with Porsche and which will form the underpinnings of all of Audi’s larger models in the coming years. For the Activesphere, it’s claiming a 442hp output from two electric motors with 720Nm of torque. There’s a 100kW battery with ultra-fast 800-volt charging (at up to 270kW) and a potential one-charge range of more than 600km. None of that is pie-in-the-sky concept stuff – the Audi A6 e-tron, expected to be revealed this year, will ride on the PPE platform and should have comparable performance to this concept.
It’s part of Audi’s plan to become an EV-only car maker by 2033, as well as to push much further down the road of autonomous driving. Next year’s new all-electric A8, the A8 e-tron, will also use the PPE chassis and is expected to look very much like the large, luxurious, Grandsphere concept car that was revealed in 2021.
Audi has also since said that while the driving experience is no longer what it considers the defining part of a car, it will still seek to keep a physical connection between car and driver
Audi brand manager Philip Gundert said at that car’s reveal that: “The Audi Grand Sphere concept is definitely the one of our Sphere concept car trio that is the most similar, and comes closest to a large series project. You can see that the car has electric drive and is automated to Level 4, and we’re already setting the stage for mass production of this car. By the middle of this decade, we hope to be able to present this to the public.”
Inside there are no controls and no steering wheel. Indeed, when you sit in past the large doors (which are front and rear-hinged to allow the entire side of the car to open up) there appears to be nothing other than a very expensively upholstered shelf. In fact, what’s in front of you is a projection screen, on to which all of the car’s controls and displays are shone. The only physical controls, at first, are door-mounted switches for the seats and temperature controls, and even then you can use them without touching, just waving your hands around in gestures.
Is the Grand Sphere designed to be entirely self-driving? Thankfully, no. There’s a little more theatre in here than it first seems. At the wave of a hand, a panel in the screen opens up and out whirrs a steering wheel, steering column, and integrated instrument display, so that the driver can take control as and when they want to.
The centre console also opens up when you switch from autonomous to driving mode, and even includes a neat little chilled water dispenser for when you fancy wetting your whistle on the go. Audi expects that hands-off, eyes-off Level 4 autonomy will be deployable on motorways and major roads towards the end of this decade.
Audi has also since said that while the driving experience is no longer what it considers the defining part of a car, it will still seek to keep a physical connection between car and driver, not least because legislation and technology lags might yet hold up fully-autonomous driving for some time to come.
Speaking of which, Audi needs to pick up the pace when it comes to developing all this new technology. The company’s much-ballyhooed Project Artemis – a skunkworks division dedicated to new software development and the creation of an all-but-fully-autonomous car – has been scrapped, and the Artemis itself blamed for sucking in resources that led to delays in other major VW Group projects. In part, such delays are said to have cost former Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess his job.
Although Audi was initially quick to bring all-electric models to market – the original e-tron quattro SUV (now-rebranded as Q8 e-tron), the e-tron GT coupe, the Q4 e-tron SUV – it has started to lag behind its big German rivals such as BMW and Mercedes in terms of building its EV range up and out. No amount of clever pickup conversion tech is going to cover that issue up.