Shape-shifting Audi e-concept grows or shrinks at push of a button
A retractable hard-top is standard fare, but how about a retractable body shell? That's a futuristic area Audi explores with the all-new Skysphere concept. The electric roadster seamlessly transitions between open-air autonomous grand touring and hard-nosed, hand-on-wheel sports driving by adjusting in length and wheelbase, from the full stretch of an A8 to a shorter, sportier form. Future Audi owners may just get two cars with one lease payment.
When we first put eyes on the Skysphere, we wondered why Audi would design such a long all-electric roadster. But it turns out, it didn't – not permanently, anyway. Instead of using the lack of engine and driveshaft, along with steer-by-wire, as an excuse to permanently increase interior size and shorten up the hood and overhangs, Audi explores how the added space can be used to support a real-life transformer.
As you can see in the clip below, the Skysphere's front hood and fender assemblies nest over top a contrast-color under-bodywork layer. With help from electric motors and underlying frame components that feature similar expansion capability, the front-end can extend forward or retract backward, adjusting the car's length by 9.8 inches (250 mm).
The extension system is meant to optimize the transition between autonomous shuttling and active driving. The extended 204-in (519-cm) grand touring configuration complements autonomous mode, and not only does the cabin grow along with the wheelbase, interior space is further freed via the retracting steering wheel, pedals and controls. The two passengers gain increased legroom and a clear view of the full-width digital dashboard. We initially thought the roof might open in conjunction with the expansion, but it's simply a removable hard panel that works independently, whether in grand touring or sports mode.
The interior is where the "sphere" aspect of the concept comes into play, and Audi imagines it as a cozy, personalized space for "world-class experiences" to be enjoyed during fully autonomous commutes. With Audi's autonomous suite handling the driving, the two passengers can sit back and enjoy the fresh air flowing through the open top, converse with each other, or turn their attention to the digital world waiting in front of them, using the large touch displays to browse the internet, host video calls or stream videos, complete with premium surround sound.
Hit the transform button, and the Skysphere shrinks down into a 194.5-in (494-cm) sports configuration that puts control back into the hands of the human driver, boosting handling via the reduced length and wheelbase and an adaptive air suspension drop of 10 mm (0.4 in). Rear-wheel steering kicks in to tighten up cornering and stabilize high-speed runs.
The Skysphere's stretched appearance follows the classic Horch 853 Roadster that served as an inspiration for Audi's Malibu design team. When extended, the concept measures nearly as long as the 853 and makes no attempt to conceal that considerable length. The robust rolling fenders of the Horch are reinterpreted as the Skysphere's long, flowing hood and bulging rear haunches, connected by a set of carefully sculpted rocker panels that serve as a functional part of the extension system.
Being a modern sports car, the Skysphere ducks down more than half a meter (1.6 ft) shorter than the Horch, its windshield barely rising above the headrests inside. At its tallest, the Skysphere stands roughly 4 ft (1.2 m) off the ground.
Audi colors in the Skysphere's front and rear ends with serious digitization, wiring up wide-stretching LED light panels that lend unmistakable front and rear signatures. Both LED arrays can create a mix of functional and aesthetic visual effects, greeting driver and passenger upon arrival or conveying information to other road users.
The Skysphere relies on a 624-hp rear-mounted electric motor with 553 lb-ft (750 Nm) of torque. Audi splits the 80-kWh battery up between and behind the seats to offer up to 311 miles (500 km, WLTP) of range during economical GT driving. In sports mode, the car can sprint from 0 to 62 mph (100 km/h) in four seconds.
Audi will host the public world premiere of the Skysphere concept on Friday, August 13, as part of Monterey Car Week. We don't expect to witness the arrival of an auto-extending Audi at dealerships anytime soon, but the Skysphere is the first in a series of "sphere" concepts that will further explore the evolution of the automotive interior in the increasingly autonomous world. It will be followed later this year by the Grandsphere and in 2022 by the Urbansphere.