The Audi skysphere concept is a true transformer
Audi is preparing the world for its new design language
The Audi skysphere concept is the first in a trio of conceptual designs intended to re-position the German brand as a leader in emotional technology. Audi’s concept cars are typically relatively true to life, predicting real world machines that are just a few months from production. This time, however, the company is going out on a limb with a bold future vision designed to evoke an ethos, if not an actual forthcoming model.
The skysphere is a substantial two-seat grand tourer, a classic and desirable automotive archetype reinvented for a new era. There’s a rapid shift happening in the sporting and luxury end of the auto industry, as consumer enthusiasm for noisy, fossil-fuelled transportation evaporates faster than a puddle in a Portland heatwave. Given that the internal combustion engine has been the literal and metaphorical heart of the automobile, companies like Audi are focusing on using design to re-shape our image of the electric car.
There are other technologies in this future pipeline, and the skysphere is designed to showcase them all. The most pressing is autonomous driving. Although this is still very much an unknown quantity in the real world, autonomy is the stuff that car designers’ dreams are made of, opening up an unlimited range of interior ideas. As a result, the skysphere has been given an impressive party trick. In Grand Touring mode, the steering wheel folds away and the open cabin becomes a space for a ‘romantic motoring experience,’ in the company’s own words. The cabin is lavishly adorned with vegan leather, eucalyptus wood, and a dashboard-sized touchscreen, with the newly available space doubling down on the car’s future role as a social space or work zone.
In Sports Mode, the skysphere’s passenger seat slides back, the steering wheel reappears and the entire car contracts by 250mm in length, creating a more wieldy, agile wheelbase. Lichte describes this as a transformation into the ‘ultimate driving machine,’ although in the future Audi is designing for there’ll be far fewer chances to manually take the wheel, so contemporary definitions of dynamics and performance might not apply. It’s not the first concept to toy with a sliding scale; last year’s Renault Morphoz design study also compressed its length, this time for ease of access to cities. There have also been a number of ultra-compact city cars designed to fold up into a smaller footprint for parking.
The skysphere’s concertina-style bodywork is first and foremost about glamour and presence. Conceived and developed at Audi’s Malibu ‘design loft’, an all-digital studio in California, headed up by Senior Director Gael Buzyn, it required careful consideration to ensure the proportions stayed correct despite the shifting bodywork. The American team worked virtually alongside Head of Audi Design Marc Lichte to develop the concept.
Although its self-driving skills and transformable bodywork will grab headlines, the car’s most serious role is to prepare the world for Audi’s new design language. The skysphere’s form is defined by a more faceted, geometric approach, inside and out, with an emphasis on textures created by patterns, and boldly juxtaposed materials. The front grille, for so long a defining feature of the Audi ‘face’, has dematerialised into the entire front end of the car, a wraparound feature that is defined by pattern and surface and no longer cools, but houses the sensors and cameras required for autonomy, with a kaleidoscope array of LEDs defining the surfaces.
Lichte describes the car as ‘a sculpture in motion with a majestic presence,’ and its world premiere at the 2021 Monterey Car Week shows the big two-seater in its natural habitat. The design team was partly inspired by the 1937 Horch 853 Roadster, a monumental design from the early days of Audi’s history. Right now, the skysphere’s Level 4 autonomy is still legally, ethically, and technologically out of reach, but concepts like this show how seriously Audi is taking the challenge of creating premium EVs that combine presence with utility. The skysphere will followed by two other forthcoming concepts, the Audi grandsphere and Audi urbansphere, all of which are united by this new approach to the passenger experience.§