. – Audi’s latest EV concept was revealed publicly for the first time in America’s winter sports never-neverland, and it is one of the most interesting such vehicles the German premium marque has shown in years.
Much of the fascination centres on its rather unusual form factor, which doesn’t easily align with traditional automotive classifications.
Is it an SUV? Yes, but it’s also like a grand coupé / liftback, and it also possesses some pick-up vibes, especially when it’s carrying items, such as bikes.
So, the activesphere’s form factor is a bit of a mash-up of different styles, but even more intriguing than its visuals are the possibilities its tech could portend for Audi in the longer term. But I’ll get to that.
My trip to Aspen, which included taking in some World Cup Skiing, for which Audi is a long-time corporate sponsor, also included a hands-on session with the car, which proved to be more interesting than I was expecting.
For this story, I’m going to focus on hands-on impressions of the Audi activesphere, not on specifications and feature set. I wrote a detailed preview
of it back in January, so for those looking for a primer, feel free to check it out.
Walking up to the activesphere, I am struck by how much of a high-riding, off-roader aesthetic this thing has. Yes, it’s a concept, so Audi needn’t worry about trade-offs that would need to be made to suit manufacturing, at least not yet, but nothing it its current portfolio feels remotely as rugged as this.
Its massive 22-inch wheels and all-terrain tires, chunky rocker sections and rear diffuser scream trail-hunter, as does its air suspension, which both aid in off-road traversal and entry and exit for passengers. Overall, the activesphere’s clamshell lunar rover looks are futuristic to the point that if it made an appearance in a sequel to The Martian
, it wouldn’t surprise me.
During the demonstration, Audi reps raised and lowered the car, which was interesting to watch, but what really got my attention was the rear cargo area, or “active back” as it’s called, an illuminated space where one can carry two e-bikes upright (with front wheels removed) or store other sports equipment.
The active back has a power-operated fold-down liftgate and retractable hatch panel that opened with the touch of a button, where the glass panel retracts upwards as the tailgate folds down – very cool, indeed.
Elsewhere, the presence of “suicide doors”, with no b-pillar, is impractical for a production car, but seeing them swing out wide on the activesphere enhances the concept’s futuristic appeal and provides a welcoming invitation. And because it’s an Audi, the activesphere also has intricate lighting details, including illuminated front (white) and rear (red) rings, and LED lighting arrays that had the shimmering appearance of liquid crystals.
As for the cabin, I arrived early on the morning after the reveal to the basement of the Aspen Street Lodge for a demonstration of the activesphere’s augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) tech.
Once on site, an Audi rep calibrated the demonstration software and handed me a set of AR / MR goggles that also include audio output for the stereo.
These goggles, which are not like a clunky virtual reality headset commonly used for gaming, are not just fancy glasses. One has to put them on and adjust them a little more deliberately. But I was told Audi hopes they’ll eventually be more like regular glasses that just slip on.
At any rate, once plugged into the demonstration, which was being run independently of the car, I was transported to a world of seemingly endless virtual possibilities. AR / MR is something one needs to experience first-hand to truly understand, but I’ll do my best here.
Not only do the goggles allow one to see a massive 3D topographical map where the centre dash layout would be – during the demo there were no physical controls of any kind, not even a steering wheel – but it also showed navigation data, POIs, and weather data.
Colours appeared to denote start and end points, along with elevation changes, trip distances, and ETAs. Audi also pointed out the goggles can work outside of the car, which can come in handy if one is golfing and wants to know the distance to the pin, along with course elevation changes.
In the headliner area I saw a superimposed series of cards for radio/satellite stations that, when I ran my finger over them, I could use to change the music. No dialing or pressing, just a simple movement of a few millimetres for my index finger.
Similar simple movements are used for the gesture control governing climate temperature settings and fan speed. One need only look at the centre console or the door trim, depending on where the switch is located, and then use a hand to turn a virtual knob up or down.
All the while, the activesphere’s red sport-style seats holds the driver, and occupants, in snug comfort with plenty of room to stretch out for the journey. As mentioned in my preview story, the activesphere concept is autonomous, so the steering wheel folds away when not in use, creating loads of extra space in the cockpit.
As I chatted with the Audi rep after my demonstration, he was quick to stress that the tech the activesphere concept uses is not headed for production in the short term but is instead designed to show what we could see, in some form, from the company in the longer term.
Bottom line, don’t expect to be using AR / MR goggles as you pilot your new A4 or Q7 over the next few years. But a decade from now? We’ll just have to wait and see.