Audi Urbansphere Concept | People Mover for the Way Distant Future

  • The Audi urbansphere Concept is made for urban commuting but requires Level 4 autonomy to function.
  • The four-door sports lots of interesting techno-touches illuminating the interior.
  • It’s the last one of the three sphere” concepts, after the Skysphere coupe and the Grandsphere sedan.

    The first two Audi “sphere” concepts were nice to look at. The new Audi Urbansphere puts the emphasis on the utilitarian.

    The Audi Skysphere and Grandsphere concepts shown last year looked cool and got people excited about the brand. The Skysphere was the coolest, a stylish take on a fastback coupe that managed to be both sports car and gran turismo by incorporating a variable wheelbase as one of its parlor tricks. As is so often the case with these things, “I’d totally buy that sucker.”

    Then, the Grandsphere was a sedan take on that same theme, minus the variable wheelbase. Audi called it “a private jet for the road.” Both were supposed to incorporate Level 4 autonomous driving.

    Therein lies the rub. Level 4 autonomous driving is so far off in the future as to be nothing more than a sci-fi pipe dream, like flying cars.

    Outside it may look a little plain.

    Audi

    So by now one could be forgiven for being somewhat less excited about the Urbansphere, the third and final concept in the “sphere” trifecta. If the first two were sedan and coupe, this one is a minivan. The idea with the Urbansphere is that in the future, most people are going to be tied up in traffic, especially in big cities in China where the concept was first thought up, so why not let autonomous driving take over and turn the interior into a relaxed cocoon of productivity and/or relaxation?

    “In order to meet the demands of our Chinese customers, Audi’s design studios in Beijing and Ingolstadt worked closely together to jointly develop the Audi Urbansphere concept car,” said Markus Duesmann, chairman of the Board of Management at Audi AG and responsible for the Chinese market.

    Since you’re sitting there anyway, and since an attentive driver could, someday, be replaced by true Level 4 autonomy, why not transform the interior? Hence, Urbansphere.

    “The spacious automobile acts as a lounge on wheels and a mobile office, serving as a third living space during the time spent in traffic,” Audi said. “To this end, the Audi Urbansphere combines the luxury of complete privacy with a comprehensive range of high-tech features on board, even during the daily rush hour. Automated driving technology transforms the interior, in which a steering wheel, pedals, or displays are notably absent, into a mobile interactive space that provides a gateway to a wider digital ecosystem.”

    Yes, this has been done before—a few million times before, starting in the 1950s with those artists’ renderings in of robots driving big American sedans while the happy, perfect 1950s family played Yahtzee. So how is the Urbansphere different?

    Yes, this has been done before—a few million times before, starting in the 1950s.

    It’s big: 18 feet long, 6.6 feet wide, and almost six feet high. But its wheelbase of 11.2 feet is what gives it proportionally a lot more interior space than most minivans. The electric drivetrain also helps minimize space not used for passengers.

    Each passenger can seal off themselves from the other passengers, too, with pull-out dividers that allow for a little “me time,” sort of like those dividers you can pull up in business class on an airplane.

    “The Audi urbansphere concept offers everyone onboard a wide range of options to use that freedom to provide a highly-personalized in-car experience: communication or relaxation, work or withdrawal into a private sphere as desired,” said Duesmann. “As such, it transforms from being strictly an automobile into an ‘experience device.’”

    Connectivity is a given in such a car, especially in a concept car where no one expects it to actually work yet. But while the Urbansphere offers all the connectivity of this age, from making dinner reservations to choosing your favorite music, it can also pick up its passengers at home and can independently find a parking space and charge the battery.

    At least in theory, which is all it has to do as a concept car.

    Other cool features as described by Audi:

    • The doors are counter-hinged at the front and the rear; there is no B-pillar, so the whole interior opens up to passengers as soon as they climb in. Seats that swivel outward and a red carpet of light projected onto the ground next to the vehicle are nice touches.
    • The four individual seats sit in two rows offering passengers “luxurious first-class comfort.” The rear seats “offer particularly generous dimensions and a wide range of adjustment options.” In Relax and Entertain modes, the backrest can be tilted up to 60 degrees while leg rests extend at the same time. The center-mounted armrests integrated into the sides of the seats and their counterparts in the doors create a comforting feeling of security.
      • The seats can turn to face each other or those who want some seclusion can conceal their head area from the person sitting next to them using a privacy screen mounted behind the headrest. In addition, each seat has its own sound zone with speakers in the headrest area. (How those could function without irritating fellow passengers is left unexplained.) Individual monitors are also built into the backs of the front seats.
      • A large-format and transparent OLED screen pivots vertically from the roof area into the zone between the rows of seats. Using this “cinema screen,” which occupies the entire width of the interior, the two passengers in the back row can take part in a video conference together or watch a movie.
      • The steering wheel, pedals, and conventional dashboard can be hidden during automated driving, which “enhances the feeling of transparency and spaciousness.”
      • Audi says the Urbansphere also qualifies as a wellness zone thanks to innovative digital options that emerged in no small part through input from the co-creation process with Chinese customers. Stress detection is a prime example—this adaptive program uses facial scans and voice analysis to determine how passengers are feeling and offers personalized suggestions for relaxation, for example with a meditation app that can be used via the personal screen and the private sound zone in the headrests.
      • One particular, extremely innovative control element is located near the door cut-out on the interior cladding: the MMI touchless response. If the passenger is sitting in the upright position, far forward in his or her respective area, they can use this element to physically select various function menus via a rotating ring and buttons and click their way through the individual levels, allowing for simple and intuitive operation. Even if the seat is fully reclined, passengers can still make use of this convenient feature thanks to a combination of eye-tracking and gesture control. A sensor directed at the eye detects the line of sight when the control unit is to be engaged. And the passenger only needs to make hand movements that are similar to physical operation—without leaning over—to operate the system without touching a thing.


        • Sustainable trim: The seat padding is made of a recycled polyamide; bamboo viscose fabric is used in the armrests and in the rear of the vehicle. Bamboo grows faster than ordinary wood, sequesters a great deal of carbon, and doesn’t require herbicides or pesticides to grow. Interior trim pieces are made from hornbeam veneers cut from sustainable sources. This choice of material makes it possible to use wood that has grown close to the site.
        • The Audi Singleframe—what you might call the grille area—becomes a canvas known as the “Audi Light Canvas” that can be used for communication, with dynamic lighting effects to clearly signal to other road users in order to improve road safety.
        • While Rolls-Royce may offer an umbrella in the doors, the Audi Light Umbrella goes one step further with a self-illuminating umbrella.

          The Urbansphere rides on Audi’s Premium Platform Electric or PPE, designed exclusively for battery-electric drive systems. The 120-kWh battery module sits between the axles. There is one motor for each axle. Combined, they make 396 hp. Charging can take place at up to 270 kw. The whole system operates at 800 Volts, and the whole thing rides on an adaptive air suspension.

          The only problem with the Urbansphere is that the whole concept is predicated on a Level 4 autonomy, which doesn’t exist in the real world yet and probably won’t for many, many years. Still, I’d like one of those slide-out screens to block off other passengers. Maybe Audi could offer that on the next A3?

          Share your thoughts on the Audi Urbansphere, autonoumous vehicles, and concept cars in the comments below.

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