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The new platform, co-developed by Volkswagen Group brands Audi and Porsche, will be used as the foundation for a wide range of upcoming luxury and performance-oriented EVs.Handout

Audi is toying with the idea of an all-electric pickup/SUV mashup with its new Activesphere concept, the latest in a quartet of show cars designed to preview Audi’s electric future.

Unveiled in a live, virtual presentation, the Activesphere shows off the versatility of Volkswagen AG’s next-generation Premium Platform Electric (PPE). The new platform, co-developed by Volkswagen Group brands Audi and Porsche, will be used as the foundation for a wide range of upcoming luxury and performance-oriented EVs, the first of which is slated to be introduced this year. Compared with the group’s existing EV designs, PPE enables greater economies of scale, as well as vehicles with larger batteries of up to 100 kilowatt-hours, longer driving range, more torque and sporty performance.

Together with Audi’s previous Sphere concepts – beginning with the Skysphere roadster in 2021, followed by the Grandsphere sedan in 2021 and the Urbansphere van in 2022 – the Activesphere shows off yet another potential PPE-based vehicle.

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Together with Audi’s previous Sphere concepts, the Activesphere shows off yet another potential PPE-based vehicle.Handout

Designed at Audi’s studio in Malibu, Calif., the Activesphere initially appears to be yet another variation on the fastback-SUV shape that’s so popular now. (See also: Audi’s sportback SUVs, BMW’s X6, Mercedes’ many four-door “coupes,” Ford’s Mustang Mach-E, Nissan’s Ariya EV and the list goes on.)

However, the Activesphere distinguishes itself with a surprising pickup bed that appears out of nowhere; the rear window slides up and out of the way while the rear bumper folds down to reveal a small, open-air bed. It’s vaguely similar to Tesla’s long-delayed Cybertruck.

Audi didn’t give dimensions for the pickup bed, but did show it carrying an e-bike. (Whether this design would allow Audi to avoid the “chicken tax” tariff on light trucks imported into the U.S. – as Subaru did by installing seats in the bed of its Brat pickup in the 1970s – is a worthy question for another story. The so-called chicken tax was imposed on imports of light trucks back in 1964 as retaliation for a European tariff on American chicken exports, and industry lobbying has kept it alive.)

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Audi teased its Activesphere concept, an all-electric SUV/pickup mashup with mixed-reality goggles, which are a step beyond augmented reality.Handout

The Activesphere is packed with fanciful features that read like a concept-car Bingo card: It has a self-driving mode, a lounge-like cabin, a disappearing dashboard and steering wheel, a transparent front bumper and door panels, mixed-reality goggles for both driver and passengers – explanation to follow – and a virtual assistant that can help with everything from your golf swing to the best way to fit luggage in the trunk.

The mixed-reality goggles – a step beyond augmented-reality that allows virtual and physical objects to interact – which can display graphics or holograms as if they exist in the driver’s physical world – are used in lieu of a big in-car touchscreen. The goggles project, for example, three-dimensional topographical maps and navigation information into the cabin.

In a simulated demonstration, Audi showed how mixed reality could be used to show drivers real-time road conditions and provide an X-ray view of the wheels and terrain, which could be useful for extreme off-roading. Drivers could reach out and interact with virtual climate or navigation controls, negating the need for a physical interface and making the cabin more spacious and living-room like. (It makes the futuristic virtual displays in the 2002 Tom Cruise sci-fi film Minority Report look old-fashioned.)

Audi isn’t about to get into the digital headset business and try to compete against the likes of Meta, Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens. Christina Huber, a user experience designer at Audi said, “We will, of course, not become a producer of eyewear. We will be dependent on third parties; whether that’s going to be Apple or whoever remains to be seen.”

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Compared with the group’s existing EV designs, PPE enables greater economies of scale, as well as vehicles with larger batteries of up to 100 kilowatt-hours, longer driving range, more torque and sporty performance.Handout

Of all the Sphere concepts, the Grandsphere – a large, luxury sedan first shown at the 2021 Munich motor show – is closest to an upcoming production model, an Audi spokesperson confirmed.

Porsche’s first PPE vehicle is the all-electric Macan SUV, which has been delayed to 2024. Audi announced that its first PPE-based production vehicle – likely the Q6 e-tron SUV or A6 e-tron sedan – will be unveiled later this year.

The specifications of the Activesphere give an indication of the type of performance drivers can expect. Audi says the 100-kilowatt-hour battery in its latest concept affords a driving range of more than 600 kilometres on a single charge, as estimated on the WLTP standard, which is one of two tests used in Europe to gauge range. Nevertheless, that should be enough to appease even drivers with extreme cases of range anxiety. The company also claims that, assuming you can find a suitable DC fast charger, the Activesphere can add 300 kilometres of driving range in just 10 minutes. Dual-motor all-wheel drive provides a combined 436 horsepower and 531 lb-ft of torque.

As ever with concept cars, though, take these numbers with a grain of fantasy. We’ll find out later this year, when the first production-ready PPE-based vehicles from Porsche and Audi are finally unveiled, just how well they stack up against the growing EV competition.

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In a simulated demonstration, Audi showed how mixed reality could be used to show drivers real-time road conditions and provide an X-ray view of the wheels and terrain.Handout

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