Audi gives glimpse of its first self-driving car, a private jet on wheels

September 2, 2021, 6:05 PM UTC

Ever wondered what it might be like to sit back and get some shut eye in the relaxing ambience of a luxury private jet…only while sitting behind the wheel of a moving vehicle?

In its quest to topple rivals Tesla and Mercedes-Benz from the top of the premium car industry, German automaker Audi attempted to answer that question on Thursday with its “Grandsphere” concept. 

It offers a glimpse of what its moonshot electric vehicle, previously known as “Artemis,” will look like when the Volkswagen Group brand’s technological tour-de-force is scheduled to arrive in 2025.

“It’s a car that was predominantly conceived from the interior outward, and yet has a lovely exterior form,” CEO Markus Duesmann told reporters in a briefing. “The Grandsphere gives a very good indication of the direction the series production version of the Artemis will take.”

The 5.35-meter (17.6 feet) long and 2-meter wide concept, larger than even the stretch version of its A8 flagship sedan, should offer the feeling of traveling first class in the clouds, the company said.

Courtesy of Audi

Artemis will be the carmaker’s first entry into the autonomous vehicle space, eventually offering drivers the luxury of switching their minds off and drifting off to sleep if they so choose.

This kind of freedom to sleep while at the wheel only comes with fully automated driving known within the industry as “Level 4,” which Audi is developing for the second half of the decade.

When the driver wants to transfer control over to the vehicle, for example, the steering wheel disappears into the vehicle’s front panel, while a gesture of the hand is all that is needed to coax it back out.

Wood, wool fabrics, and metal give the feeling of a natural environment while black touchscreen displays are replaced by images integrated into the car to give a cinema-like experience. No leather can be found anywhere in the vehicle “in keeping with a progressive understanding of luxury,” according to the company.

The massive 23-inch wheels support a chassis equipped with a 120 kilowatt hour battery capable of powering the vehicle across a distance of over 750 kilometers (466 miles) on one charge.

The concept features doors that open up in opposite directions like a coach wagon. This beloved design element, which rarely if ever makes it to production, gives a greater feeling of interior roominess by doing away with the middle pillar that provides structural rigidity to the vehicle in the event of a crash.

Courtesy of Audi

This isn’t the first time Audi has promised self-driving features. In 2017, it launched the current A8 with the world’s first “eyes-off” Level 3 highly-automated driving. In certain circumstances, such as highway driving at slow speeds, the driver was no longer required to supervise the vehicle and liability in the event of a crash transfers to the manufacturer. 

It was so advanced for Europe that there was no regulatory process to approve it, so the feature remained dormant until three years later, when Audi buried its ambitions definitively after regulators insisted it needed a camera in the rear to detect emergency vehicles approaching from behind.

Tesla by comparison has taken a different approach, preferring to maximize the number of cases when a vehicle can activate its Full Self-Driving (FSD) systems capabilities. Currently, it’s testing FSD in complex urban environments, using its customers as test drivers, despite a federal safety probe in the U.S. Since CEO Elon Musk refuses to accept liability, the cars’ owners pick up the tab for any damages incurred in an accident and must therefor supervise the vehicle at all times. That means FSD is only a Level 2 assistance system, rather than offering true automated driving.

Risks and uncertainties regarding what will legally be possible is one reason why Audi does not expect to offer Level 4 self-driving capabilities when the vehicle is due to launch in 2025. 

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