VW released this "teaser" photo of a new electric concept vehicle it will unveil in Detroit next month. Image source: Volkswagen AG. 

Eager to change the subject from its ongoing diesel-emissions cheating debacle, Volkswagen AG (OTC:VWAGY) said on Thursday that it will unveil an electric concept vehicle in Detroit next month -- and the strong hint is that it will be a futuristic take on VW's iconic Microbus.

A concept car that might preview a future product

When an automaker describes a show car as a "concept," it means that the car isn't intended for production as is. But while some concepts are strictly meant flights of futuristic fancy meant to show the automaker's general line of thinking, some are intended as nearly final previews of a vehicle the automaker intends to build.

The "I.D." concept vehicle that VW unveiled at the Paris Motor Show last fall seemed to fall somewhere in between. It was intended as a preview of a vehicle in the range of battery-electric vehicles that the company expects to launch around 2020, but it was clearly far from a finished product -- and some of its technology is years away from production. 

The Volkswagen I.D. concept electric vehicle. Image source: Volkswagen AG.

The new concept vehicle that will be unveiled at next month's North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit seems likely to fall into the same in-between status: a preview of something that VW intends to produce, but far from a final draft and maybe with some technology touches that are strictly for show. 

In this case, the "teaser" photo shown above suggests pretty strongly that the new concept draws elements of its shape and styling from VW's classic Microbus. 

The concept will link VW's past with its future plans

VW, which rarely skimps on hyperbole, said that the concept will be a "multi-functional vehicle of a new era" that "forges links between the legendary origins of the Volkswagen brand and its electrifying future."

As with the I.D. concept, this new vehicle is based on VW's Modular Electric Drive "toolkit," a new architecture developed to be the basis of a range of battery-electric models that will be offered by several of the VW Group brands.

VW was clear that the new vehicle is part of the same range as the I.D. concept -- a range that may take the "I.D." designation:

Since the presentation of the I.D. at the Paris International Motor Show in September of this year, these initials have stood primarily for a new generation of fully connected, all-electric vehicles from Volkswagen. The I.D. also stands for clarity in design language, pure form, honest character, authentic emotionality – and of course an ideal spatial concept as well as a quality in details that is typically Volkswagen.

Showcasing VW's thinking around fully autonomous vehicles

VW said that the concept "will also be able to drive fully autonomously in the future." (Or put another way, the concept will show what a fully self-driving VW might be like.) It will feature a retracting steering wheel (likely nothing more than a show-car gimmick) along with a suite of integrated hardware sensors for the self-driving system.

What VW is saying with this concept

Automakers don't do concept vehicles like this without a business case. VW probably hopes that its electric microbus concept will help bolster its argument that it's moving past the diesel-emissions scandal and toward an unimpeachably green-minded new line of vehicles. 

VW is no doubt painfully aware that while it's developing concept versions of its future mass-market long-range electric vehicles, one of its two biggest global rivals (like General Motors) is already shipping them. VW needs to show that it's keeping pace with the rapidly evolving thinking around the future of autos, even if its product line is a bit behind. 

A ride-hailing angle?

There may also be a ride-hailing angle to this new concept. Earlier this month, VW launched a new business division called Moia, which is gearing up to launch a ride-hailing shuttle service. Moia CEO Ole Harms said that the service will eventually use a new electric VW vehicle with six to eight seats. That might be this new battery-operated Microbus. 

The upshot: Slowly, VW's electric-car plans are unfolding

VW knows that it needs to get going on the electric-vehicle thing. IT has said that it plans to launch 30 new battery-electric models across its brands by 2025, and expects that they will account for about a quarter of its global sales by then. 

This concept will be another step toward that goal. What kind of step? We'll know more next month.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.