Ten Minutes On Green with Audi’s Johan de Nysschen

We don’t claim to know the personal histories of every auto executive, but it’s doubtful few other corporate presidents grew up racing modifieds in South Africa. Johan de Nysschen smiles broadly as he remembers, “We gave those guys running small-block Chevys hell with used five-cylinder Audi 100s we brought down after they were done in the DTM.”

The man who helped turn Audi from an also-ran German brand in the U.S. into something much more is a genuine car guy at heart. At the recent 12 Hours of Sebring, we had a chance to sit with the President of Audi of America for a brief discussion of what the company’s point man thinks about green trends in the U.S.

On Diesels
“Diesel is a technology that is ready now to help reduce fuel consumption. Everything is already in place to take advantage of diesel. We’ve shown that it can work, but in general there is a problem in communications that so many people still think of diesels as being dirty. There are those in California that want to see all diesel engines banned. If you continue to make decisions based on misinformation, this will impact the way we’ll go in the future.

“For now, we’re moving forward with diesel using our 3.0-liter V6 TDI (in the 2009 Q7) and the 2.0-liter four-cylinder (in the 2010 A3). These are versatile, economical engines that fit in a wide range of our models from the A3 to the Q7 and A8.

“We see clean diesels one day being 15-percent of the market, and while we could sell 200,000 diesel Audis tomorrow, we don’t see that happening any time soon. We do see diesels having a bigger market share than hybrids because they fit the way more people drive better than hybrids.”

On Hybrids
“Hybrids are but one answer to the bigger question of moving forward. There will be a full range of solutions to the question that include diesel and hybrid and pure electric cars. This is one reason why Audi will introduce hybrids in the future. There are some people who drive in a manner that makes sense for a hybrid.”

When asked about producing a diesel hybrid, de Nysschen responded, “It really sounds like a good idea, but the problem is cost. These are two expensive solutions, and while we could make it-our engineers can make anything-the cost would be prohibitive.”

Expect Audi’s first production hybrid to be based off the Q5. The smaller Q would likely use one of Volkswagen Group’s four-cylinder engines with a yet unspecified hybrid drive system fortified with lithium-ion batteries.

On Fuels
“The R10 and R15 race cars use diesel fuel (GTL) produced by Shell from natural gas,” de Nysschen said. “The U.S. has a huge capacity for natural gas that could be exploited for producing clean diesel fuel that would help with energy independence.

“But there are some problems here, one being that it’s been a very long time since the U.S. has built a new refinery. There will need to be some more capacity added at some point because demand will grow.”

On Energy Policy
“It wouldn’t be a bad thing for the U.S. to use less energy overall, but because energy is relatively inexpensive due to the country’s energy policy, there is no economic incentive for U.S. consumers to cut back.

“As part of this moving forward in the U.S., nuclear power must be looked at to supply additional electricity that will come along with electric cars. The power has to come from somewhere. Also, if the U.S. wants to support energy independence, they should not tax diesel fuel more than gasoline. It just doesn’t make sense.”

On Society
“We all want a greener world, and there will be no single technology that represents the only way forward. It will be many technologies that take us into the future. People must realize that you can’t go from the ox wagon to the space shuttle in one step. It just can’t be done. We can’t just jump to all electric or all fuel cell vehicles.

“We think that diesel is a good step that makes use of many existing technologies and resources. People need to accept a compromise that balances green efforts with the reality of society. Environmentalists want everything now, but I will tell you that these desires must be weighed against how the larger society makes progress, and it is not that fast. We need to see change because everybody wants to move toward a better world. But the changes need to be made at an affordable cost or else nobody will be very happy.”

On Winning
Audi’s all-new R15 TDI Sports Prototype racers won the 2009 12 Hours of Sebring just a few hours after our conversation. Surrounded by happy colleagues and jubilant drivers, we caught de Nysschen during the pit lane celebrations. He flashed a smile and said, “It’s been a very good day.” Indeed.

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