Audi Executives Talk Diesel, Autonomy, RS Performance at Detroit Show
Big changes ahead.
Audi might not offer any full EVs right now, but there are big plans in motion to change that over the next decade. In addition to these plans, Audi will continue to develop its entire lineup, from mainstream crossovers to high-performance cars. Behind closed doors at the Detroit auto show, we got the chance to hear from some of Audi's top brass, including Audi North America President Scott Keogh, about what to expect soon.
1. The Allroad version of the Audi A6 may still come to the U.S. While Audi showed off the lifted and cladded Audi A4 Allroad Quattro at the Detroit show, we were left wondering if the larger A6 Allroad variant would ever make its way Stateside. For now, we'll have to keep wondering, as Audi of America director of product management Filip Brabec insists on keeping us in suspense. Keogh, however, does note that the company is very pleased with how the Allroad nameplate has performed since its reintroduction in 2010, especially compared to Avant (wagon) models.
2. Fully autonomous vehicles on a large scale will not happen for at least 10+ years. Keogh was clear that while there are plenty of blossoming technologies such as "extremely slick" adaptive cruise control systems that allow cars to behave semi-autonomously, it will be a while until you can just pop into your car, input your destination, and nod off for your commute without ever touching the steering wheel.
The first step toward an autonomous future is shared autonomous vehicle systems in urban environments. With the amount of data and mapping that can be harvested for congested urban spaces, Keogh says autonomy is possible in less than 10 years if combined with continual advancement in technologies like Audi Piloted Driving.
3. Infrastructure and legislation are significant obstacles, but the tech still has a ways to go, too. New tech, like traffic jam assist in models like the Q7 and A4, is at the forefront of these efforts. But as of now those vehicles can operate autonomously at a maximum of about 37 mph, and the system alerts the driver every 15 seconds if it doesn't sense hands on the steering wheel, if it thinks you're asleep, or if its sensors can't read the lines of the road clearly.
"If you come to a dirt road that has no line markings, [the car] is not reading anything," said Keogh. "And therefore on that road [autonomy] would not be possible. The only thing you could read on that road, theoretically, is the car in front of you.
"A lot of natural human rhythms handle work that is very difficult for data, and lasers, and radar, and sonar to read," said Keogh. "Your classic four-stop intersection in America: we all know there is a rhythm to cross that. You stick your nose out a little more, you create eye contact, you wait, and then away you go. If [autonomous cars] all do it by the letter of the law and they're all edging in, you might be waiting there for a couple of hours," he said.
According to Keogh, these four major elements together will engender "more change in the next five to ten years than has happened in the last 100 years." He points to autonomous and piloted driving technology, advancements in connectivity, improved battery technologies, and reenvisioning vehicle ownership to include shared business models.
4. Audi invested $28 million into ride-sharing outfit Silvercar, because the company saw a business model and said "we can do it better, faster, cooler. " Audi sees a lot of opportunity in the ride-sharing space, an interest that's been echoed by moves such as GM's investment in its new Maven program. Similar to ZipCar, Silvercar is a shared-car service that exclusively rents out silver Audi A4s with a daily rate and unlimited miles. The company will expand, and possibly find a way to connect with the existing Audi dealer network.
5. Diesel isn't going anywhere just yet. There is a need now and in the future in the U.S. for high-torque, long-range vehicles, and diesel is still suited to those needs. However bad the sentiment is at the moment, due to Volkswagen's ugly emissions scandal, Audi still sees a future for diesels, but in SUVs more significantly than passenger cars. Once the emissions-cheating cars are fixed, some reputation and trust is restored, and gas prices bounce back from current record-low levels, the appeal of diesels can return.
6. Twenty-five percent of sales within 10 years will be from "full battery-electric vehicles," possibly including those using hydrogen fuel. As Audi has demonstrated with the e-tron Quattro concept from Frankfurt and the hydrogen-powered h-tron Quattro concept shown in Detroit, the company is preparing seriously for a future with vehicles using alternative energy sources. Keogh says that a long-range plug-in battery-electric Q6 will launch in 2018 (to face off against the Tesla Model X), and that Audi thinks the infrastructure and consumer base supporting plug-in electric vehicles will grow.
And if you think Audi is just following Tesla's footsteps, you're not wrong, but Audi thinks they can do it better. Keogh thinks Audi can mainstream the technology and infrastructure needed for electric cars even better, at a lower transaction price.
Audi will support U.S. EV infrastructure with its own supercharger network, but Keogh admits that right now he sees "only pieces" of infrastructure supporting hydrogen fuel in place. "That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't investigate [hydrogen] more and look at new technologies." The h-tron concept's MLBevo platform is flexible enough to use multiple energy sources, from batteries to fuel cells, and it offers both fast recharging times and long-range functionality. According to Audi's chief of electric powertrain development, Siegfried Pint, "If the right consumer demand and infrastructure is there, we are ready to introduce [a hydrogen] car."
Cars like the upcoming A3 Sportback e-tron will serve as a good lead-in to full EVs for the Audi brand, Keogh says. It should get Audi customers familiar with plug-in
technology, but still offer the peace of mind and reliability of a gasoline engine on board.
7. There will always be a market for high-performance cars like Audi RS models. Audi has been working to "push the envelope of the RS brand so much higher," Brabec tells AUTOMOBILE. "We're looking to significantly expand the presence of RS in the U.S. Past RS will cars have successors, and then some." We already know there will be an Audi RS3 sedan coming to join the riotous RS7 sedan, but Brabec wouldn't budge when we pushed to find out what "and then some" might mean. Ideally it would mean the return of the TTRS, RS4 sedan and RS5 coupe, but we expect it might also refer to potential high-powered SUVs like an RSQ5 or an RSQ7. Either way, more RS is always a good thing.