Audi’s Audacious Electrics

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 29, 2012

What is it about the Germans? They don’t simply introduce an electric car and hope for the best: They launch “urban initiatives” aimed at re-examining the whole way we move around in cities. It was only a few months ago that I sat at a picnic table in the open-air BMW Guggenheim Lab in lower Manhattan (a former tenement), shivering a bit as energetic BMW execs told me about their i3 “Megacity Car,” due in 2013, and new ways of thinking of zero-emission urban transportation. Volkswagen does this kind of thing, too—they’re always staging mobility forums.

And now Audi is following suit with the announcement that its electric A3 e-tron is coming to the U.S. for a pilot program. It’s a year-long trial, with cars in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Denver. The e-tron, which I’ve seen on stands at motor shows around the world, is very cool, based on the A3 hatch, but with a 114-horsepower electric motor, a 26-kilowatt-hour Sanyo battery pack and 90-mile range. It isn’t a barn-burner—zero to 60 in 11.2 seconds, and 90 mph top speed.

Audi’s A3 e-tron is the advance guard for electric Audis in the U.S. Don’t ask to drive one—the initial 17 are for testing by Audi engineers. (Audi photo)Just 17 of the A3 e-trons will be entering service, so it’s a much smaller program than BMW’s ActiveE pilot. And the cars won’t be going to carefully selected consumers. Instead, Audi’s own engineers and technical people will be driving them. Consumers won’t get their hands on an electric Audi until the super-light electric Urban Concept car at last year’s Frankfurt show. Here’s the A3 on video:

Another thing German electric car programs have in common is their cautious nature. Instead of simply selling their EVs worldwide, as GM has done with the Volt and Nissan with the Leaf, they’re still in the test phase. There will be a production e-tron, but the A3 isn’t it. Curry says that the U.S. performance of the A3s will be closely monitored and integrated into the launch “of a range of Audi e-tron models for American drivers.” Even without that data, I’d suggest something A3 sized and a small crossover like the Tesla Model X or the Toyota RAV4 (massaged by Tesla).

The R8 e-tron will go into production, in limited quantities, late this year. (Jim Motavalli photo)The e-tron roll-out was announced at TED 2012, the epicenter of new-wave thinking. You can see talks by Lucy McRae, a “body architect,” or Jimmy Cheng-Ho Lin, a “computational geneticist.” Audi “intends to spark a progressive dialogue about the role transportation will play in the global megacities of the future. The Audi Social Space will present a variety of perspectives on this topic on touch-screen video installations, allowing attendees to pose new mobility scenarios for future urban spaces and contribute in real time to Audi’s live Twitter feed through the #AudiTED hashtag.” 

Not everything on that Twitter feed is revelatory. Sufihon Mommy wrote, “My sperm donor really had the audacity to claim me on his taxes.” And Lexus horned in with “build the perfect 2013 GS of your dreams online.” But I’m sure it will get better. My favorite on TED’s Twitter feed was an overheard comment: “I'm a DIY neuropsychologist.”

The Audi Urban Concept car is ultra-light and has one-plus-one seating. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Audi initiatives are in progress, but they include a second, lightweight A2 electric that includes tech for tomorrow’s megacities (with populations of 10 million or more), including:
  • Traffic-friendly piloted drive technologies for stop-and-go congestion
  • The Audi e-gas project, which encourages offshore wind generation of electricity to create truly electric zero emission driving
  • The Audi Urban Future Initiative, which is about futuristic cityscapes created by partner architects. One partner is economist and sociologist Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, who is leading an Audi-funded “Urbanizing Technology” project. “One way to urbanize the car is the development of advanced mobility spaces…In an advanced mobility complex, the car might be a mere people carrier, with much of the work toward advanced technical and engineering innovations going to the larger mobility complex,” he writes.

I’m getting a picture of driver-free pods controlled and sent to their destinations by some kind of giant transit hub.

One more e-tron! This one’s the cute A1 hatchback, headed for trial programs in Germany and China. (Jim Motavalli photo)Curry told me that Audi EVs “are great, but they’re not, on their own, a silver bullet to solve all our needs.” The company is trying to build “a whole ecosystem around the EV” that includes everything from renewable energy to smart apps that make charging easier. Audi is heavily invested in autonomous driving—a TT climbed Pike’s Peak with nobody at the wheel—and Curry said consumers will first see that technology in the form of lane-keeping assistance and programs to help with city traffic congestion.

So Audi is thinking holistically as it enters the electric age.

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