Audi R&D Chief Wolfgang Dürheimer Talks Electrics and Hydrogen
At a recent event in Germany, Audi’s head of R&D Wolfgang Dürheimer said that a car needs to perform in everyday circumstances. While that appears on the surface to be relatively obvious, it was his follow-up remark that set up his agenda with regards to alternative energies. “I don’t see that with electrics.” Dürheimer went on to contest promises that battery prices will drop sharply in the next few years, saying that, “when I was a student 30 years ago, we were told that battery development would be in five years where we are now told it will be in five years. Energy density and cost will have to take a huge leap for the battery-electric vehicle to become interesting.”
In contrast to other automakers that ask for subsidies both publicly and behind the scenes in order to finance alternative-fuel projects, Dürheimer gladly will do without publicly funded handouts. He went on to say that government subsidies are important for small companies, emphasizing that a considerable amount of research and development couldn’t have been conducted without such aid, but that larger companies like Audi don’t need them. The former BMW and Porsche executive saying, “I have learned that you don’t use subsidies as the foundation of a business case.”
Dürheimer’s aversion to subsidizing alternative-fuel projects stretches to his own brand. “We want to make money with cars at Audi, and we do not want customers of our other conventionally powered cars to pay for electric cars,” he says. Production cars, according to Dürheimer, “have to make economic sense.”
This no-nonsense approach has led Audi to axe plans for a production version of the fully electric R8 e-tron, leaving the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive without a direct competitor. Nevertheless, after a spin in one, we can attest that the R8 e-tron has been developed to virtual perfection. The artificial sound is turbine-like, and this matches the driving experience. Unless the dull Efficiency mode is chosen, the e-tron takes off with the vengeance of two electric motors and 605 lb-ft of torque. Auto mode is just fine, but it’s when the e-tron is set to Dynamic mode that the electrified R8 really shines, providing aggressive responses and extraordinary handling characteristics. The torque-vectoring system keeps the e-tron on the line, and switching off the stability control allows for drifting on demand. But no matter how pleasing the R8 e-tron drives, and no matter how much we all beg, there’s nothing that will change Audi’s decision not to sell the car. An initial run of 10 cars were produced for evaluation and test purposes, but there will be no 11th.
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Even more rare will be the hydrogen-powered A7, of which Audi will build one, perhaps two units, beginning this summer. Dürheimer has made it clear that this vehicle has no chance to be put into production within the next 10 years, citing a market that has failed to develop. The hydrogen-powered A7 will use fuel-cell technology provided by Volkswagen, who is in charge of hydrogen R&D within the VW Group.
Audi’s competitors are more bullish about the future of hydrogen. Mercedes-Benz has been promoting the technology for some time, and its efforts are spearheaded by the Vancouver,Canada–based Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation. Mercedes has been promising hydrogen-powered production cars for many years—its latest target for a full-scale market launch is 2017—although its fuel-cell offerings in the U.S. have been limited to the B-class–based F-Cell, which was available for lease only in Southern California. BMW, on the other hand, has wasted decades working on the hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine and recently, with much fanfare, entered a partnership with Toyota to develop fuel cells.