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Audi tech boss has high expectations for brand's first plug-in hybrid

Audi's first plug-in hybrid, the A3 E-tron, will go on sale in the second quarter.
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Volkswagen Group for years was critical of electrically assisted vehicles such as hybrids, but those days are over. Ulrich Hackenberg, one of VW Group’s top-ranking engineers as well as Audi’s board member for technical development, says "the electric car is the future." He spoke about the importance of the forthcoming A3 E-tron plug-in hybrid to the brand and Audi’s efforts to prove that it remains committed to Vorsprung durch Technik (advancement through technology). Hackenberg was interviewed by Guido Reinking, editor of Automotive News Europe sister publication Automobilwoche.

The electric car has been regarded quite critically in the Volkswagen Group for its high costs and restricted range. Aren’t you overlooking the emotionality and driving fun of e-mobility?

The electric car is the future. That has been clear to us for a long time. I definitely see the emotional side but the framework data has to fit -- ranging from the available technology, to the infrastructure, all the way to customers’ expectations.

Does Audi need to offer a car like the Tesla Model S?

In a few months the A3 E-tron will be launched as a plug-in hybrid, which is the most attractive alternative powertrain -- and the one most suited to the customer -- in many markets in the world. In markets where there are many early adopters, take California as an example, I can also imagine a high-end electric sports car.

Will that be the R8 E-tron for Audi?

The R8 E-tron is more than a technology platform. Every component represents high-end technology at its finest. We have solved the problem of restricted range.

Will the R8 E-tron be built?

I am just now championing it.

Audi will launch just one all-new car in 2014 – the TT. Is that a problem?

In addition to the TT’s third generation, some of our most important model lines are being launched in fundamentally reworked form over the course of the year. In addition, eagerly awaited models such as the A3 sedan are being introduced in many markets. Other exciting derivatives are coming as well. And with the A3 E-tron, we are bringing a completely new world of services to the customer -- all the way to green energy supplies and the installation of fast-chargers in garages.

Many groundbreaking developments at Audi were only possible because Audi executives ignored the will of parent Volkswagen Group. How much independence must Audi carve out for itself?

Audi enriches the VW Group with far-reaching development responsibilities, for example, for the modular longitudinal architecture on which numerous models are based. In addition, there are creative germinating cells here that go in new directions and that have always generated pioneering technologies. This will be the case in the future as well. Incidentally, it is also my job to direct development work groupwide to optimally exploit synergies. This gives the Volkswagen Group a big advantage. It can introduce the latest technologies quickly and on a broad basis.

Meet the tech boss
NAME: Ulrich Hackenberg
TITLE: Audi Board Member for Technical Development; head of VW Group Development Coordination
AGE: 63
MAIN CHALLENGE: Maintaining Audi's commitment to Vorsprung durch Technik.

Hackenberg: Audi enriches the VW Group.

Lately, Audi frequently has faced the question: Where does its Vorsprung durch Technik reside? How do you respond to that?

We build top products that prove themselves in competition. There is a reason that Audi sold over 1.57 million units in 2013 – more than ever before. Despite this success, it is more necessary than ever to meet our challenges with the right decisions. I see Audi at the forefront on many issues – ranging from quality and value, all the way to networking and developments in piloted driving. Here we are benefiting from collaborating with strong partners such as Nvidia and Google. With Nvidia, we are bringing extremely high computing performance into the vehicle. And with Google, we are adding a new collaboration to our 10-year partnership, the Open Automotive Alliance. The goal is to exploit the opportunity for using the Android operating system of smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches to their full potential in the automobile. This also means reducing distraction and increasing safety.

What is the situation with the change from Wolfgang Egger to Marc Lichte in design? Will there be a new design direction at Audi?

The background is different. I value the work of Wolfgang Egger very much. He has done Audi a great service. But based on his abilities and his personal profile, he is the ideal appointment for our subsidiary brand, Italdesign Giugiaro, to make its potential useful to the entire VW Group. Wolfgang Eggers’ strengths lie in his outstanding creativity and his ability to immerse himself into the design language of the brands. In my time at VW, I worked successfully with Marc Lichte on the Golf, for example. As chief designer, he will naturally give Audi design a direction of his own.

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You can reach Guido Reinking at greinking@craincom.de.

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