DETROIT — In the fourth quarter, Audi will deliver redesigned A6 and A8 sedans to its 303 U.S. dealerships. But before arriving in showrooms, hand-built early versions of the high-end cars will get a painstaking examination from a team of specialists in the U.S.
The mission: Ensure those finely tuned German machines are re-tuned for American consumers.
Every foreign automaker selling vehicles in the U.S. must homologate vehicles to meet local regulations — accommodating, for example, the U.S. turn indicator standard vs. Europe's amber standard. But Audi and others have learned that consumer expectations in America differ widely from those in the rest of the world. And if a brand wants to succeed here, it must deal with those expectations, even if it means changing the way a vehicle such as the U.S.-spec A6 is built in Europe.
"The content on our cars [in the U.S.] is often quite different," from Audis sold in other markets, said Juergen Gumbinger, director of product quality for Audi of America. Audis built to U.S. specifications "have different systems, like the passenger occupation detection system, satellite radio, Audi Connect … things that we can't learn from the German launch, and the things we have to study."
The process starts months before production launch. One-off, hand-built versions of the coming vehicles are delivered, usually by air, from Europe to the product quality team in Auburn Hills, Michigan, about 25 miles north of Detroit.
Once on the ground, these so-called pre-series vehicles begin months of hard testing, tweaking and retesting as they're passed among a large team of experts who drive them — and abuse them — just as consumers would, said Raymond Moore, technical level coordinator for Audi's quality team in the U.S.
"We have a team of experts: a guy that's going to specialize in electrical, another in chassis, another in body and another in engine and transmission," said Moore, who compiles the findings of each expert and proposes fixes for each shortcoming.
The team of experts isn't looking for what Moore called "likes and dislikes," but for glitches, especially those that can be repeated. A hard shift, for example, is enough to trigger a report. The pre-series cars have onboard data recorders to capture the conditions when the hard shift occurred, and tablet computers are kept inside the vehicles for team members to instantly record their findings.
Once data on a glitch are compiled, other team members try to get the vehicle to repeat what went wrong. If they can, it can often be easier to fix — usually with software adjustments — and it is one less problem that an Audi customer will experience.
"We present our technical findings on the U.S.-spec vehicles," Moore said. "Maybe they know about an issue, maybe they have a fix for it — if it's a simple software update, for example. But maybe it's something new to them, and they'll have to review it with their colleagues in Germany. We go back and forth with these ideas, and we work on a resolution to come up with a fix before they're launched into the market."
As the U.S. launch date nears, later pre-production versions of the vehicles — in this case, the A6 and A8 — are added to the U.S. test fleet and testing is broadened across a larger team of Audi employees. If other problems are found, fixes are expedited to ensure they're implemented before launch.
Such pre-launch testing is expensive but necessary, especially as vehicles have become more complex, Audi executives say. The redesigned A6 has a staggering 140 electronic control units onboard, each with its own software programming, to ensure that all systems operate as intended. Compare that with just 21 control modules in the 1999 A6.
But Gumbinger and his team say the brand's in-country pre-launch testing pays dividends, which can be measured by reduced warranty claims. Claims for 2018 models within the first 12 months of ownership have fallen 83 percent from 16 years ago, before the testing program began, Gumbinger said.
The idea, he says, is "to do more preventive quality, rather than reactive."
"When we have start of production, this defect function has already been eliminated," he said.
"The idea is really finding glitches before the cars are being built, and before the cars are going to the customers."