It’s been a rough few years at Audi. The Volkswagen Group's premium brand has had three CEOs and nearly a half dozen R&D chiefs in less than a decade. It has also slid back to No. 3 in global luxury car sales after challenging for No. 1. Audi’s rise in the 2010s coincided with a companywide commitment to provide Vorsprung durch Technik, German for progress through technology. Playing a key role in VW Group’s diesel-emissions cheating scandal hurt Audi’s reputation for being a technical leader, something that the automaker’s new chief technology boss, Hans-Joachim Rothenpieler, aims to repair. He spoke about Audi’s accelerated push into electrified, connected and autonomous vehicles with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Christiaan Hetzner.
Audi exec vows to restore 'stability' to R&D division
ANE's targeted products
Automotive News Europe has added a wide range of special newsletters. Click here to learn more and to subscribe.
The crucial new A3 is currently being launched. During the previous A3’s life cycle Audi had five different R&D chiefs. Have these repeated changes at the top weakened your department?
For any team, constant turnover is tremendously problematic and negative – particularly when it comes to engineering. This has come to an end. I have been in my position for more than a year and expect to be here for a long time, with the aim of restoring stability and continuity to Audi’s technical development with a clear strategy and sustainable decisions.
BMW Group CEO Oliver Zipse guaranteed that the automaker would meet EU fleet emissions targets. His counterpart at Daimler, Ola Kallenius, could not do the same. Even if Audi is in a manufacturer pool with VW Group, will you be able to achieve your CO2 targets on your own?
I can only speak for Audi, but I assure you that we will achieve our fleet targets with our current model range, which includes battery-electric vehicles as well as several plug-in hybrids.
How far along is the PPE electric architecture that Audi is co-developing with Porsche?
The first car that will be underpinned by the PPE is an SUV model that will be a little smaller than the current Audi e-tron. It will symbolize what Vorsprung durch Technik means for our customers at that time, in terms of longer range but also next-generation connectivity as well as autonomous driving features.
Meet the tech chief
NAME: Hans-Joachim Rothenpieler
TITLE: Audi Board Member for Technical Development
MAIN CHALLENGE: Overcoming complex software issues to ensure the seamless debut of the Audi A3 and Q4 e-tron.
Audi was the first to develop "eyes-off" conditional Level 3 autonomous functionality with the A8 that launched in late 2018. However, your Traffic Jam Pilot has yet to be approved for sale by regulators. What is the status of those talks?
It’s a complex subject. The euphoria in the auto industry around Level 3 has subsided substantially. We are still having an extensive dialogue with the authorities regarding the complete approval of these functions. We have conducted many intensive discussions with legislators and the German motor vehicle agency regarding our traffic jam pilot. Currently, there is no legal framework for Level 3 automated driving and it is not possible to homologate such functions anywhere in the world in a series production car. As these clarifications and discussions on safeguards continue to take time, we have also been monitoring the economic aspects. This has brought us to the following decision: We will not see the traffic jam pilot on the road with its originally planned Level 3 functionality in the current model generation of the Audi A8 because our luxury sedan has already gone through a substantial part of its model life cycle. We still believe in automated driving technology and we were the first to develop this kind of functionality for a series introduction. Currently, there is still no equivalent function in series production on the market from any other OEM.
So when can we expect a Level 3 system with Audi?
Essentially, we believe that a discussion based on levels only makes sense in the context of a defined use case. Customer benefits are of the utmost importance for us and, generally, they do not depend just on the level of automation, but, for example, on availability, which is dependent on the number of situations, routes or ambient conditions where use is possible. It is still very challenging to plan exact introduction scenarios for Level 3 systems. There is still intensive interplay between the results of ongoing testing and the requirements that legislators and public authorities are now defining for conditional automated driving. When it comes to Level 2 functionalities, we don’t think all possibilities have been exhausted. There is still room to improve value for our customers in terms of enhancing comfort for the driver or avoiding accidents. My personal view is that China is a significant driving force in the field of automated driving technology. Audi is working closely in this area with local partners and authorities. As is the case everywhere, a comprehensive approach involving all stakeholders is necessary for automated driving.
Former CEO Bram Schot had said the next-generation A8 could be exclusively electric. If the PPE is also suited for low-floor vehicles, could it also underpin a battery-driven version of your flagship sedan?
We are currently focusing our efforts on full-electric SUVs, as crossovers are increasing their market share. The sedan segments tend to be stable, by comparison, so here we will expand the range of our plug-in hybrids [beyond the 47 km of electric-only travel possible now]. However, we also have plans for full-electric passenger cars with flat-top battery packaging.
VW brand has struggled to cope with software glitches in the Golf and ID3. Have you seen similar problems with their sibling models, A3 and Q4 e-tron?
No. We are a couple of months behind the Golf and we are doing everything to ensure that Audi models are delivered with the quality our customers expect. To be frank, we still have some work to do here as vehicles are constantly becoming more complex in terms of software, whether it's digitalization, connectivity or a large number of safety-related features including automated driving functions. We need to have a deeper expertise to ensure stable software architectures and the optimal interaction between these many functions to be ready for series production. The flip side is that the new Car.Software unit [that VW Group made an independent business unit at the start of 2020] represents an enormous competitive opportunity. This is due to the ability to consolidate all our competencies in this field and to spread the costs of these software stacks through the VW Group and achieve considerable scale effects in the process.
Why will Car.Software be situated in Audi’s home city of Ingolstadt rather than Wolfsburg?
Car.Software is a global company. Many parts of the new unit will be situated close to the various brand locations. The organization will develop cross-brand software in five functional domains: Connected Car & Device Platform, Intelligent Body & Cockpit, Automated Driving, Vehicle Motion & Energy and Digital Business & Mobility Services. The objective is to establish one uniform software architecture in the VW Group and bring together parallel development paths by the brands. Audi is contributing substantial resources to help create this unit. Former Audi managers will head two of the five domains within this new organization: Thomas Mueller will manage the Automated Driving area and Klaus Buettner will manage the Intelligent Body & Cockpit area. Together with the specialists coming from Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche, this ensures that the current expertise in this cross-brand organization is available for the greatest possible benefit to everyone in the VW Group.