A new normal: How Audi is developing fully electric vehicles

A new normal: How Audi is developing fully electric vehicles
No one does it better

No one does it better

ELECTRIC vehicles are unlikely to make up more than a small percentage of the new-vehicle market five years from now—even tripling last year’s EV market share in the United States would mean less than 5 percent overall. Still, EVs will have effectively graduated from the minor leagues—compliance-car conversions of gasoline vehicles made electric, like the Volkswagen e-Golf—to the majors. And that will suffice to herald a different era of vehicle development. Currently, most major automakers are at work on dedicated electric-vehicle platforms, new supply chains, and, likely, different production methods for the EVs they’ll be selling in 2022.

In recent discussions and interviews with Audi executives, we asked what’s changing as they develop cars for this new era, especially considering the automaker’s stepped-up electrification plan, which now calls for battery-electric vehicles to comprise one-third of global sales volume by 2025.

Development is already in the later stages for the e-tron Quattro and the e-tron Sportback, Audi’s first two fully electric models (the Sportback is pictured above in concept form for the Shanghai auto show). Both will be assembled in Brussels, Belgium, along with Audi’s own battery packs and are expected to arrive in calendar year 2019 for the United States. There’s a third core e-tron model yet to be revealed that will arrive by 2021, and others beyond that, potentially sharing elements with Volkswagen’s I.D. electric vehicles.

Under a Completely Different Hood

There’s a lot changing about the way the company develops vehicles as a consequence, the execs told us. Audi will move to keep the core electric powertrain components under its direct control. For instance, it will be installing its own motor design in the e-tron Quattro and Sportback. But that’s just the start. A completely new functional architecture (data bus layout) is likely. And Audi will work to bring one other core piece of electric-vehicle hardware into the fold: the inverter, which changes the battery’s DC electric current to AC current as needed by the most efficient propulsion motors.

Audi e-tron quattro concept

 

“The [inverter] component, from a security point of view, is too important to rely on a Tier 1 supplier,” said Siegfried Pint, Audi’s technical director for powertrain development, “so we are getting more and more into inverter/power module development. How we do it for the second generation is open, to be honest; but we have to have the ability to develop inverters internally.”

Like Toyota, and unlike most other automakers, Audi sees solid-state battery technology as potentially arriving within a five-year timeline. Audi R&D chief Peter Mertens underscored that the emphasis will remain on lithium-ion batteries but said the company anticipates that some solid-state battery applications could be headed to production in as little as three years. “Solid state is obviously something which in the future will change a lot,” he said, pointing to accelerated battery development happening throughout the industry. Mertens wouldn’t say what type of solid-state batteries Audi is testing.

Not having to work around big engines, transmissions, fuel tanks, and tailpipes certainly allows designers more flexibility, but Audi chief designer Marc Lichte hinted that solid-state battery technology could provide an even higher level of freedom. Such batteries could conform to design needs in ways that today’s lithium-ion packs can’t.

“It’s easy to put a battery pack on an SUV; an SUV is huge anyway,” Lichte said. “In the future we would like to do a battery-electric car very low—a big challenge, and why the package of the battery is very important.”

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