Los Angeles—Last year, Audi showed off an electric car called the E-Tron slated to come out in 2012.
It won’t be the only one.
The company, part of the Volkswagen conglomerate, plans to come out with other electrics and plug-ins and will market them under an E-Tron brand name, said executives during a briefing with reporters at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which began today.
“It is the start of a whole product portfolio,” said Peter Schwarzenbauer, a member of the board. “It will be like Quattro.”
The first E-Tron, based around the R8 sports car, is still slated for release at the end of 2012.
The shift shows a growing interest among Volkswagen for electrics. Last year, it announced both the E-Tron and the E-Up!, a Volkswagen economy car slated for 2013, at the Frankfurt Auto show. Still, the company took a relatively conservative stance toward electrics at the time. Since then, it has come out with a Volkswagen Touareg hybrid and laid plans for an electric Golf.
It also started working with Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard, although Eberhard is now departing the collaboration.
How big will electrics be at the House of Volkswagen? It depends on battery prices. If the cost is marginal, customer demand is high. “But if it is $10,000 or more, demand goes to zero,” Schwarzenbauer said.
Expect to see more activity on a subject closer to the company’s technological roots: diesel.
“Seven years ago, diesel was a no-go in the U.S,” he said. “But now there seems to be a trend that American consumers will embrace TDI [Volkswagen’s diesel technology].”
Audi sales, in fact, are up 22 percent in the U.S. this year and 16.4 percent worldwide. Overall, the company will likely sell 1.08 million cars worldwide. It sold 917,000 cars in the first nine months of the year. It will sell over 100,000 cars in the U.S. this year for the first time and many are diesels, which get better mileage than gas cars.
The European car fleet is about 40 percent diesel, he noted. If the U.S. had a similar mix of diesel cars, it could reduce oil imports by 1.4 million barrels a day. “That’s the same amount the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The diesel infrastructure has grown, too.
“Approximately half of the gas stations in the U.S. carry diesel,” said Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi America, adding that some of the company’s diesels can go 600 miles on a tank. “The American market is ready for it.”
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to import a European diesel straight to the U.S.
“There are different regulations in every country. It makes it extremely complicated," said Schwarzenbauer. “To the outside world, it looks easy.”
Other technology ideas percolating at Audi: piezoelectric devices that can harvest vibration and convert it into energy. These devices couldn’t power the whole car, but they could help run onboard electronics.
Similarly, Panasonic is working on a car air conditioner that can take engine heat and use it to run the air conditioner.
But don’t expect Audi to embrace the opposed piston/opposed cylinder engines touted by U.S. startups EcoMotors and Achates Power. Neither executive seemed very interested in the idea.