Audi has been all over the map in its electric car strategy.
Does that mean that the highly profitable luxury division of the Volkswagen conglomerate doesn't know what it's doing?
No, it may prove the opposite. Audi is not satisfied with current battery technology and is not interested in building cars that don't make money.
A prime example is the Audi R8 e-tron – the all-electric supercar. There are only 10 in existence and that's all the company is going to build.
The R8 e-tron was flown around to be the centre of attention at Audi displays at every major auto show in the world. It was supposed to be the super-glamorous, all-electric sports car that would make the world recognize Audi's technical skill in building not only Le Mans winners but the fastest emission-free car to go around Nürburgring's Nordschleife. Well, it's been cancelled.
There's no gasoline engine in the much-publicized R8 e-tron but two mighty electric motors cranking out horsepower and monstrous tourque. The motors require 530 expensive lithium-ion cells making up the battery along 100 metres of cooling tubes. It has a reported range of 215 kilometres – but not when you drive it flat-out; that way you might get 50 kilometres.
I've driven it and it is an amazing machine but, when I asked if Audi would have to get a million dollars apiece to cover costs, an engineer smiled weakly and said, "Almost."
"Audi doesn't really believe in battery cars until there are big change in battery technology," I said to Michael Baumann, head of communications for Audi Technology and Innovation.
He replied, "Certainly, we need a big change in batteries – half the price and double the energy density."
Finally, someone levelled with me about what's holding back electric cars.
No manufacturer who actually sells an all-electric will breathe a word about the disappointing driving range, lengthy charging time and high cost of today's lithium-ion offerings.
But battery technology will almost certainly advance significantly and, the minute it does, every all-electric battery car on the road will become obsolete.
The A3 e-tron – a compact plug-in hybrid sports wagon – is as far as Audi will go with electrics for now. The vehicle will be powered by an efficient 1.4-litre TSFI (turbo fuel-stratified injection) engine and an electric motor to total about 200 hp.
This is Audi's first hybrid and it's interesting that it's a plug-in. On battery power only, it should be good for up to 50 km but, when switched over to gas, it can be driven "from the north of Germany to the south without filling up." It goes on sale next year and Audi says it'll cost about €33,000 in Germany ($53,000).
There are many potential advantages to electric cars, but there are also many uncertainties. Tesla has become the darling of electric car enthusiasts, has attracted lots of positive media coverage and enjoys a strong stock price as it contemplates new equity financing.
However, one equity analyst has tried to burst the Tesla balloon by claiming that the supposedly emission-free Tesla Model S actually pollutes more than a gas-slurping Jeep Grand Cherokee. Mind you, this guy is shorting Tesla stock, so he wants bad news. However, the 6,500-word article on the Seeking Alpha website raises issues that electric car fans don't want to hear.
He begins by looking at emissions from the powerplants that supply the Tesla's electricity and then talks about excess electricity consumed due to charging inefficiencies and idle time losses.
A main point is that the carbon footprint of the electric grid varies wildly from region to region. Tesla acknowledges this and puts a calculator on its website that lets U.S. residents calculate the effective carbon emissions of the Model S, depending on their locations' mix of coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, etc. The numbers range from 26 grams/mile in Idaho (mostly hydro) to 310 gm/m in West Virginia (mostly coal).
I don't have the space to get into all the other arguments and counter-arguments but clearly the jury is still out on electrics.
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