Audi readies a plug-in hybrid for America, and a way to time traffic lights

Audi’s motto, “Vorsprung durch Technik,” may not roll off the average American’s tongue, but those are some hallowed words in Audi’s hometown of Ingolstadt. In English, they mean “Truth in Engineering,” and at this year’s Audi Future Lab media program held at Berlin’s famous Templehof airfield, the facility that served West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift, Audi took the opportunity to show us some of the ways it is putting its money where its mantra is.

The rollout focused on four complete, nearly complete or stillborn cars that contained innovative electrification or alternative fueling features, including the sensational but stillborn R8 e-tron supercar (click here for a full report), the A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid, the A3 g-tron gas/CNG bi-fuel vehicle, and a prototype of its glorious, LeMans-winning R-18 e-tron quattro hybrid racecar. Audi also brought along the A1 e-tron, another electrified runabout that won’t see the light of day but which had a working version of Audi’s upcoming traffic light information system that will soon start appearing in other production Audi models.

2014 Audi A3 e-tron

The only car that is certain to make it to American shores is the A3 e-tron, a plug-in gasoline-electric hybrid that functions somewhat like the Chevrolet Volt but looks, well, like the sexy Audi hatchback it is. In fact, Audi was emphatic about how much the A3 e-tron, which is based on the upcoming, all-new 2014 A3 Sportback, does not look like other hybrid or electric cars (only the badges and the chrome-trimmed grille will set it apart from other A3s). Of course, this may be a good thing or a bad thing to eco-minded customers, as some like to blend in, while others brandish their Priuses like green badges of courage.

Due in 2014, the A3 e-tron has a large, 8.8-kWh battery pack, which Audi claims can supply enough juice for about 31 miles of electric driving before the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine fires up to propel you another 400 miles or so (perhaps 500 if you drive like the European fuel economy testers do). The combined power and torque rating for the two motors is 204 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is very close to the 2013 Audi A3 2.0T four-cylinder’s output.

Functionally, what sets the A3 e-tron apart from the Volt is the way it allows the driver to decide which fuel source it will use and when. With sufficient battery reserves, the default driving mode prioritizes the electric motor, locking the gas motor out until it is summoned by flooring the throttle. The driver can, however, lock the gasoline motor out altogether and drive purely in EV mode, say, in municipal zones with zero-emissions driving mandates (we don’t have many such areas in the U.S., but could soon). Alternatively, the driver can select a mode that locks out the electric motor in case you are approaching one of the aforementioned zero-emissions zones and want to save your battery reserves for that. And the driver may also choose a mode that uses the engine power to aggressively charge the battery in the event that you are nearing such an area with a low battery.

The Volt, by comparison, basically uses electricity to power the car until the battery has reached a low state of charge, at which point its range extender engine turns on to recharge the batteries in real time to keep it moving; the driver has little control over the handoff since the engine does not directly drive the wheels.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to sample the A3 e-tron, but Audi says it can accelerate briskly — about seven and a half seconds to 60 mph. The top electric-only speed is 81 mph, while the overall top speed is 138 mph.

The A3 e-tron (and any plug-in models that will follow) will be offered with a slick black home charging station that will facilitate a high-voltage connection to your home’s power source. Installation of the unit will be arranged by the dealership that sold the car, and Audi of America is contemplating including it with the purchase price.

Like most other plug-ins, Audi also has prepared a sophisticated remote vehicle management system, allowing customers to schedule charging as needed in order to take advantage of off-peak power rates via their home computer or smartphone app. One unique feature is a mode that directs nearly all of the charging to be done at night, but holds off on the last percentage of charging until just before a preset time you expect to get in and drive—say, just before you usually leave for work—with the final minutes of charging pre-warming the battery to its most efficient operating temperature, maximizing its efficiency and range when on the road. Naturally, the app will allow you to brag to your friends and family about exactly how green you’re being via Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Also like other manufacturers, Audi is working on a cordless inductive charging system similar to those used in electric toothbrushes (only car-sized). Audi was not prepared with many details about that other than to stress that its sensors would not allow the system to electrocute Fido or Fifi if either was to take a nap beneath the car. For now, the car will use an actual cord that connects to the car via a port concealed behind the four-ring badge in the grille.

Audi did not provide a price estimate for the A3 e-tron, but we expect it to carry a relatively hefty premium compared to other A3s, especially if it includes the wall charger. The Volt carries a sticker in the $40,000 range, so figure on something well above $50,000 for the A3 e-tron when it arrives sometime in 2014.

Audi A3 g-tron and Audi’s CNG production plant in Germany

The Future Lab event also gave us a chance to check out Audi’s new A3 g-tron, a CNG/petrol bi-fuel vehicle with a modified turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine capable of running either on natural gas or gasoline. Natural gas is the g-tron’s primary fuel source due to its much lower emissions, with sufficient capacity in its two carbon-fiber-reinforced CNG fuel tanks to provide 255 miles of driving range. Once the g-tron runs low on CNG and switches to gasoline power, it can travel another 550 miles or so once it switches to gasoline. Now, those numbers are based on the European driving cycle; U.S. testing standards would yield much lower numbers, but they would still be quite high, with C02 emissions remaining very, very low when the car is using natural gas.

I did get a chance to drive the car, and found it to behave like a normal, if somewhat slow, A3. With no conspicuous body modifications, it looks like a workaday A3, too. Audi claims that it can accelerate to 60 mph in less than 11 seconds with a top speed of 118 mph.

Supporting the A3 g-tron, if indirectly, is Audi’s newly completed facility in Werlte, in Germany’s Emsland district, which claims to be a CO2-neutral, wind-powered CNG production plant that turns water and carbon dioxide into synthetic natural gas, which then is fed into the country’s CNG grid supply. Audi expects the gas produced there will offset the gas consumed by g-tron fleet, effectively rendering them carbon-neutral in use.

Given the state of our automotive-grade CNG infrastructure (which is largely inaccessible to the public), it is extremely unlikely that we’ll see the A3 g-tron offered here. It will go into production for Europe, however, by the end of the year.

Audi A1 e-tron / Traffic Light Monitoring System

Last, I briefly sampled the A1 e-tron with its rotary/electric extended range hybrid powertrain from a program that, like the R8 e-tron, was killed a while back. It drove as unremarkably as one might expect a shrink-wrapped, electric-powered Audi to drive (we don’t even think the rotary-engine range extender came on once during our five-mile loop in the car).

The real reason we wanted to drive the A1 e-tron was to sample Audi's new traffic light monitoring technology. In theory, this system communicates with a city’s smart grid, which informs the car of the upcoming signal light status. The car then provides speed limit information if it the light is green, and, if it's red, will tells you how long it will stay red as you approach the light or wait. This allows the driver to slow down earlier and save energy if he or she knows that the light will be red when they get to it, and also allows drivers to relax a bit at stoplights for a few seconds since they know how soon it will turn green again.

In my short drive, the system worked OK. It didn't "see" every single light on the route, and of the ones it did detect, it was right on the money about 80 percent of the time. Still, knowing the status of the traffic light felt surprisingly reassuring. And the next time I got into a car, I have to say I missed it.

Dessert: the R18 e-tron hybrid racecar

Audi considers motor sport “the ideal development lab for new technologies,” and as proof, Audi brought a prototype of its spectacular, dorsal-finned R18 e-tron quattro racecar, just like the ones that took an historic 1-2 finish at the world’s most famous endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year.

The R18 e-tron racers are powered by a V-6 turbodiesel sending 510 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheels. A motor-alternator unit (MAU) on the front axle adds another 200 hp to the front wheels in corners, effectively turning it into a four-wheel-drive Le Mans car when summoned. Power for the MAU comes from recaptured brake energy temporarily stored in a flywheel-based energy storage system.

As with most of the stuff Audi presented in this year’s Audi Future Lab, much of the R18’s drive technology could eventually find its way into production models, and we hope it does, because as the other drivers at the 2012 24 Hours of LeMans know all too clearly, it works.

Less likely, at least for workaday Audis, is anything resembling that badass dorsal fin….

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