Audi has teased with the promise of an all-electric family under the e-tron badge for some time. These early cars were brilliantly radical. They experimented with what was then considered to be the electric vehicle vernacular – meaning a focus on aerodynamics, coupled with strong visual statements, elements in the grille and alloy design that pointed directly to the battery-electric engine. Now, Audi has confirmed its commitment to electrification, with every third car sustainably powered in the fleet by 2025. The family will include the e-tron SUV I drove briefly, a Q2L, a long-wheelbase Q2 made for China, an e-tron gran turismo and the latest Q4 crossover coupé, revealed at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this month. I caught up with the Audi design director Marc Lichte to discuss the e-tron cars and his take on the future identity of a traditional manufacturer in the new age of driverless, sustainable cars.
Nargess Banks: The car world order is changing dramatically. What are the biggest challenges for a company like Audi, one with such a strong heritage in creating traditional premium cars, in this new age of electrification and later autonomous mobility?
Marc Lichte: It is a big challenge. Our competitors, start-ups like Tesla, don’t have an automotive history so they build from a white sheet of paper. At Audi, we have a long history, so strategically we are deciding on our family design, then building a difference between our combustion engine cars and battery electric vehicles.
NB: Your early e-tron cars were hugely radical in design and the initial avant-garde approach feels a touch diluted here with the Q4 e-tron. For instance, why do you maintain the Audi single-frame grille here?
ML: Because it is the main signature for the brand, plus battery-electric vehicles still need cooling. So we decided to create a single-frame for the future that is distinguished through function and colour. On our combustion engine cars, the grille is black to signify that air is going through this and cooling the engine. On our battery-electric cars, the single-frame uses the body colour and it hides all the sensors behind it to signify that this is an Audi but not a classic one.
NB: Do you see Audi taking a more daring approach to product differentiation going forward, when the e-tron cars are more established?
ML: We are still at the early stages with our electric cars as we still have our combustion car fleet. I see us as being in an in-between phase where I have to handle both types of cars – old world and new world. Looking ahead to the next ten years, there will no longer be a combustion engine so we will have one Audi type.
NB: So, you will take on a more radical approach then?
ML: We are always looking at what the future could look like for Audi. We do this through products like the Q4, cars that are almost production ready, as well as more conceptual show cars like the Aicon (the study from June 2018) looking ten years ahead. Next month at the Shanghai Motor Show you will see a very exciting urban mobility car with a very progressive interior, an interesting steering wheel design and radical cabin. Then in Frankfurt Motor Show in September, we will reveal our vision for a future SUV. We also plan to show all four e-tron cars together there in the centre of the stand so you can almost enter our future and see Audi’s vision for the next ten to fifteen years.
NB: Looking around your Geneva stand – and some of the other main players – I can’t help thinking there are far too many products being made. Surely, in the true spirit of sustainability, a company like Audi should be looking at reducing the number of products it offers for even with the best recycling methods, energy is still being consumed.
ML: Our current portfolio includes the A, Q and R. In the future, the number of cars will reduce and they will be products aimed at a more specific user-case. We will head into this direction step-by-step, where we will aim for a tighter number of cars, but with more focus and using design as a way of increasing their lifespan. I can imagine a time when we will offer a service to refurbish the interior of a car, much like in buildings, when the customer tire of it. Why not!
NB: It does make sense to rethink how you operate as a car company given that the younger generations, the next buying generation, don’t appear to share the same love as we do for the motor car and are not keen on the idea of personal car ownership either.
ML: The Aicon concept, for instance, is designed so on long-distances you can travel autonomously so you can work or sleep and it could be a shared car so you can change the interior. It can be a business case for Audi too. Today, our business is to make cars and sell cars, but this will change in the future especially when you talk about autonomous cars that incorporate very expensive technology.
NB: This essentially makes a company like Audi so much more than a car company as you navigate all the other elements and touch points that assist driverless cars. How much are you involved in this aspect of design?
ML: Over the last three years, we have started to formulate our design philosophy – who we are, how we see ourselves in the future, how will car companies change and what will be the user-needs. In the future, when the car is connected to the internet, it will become more of a system (rather than a product), so the vehicle will provide a brand experience. I’m talking about everything, from how you find out about the cars, how you enter one, drive one, share one. Someone needs to design these elements. Who do you think should do this? Of course it needs to be us.
NB: This is something all the start-ups and new companies like Tesla and Polestar are doing – working on the bigger picture, all the electric drive touch-points, before even designing the cars.
ML: Yes, it is about creating a brand experience and it is a major change for companies like Audi. It is definitely harder for traditional car companies as we are juggling so many balls in the air. We have a very, very clear vision though whereby we will change to become an experience brand.
NB: This must impact greatly on who you employ in the design department.
ML: Absolutely. I have a team of 450 in the Audi design department and around two years ago we started to transform the studio, how we work and our research methodology. We now employ graphic designers, interior designers, material designers. I’m building up a user experience studio doing prototypes to understand the future. In the past, an engineer would come to the design studio, show a package and say this is an engine we need a four seater and by the way I also need an interior! The future is the opposite – we will see what the user thinks and wants, then we decide the size of the interior, then the exterior.
NB: Talking of the interior, how far are you exploring new materials and finding premium fabrics that speak the language of sustainability?
ML: We take this seriously. In this latest Q4 e-tron we feature a sophisticated innovative recycled plastic fabric. In the past basic cars had fabric seats while higher levels had leather. This will change. My young daughter doesn’t want to sit on a dead cow anymore. The problem has been that alternative fabrics are not sophisticated enough, but this is all changing.
NB: Would you go as far as being as transparent as the food industry in explaining the providence of the materials?
ML: Yes, absolutely – you need to be able to tell the story. For example, the blue paint on the Q4 e-tron is a sustainable color, produced ecologically and specially-developed to reflect the sun more than an average blue so the car needs less air conditioning.
NB: A decade ago, Audi was involved with architects and urban planners in the exciting Audi Urban Future initiative, which I recall involving some interesting architects such as BIG. The concept was so ahead of its time and feels more relevant now than ever. Will you revisit this initiative, or something similar?
ML: This is a very good question and yes, we will bring this back. Wait a little over a year when there will be a very special announcement. You will love this new project, but I cannot reveal more at this stage.