AUDI E-TRON AT PIKES PEAK It’s all down­hill from here

Audi plays down­hill racer at Pikes Peak to show­case the breath­tak­ing abil­ity of its game-chang­ing E-tron

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

TO MANY peo­ple, this rust-red spire of arid rock about 100km south of Den­ver isn’t par­tic­u­larly spe­cial. There are 52 other moun­tains just like it in the state of Colorado alone, all of which peak above 14,000ft (4267m). In moun­taineer­ing par­lance they’re sim­ply called the ‘Four­teen­ers’.

But to those of us who know bet­ter, Pikes Peak is hal­lowed. For more than a cen­tury, madcap man­u­fac­tur­ers and rac­ing drivers with no self-preser­va­tion in­stinct have been at­tempt­ing to tame its 31km rib­bon of treach­ery that pitches up­ward to a fin­ish line 4302m above sea level. The sum­mit is al­most twice as high as the tip of Aus­tralia’s premier peak, Mt Kosciuszko. Stand­out per­for­mances at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb have be­come the stuff of mo­tor­sport mythol­ogy.

Audi has taken over­all vic­tory on three oc­ca­sions, all in a row, book­ended by leg­endary wins for Michele Mou­ton in 1985 and Wal­ter Rohrl in 1987. That suc­cess helped es­tab­lish the cred­i­bil­ity, and in­deed the legend, of Audi Qu­at­tro.

But the Audi I’m about to ex­pe­ri­ence­here has no legacy what­so­ever. Its his­tory is yet to be writ­ten.

This is the Audi E-tron, the Ger­man brand’s first all-elec­tric pro­duc­tion car. Or at least, it will be. This par­tic­u­lar car is a pro­to­type; a late ‘pre-se­ries’ ve­hi­cle that’s largely rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the fin­ished prod­uct due to make a pub­lic de­but in mere weeks, sans high-vis exterior dis­guise.

Audi has four of th­ese pro­to­types in Colorado Springs, and at least 200 other ex­am­ples shuf­fling about in var­i­ous cor­ners of the globe, manned by the de­part­ments charged with its devel­op­ment. This quar­tet has been gath­ered to give a small group of in­ter­na­tional me­dia a peek be­hind the cur­tain at the cur­rent state of Audi’s elec­tric ve­hi­cle pro­gram.

A spe­cial per­mit means the E-tron we’re sam­pling can be driven on pub­lic roads de­spite its ex­per­i­men­tal parts that aren’t yet road le­gal. Things like cam­eras and screens that sit in place of con­ven­tional wing mir­rors. The per­mit dic­tates only com­pany em­ploy­ees can take the wheel, so we won’t be driv­ing today. In­stead we’ll be chauf­feured by Oswin Roder.

Roder is one of the en­gi­neers re­spon­si­ble for the E-tron’s elec­tronic chas­sis con­trol. He has spent months at the Nur­bur­gring since be­com­ing in­volved with the pro­gram in its early con­cept stages about three years ago, and he is clearly pas­sion­ate about Audi’s elec­tric fu­ture. We’ve been awake since 4:00am in or­der to get up and back be­fore the road is opened to tourists, yet Roder is bright-eyed and im­pa­tient to jump in the car and get to work. Or maybe he’s just cold.

A shut­tle drops us at the top where the E-tron awaits. It’s sum­mer in Colorado and the mid­day heat is ex­treme, but up here at this hour it’s barely above freez­ing. It takes me a mo­ment to get my bear­ings and take in the ut­terly breath­tak­ing view. In a bid to warm up I jog across the carpark to a look­out point about 30 me­tres away. By the time I reach the rail­ing I’m pant­ing for breath like a chain smoker. Air pres­sure at this al­ti­tude means the ef­fec­tive oxy­gen level is dra­mat­i­cally re­duced; par­tial pres­sure here is only about 60 per­cent that of sea level. It’s one of the rea­sons EVS are so com­par­a­tively po­tent up here. Oxy­gen den­sity mat­ters far less than it does for com­bus­tion engines, es­pe­cially tur­bocharged ones. But that isn’t im­por­tant today. All we have to do is drive down.

We clam­ber into the E-tron and take shel­ter from the el­e­ments. The airy cabin is rem­i­nis­cent of Audi’s cur­rent SUV crop, with its over­all di­men­sions sit­ting some­where be­tween the Q5 and Q7. I re­mind my­self that this is a pro­to­type,

but there’s no need to. The in­te­rior fitout is ex­quis­ite, and equipped with cut­ting-edge tech in­clud­ing the A8’s touch­screen-heavy MMI in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem. There are Bang & Olufsen lo­gos on the speaker grilles, a colour head-up dis­play, and pre­mium leather trim. It’s a prop­erly lux­u­ri­ous experience, and Roder knows what I’m about to do next be­fore I do it.

“We must leave the seat heaters off,” he says, with a clear ob­jec­tive on his mind. To suc­ceed today we need to con­serve charge in the bat­tery and re­cu­per­ate as much po­ten­tial en­ergy as pos­si­ble dur­ing our down­hill run. We’re to do that us­ing the E-tron’s state-of-the-art in­te­grated brake con­trol sys­tem, which switches the elec­tric mo­tors to gen­er­a­tors and con­verts ki­netic en­ergy into elec­tric charge. The ul­ti­mate aim is to beat three other E-trons do­ing the same. Seat heaters won’t help us.

The E-tron sits on a ver­sion of Audi’s mod­u­lar and ubiq­ui­tous MLB Evo plat­form. Roder ex­plains the ar­chi­tec­ture wasn’t de­signed with an EV in mind, and had to be adapted to ac­cept an asyn­chro­nous mo­tor on each axle, the rear slightly larger than the front, and a phys­i­cally mas­sive 95kwh bat­tery built into the floor be­tween them. All of it is made by Audi.

Un­til now only morsels of tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion have been shared by In­gol­stadt, but Roder seems will­ing to go off-script. He con­firms the E-tron’s out­puts of 265kw and 561Nm, and a Sport mode boost func­tion that lifts them to 300kw and 665Nm for eight sec­ond bursts. Its real-world range is more than 400km.

Th­ese fig­ures put Audi’s first EV slightly be­hind ri­vals al­ready in the mar­ket, in­clud­ing the Tesla Model X and Jaguar I-pace, but Roder brushes off the crit­i­cism. “The per­for­mance of this car is still very good. Ac­cel­er­a­tion [0-100km/h] is un­der six sec­onds, and we have a big ad­van­tage in cor­ner­ing. This was a high fo­cus.”

There are EV char­ac­ter traits that help this cause, such as a low cen­tre of grav­ity, but there are dis­ad­van­tages as well, most notably weight. All told, E-tron is around 2500kg, with the bat­tery con­tribut­ing ap­prox­i­mately 700kg to that. It’s a lot of mass to man­age.

“We use pro­gres­sive [vari­able] steer­ing. We have a con­ven­tional ra­tio for driv­ing ahead, and when it comes to a cor­ner it gets more di­rect. This has a big in­flu­ence on the car feel­ing ag­ile and light.”

I have to take his word for it. For now, we’re talk­ing brakes.

It’s easy to underestimate how cen­tral re­cu­per­a­tion is to the driv­ing experience of an EV, and how sig­nif­i­cant the in­flu­ence will be on the way we drive in fu­ture. When you re­alise Audi has changed the func­tion of the E-tron’s pad­dle shifters to in­stead cy­cle through its three lev­els of re­gen­er­a­tion, it starts to be­come ap­par­ent.

At the low end the sys­tem mim­ics en­gine brak­ing and re­cu­per­ates dur­ing coast­ing. At its strong­est the E-tron can be driven with one-pedal. As much as 90 per­cent of brak­ing sce­nar­ios can be han­dled by the mo­tors, mean­ing it is con­stantly recharg­ing. The driv­e­train can re­cu­per­ate en­ergy up to 0.3G of de­cel­er­a­tion be­fore the hy­draulic brakes need to as­sist, which cov­ers al­most ev­ery­thing short of an emer­gency stop.

Up to 220kw of en­ergy can be fed back into the bat­tery by the sys­tem, which is far more than the 150kw a 400-volt fast charger is ca­pa­ble of when the E-tron is hooked up to a socket. This is not the first EV en­ergy re­cov­ery sys­tem, but it’s al­most cer­tainly the most ef­fi­cient.

Pikes Peak drops away in front of us, the steep­est sec­tions plum­met­ing down­wards at 13 per­cent, which is more than a me­tre of fall for 10 me­tres trav­elled. Af­ter about 11km of rid­ing the brakes and al­most 1000m of de­scent we’re stopped by park rangers at a static check­point. Here, at­ten­dants carry out a manda­tory test on ev­ery ve­hi­cle leav­ing the sum­mit us­ing a de­vice that mea­sures brake tem­per­a­ture.

Our front ro­tors are barely five de­grees

It’s easy to underestimate how cen­tral re­cu­per­a­tion will be to the way we drive

above am­bi­ent at this point, reg­is­ter­ing 14 Cel­sius, or 58 Fahren­heit in the na­tive tongue. “You don’t want to be above 300 [Fahren­heit/149 Cel­sius],” the lady tells us. “Oth­er­wise you have to stop and let your brakes cool off. You’re good to go.”

There is no other sys­tem in the world quite like this one. One of the blokes re­spon­si­ble tells me there are 14,000 tune­able pa­ram­e­ters in the brak­ing sys­tem alone. In reg­u­lar driv­ing sce­nar­ios the E-tron uses al­most ev­ery sup­ple­men­tary sys­tem to max­imise its ef­fi­ciency. “No mat­ter what the driver does, you al­ways get the most amount of re­cu­per­a­tion into the car,” says Roder.

Cam­era, radar and map data are used to an­a­lyse the road ahead, and the sys­tem can pre­dic­tively dis­trib­ute re­cu­per­a­tion be­tween the axles (but not in­di­vid­ual wheels) to make it feel as nat­u­ral as pos­si­ble.

At this point I wish I could feel it for my­self. Audi claims this car’s com­pletely de­cou­pled brake pedal is a world first. The pedal is at­tached to noth­ing but a sen­sor that reg­is­ters brake re­quests and a piece of elas­tic that sim­u­lates the sen­sa­tion of a nor­mal pedal. It’s done this way so that the sys­tem’s brain can blend the stop­ping power of re­cu­per­a­tion and con­ven­tional calipers with­out the driver notic­ing.

Be­low 10km/h it takes more en­ergy to stop the car than it can re­cover, so the reg­u­lar brakes step in. The hy­draulic pump that op­er­ates the calipers is the most pow­er­ful Audi has ever used. Should the car spot a pedes­trian, its AEB sys­tem can ini­ti­ate an emer­gency stop, from de­tec­tion to brake lock, within 150ms. That’s quicker than the blink of an eye.

By the time we reach the bot­tom we’ve cov­ered a dis­tance of al­most 30km. At the top, the E-tron’s state of charge was 58 per­cent, or just shy of 50kwh. Over the course of the de­scent its sys­tems topped up the cells with al­most 10kwh of re­cov­ered en­ergy. There was very lit­tle throt­tle in­put, so only 2.6kwh was con­sumed in get­ting there, and we spent the rest of the trip gen­er­at­ing en­ergy us­ing grav­ity. We fin­ish with more than 57kwh in re­serve.

Th­ese are bizarre, seem­ingly coun­ter­in­tu­itive num­bers to wrap your brain around. In real-world terms we ex­tended the car’s range by at least a kilo­me­tre for ev­ery kilo­me­tre trav­elled. Of the four E-trons tak­ing part, our fig­ures are sec­ond best. One other car that didn’t stop for pho­tog­ra­phy man­aged to re­gen­er­ate 12kwh. Though this ex­er­cise is ob­vi­ously an ex­treme ex­am­ple to il­lus­trate the sys­tem’s ul­ti­mate ca­pa­bil­ity, the prac­ti­cal every­day ben­e­fits are there.

Audi says this sys­tem is eas­ily trans­fer­able to fu­ture EVS and PHEVS. Af­ter E-tron goes on sale a sportier ver­sion called the E-tron Sport­back will fol­low, rid­ing on the same MLB Evo un­der­pin­nings. Two more Audi EVS are sched­uled for 2020; a com­pact car built on shared ar­chi­tec­ture from the VW ID hatch, and the per­for­mance-fo­cused E-tron GT, which is ex­pected to use the same plat­form as the Porsche Tay­can (for­merly Mis­sion E). Volk­swa­gen as a group has clev­erly carved up its EV devel­op­ment us­ing fa­mil­iar syn­er­gies so that each brand tack­les its own piece of the puz­zle, and quickly.

What would nor­mally have taken four or five years to de­velop ac­cord­ing to one en­gi­neer, has been achieved in three, and with the prom­ise of at least 20 elec­tri­fied Audis by 2025, the E-tron flood­gates are fit to burst. Audi won’t be the first to mar­ket, but it’s poised to make an im­pact.

In a com­bus­tion en­gine car ev­ery brake ap­pli­ca­tion costs fuel. What is burnt in get­ting up to speed is lost, with noth­ing left to show for it. Ef­fi­cient re­cov­ery of en­ergy is a new prov­ing ground for EV man­u­fac­tur­ers, which is to say, all man­u­fac­tur­ers hop­ing to sur­vive. With no legacy to pro­tect, the E-tron en­ters the ring with noth­ing to lose, and the tools at its dis­posal could be game-chang­ing.

In real-world terms we ex­tended the range by at least a kilo­me­tre for ev­ery kilo­me­tre trav­elled

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.