From Audi at CES Tech Leadership ElectricCar CatchUp CBS News

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AUDI A8 Electric Cars

From Audi at CES: Tech Leadership, Electric-Car Catch-Up

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 1:37 PM EST

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which concluded yesterday, turned out to be an unexpected bonanza for electric-vehicle (EV) enthusiasts. In addition to the debut of the Ford Focus electric, there was also a Tesla Roadster (at Panasonic ‘s booth, because Panasonic makes its batteries) and a brace of plug-in cars from Audi . including two different versions of the e-tron. Both are technologically interesting, and both bristle with the kind of electronic innovation that makes their appearance at CES a logical idea .

Volkswagen and Audi are sleeper players in the EV revolution. Both have shown electric car prototypes, with VW benefiting from Tesla’s technical assistance. Europe has been slow to get into EVs (preferring diesels generally) but it’s playing catch-up now with a range of new model introductions, some headed for production.

The e-tron’s legacy

I was fascinated by the A1 e-tron, which I hadn’t seen in the metal before. It’s a finished-looking prototype on a compact European hatchback platform that really should make it to the U.S. though there are no current plans for that. Could there be some hints of what the next generation of the VW Beetle will look like in the slightly egg-shaped A1?

I’m betting yes.

But the A1 e-tron is more than a battery version of a German compact — it has only 31 miles of battery range (from a 12 kilowatt-hour liquid-cooled pack) and a three-hour recharge time (the same as the new Ford Focus), but that isn’t all she wrote.

The car also includes a very lightweight rotary engine (including alternator and power electronics, it weighs just 143 pounds) that offers more than 150 miles of range. Shades of the Volt and Fisker Karma, it runs at a constant 5,000 rpm and acts as a generator to supply the electric motor, rather than driving the wheels.

Under the hood, a Wankel rotary engine

The use of a rotary engine is a first in a plug-in hybrid, and it’s an interesting choice. Audi claims that its car achieves 123 mpg and — critical for the European market, if a production version ever materializes — 45 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer. Fuel economy is not usually a strong suit of the Wankel rotary engine, which was developed by German engineer Felix Wankel in the early 1950s.

Mazda’s RX-8 has a rotary engine, and there are reliability and smoothness benefits, but emission and fuel consumption issues have limited its use as a primary powerplant.

Audi’s R8 e-tron, also at CES, is more fanciful â€- but still intriguing. It’s aimed at Tesla’s Roadster, a two-seater with no less than four electric motors (two on each axle). With 313 horsepower on tap, it can reach 124 mph and sprint from zero to 62 mph in 4.8 seconds. The standard R8 is headed for production as a kind of super-TT, and the electric is a nice complement: It has a big 53 kilowatt-hour and a claimed 155-mile range.

If 1,400 people bought the Tesla Roadster, certainly Audi could sell a comparable number of R8 e-trons if the price could be kept reasonable (a big if). I would go with the A1 for production if I was in charge of Audi.

AUDI A8 Electric Cars

The wired Audi A8

To guide me through the latest electronic equipment, I talked to Audi’s Werner Hamberger . who showed me a touchpad going into A8 models (and others soon) that, as a way of combating driver distraction, can read letters that drivers trace with their fingers on a dash pad. It turned out to be very intuitive in use (any squiggle that suggested, say, a T was recognized. Human nature would be to look down to make sure the car was getting it, but Hamberger said that in production models the inputed letters are announced by navigation voice.

This cuts the driver distraction in half, he said.

Driver distraction is an issue with a lot of in-car technology at CES. RE Auto . for instance, displayed a Smart car with no less than three video screens, two in the doors and one on the dashboard. Here’s what that looked like on video:

An experimental version of that touchpad mimicked Braille with buttons that could be easily selected via touch. The buttons appeared on the otherwise flat touchpad only when their relevant function was chosen.

Audi has incorporated a WLAN hotspot into its Bluetooth car phone technology that can allow as many as eight devices inside the car to go online, from laptops to tablets. As the user of a Verizon WLAN Fivespot, I can see how this would be very useful, but all those connected iPads might undo the distraction benefits of the smart touchpad. You can get 3D images, from Google Earth and others, on the A8’s Multi-Media Interface, too.

Audi wants to be known for its German engineering, and for its tech approach, too. It’s nobody’s idea of an EV leader yet, but as I said, it’s playing catch-up.

© 2011 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

AUDI A8 Electric Cars
AUDI A8 Electric Cars
AUDI A8 Electric Cars
AUDI A8 Electric Cars
AUDI A8 Electric Cars
AUDI A8 Electric Cars

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