FRANKFURT — German automakers, long ultra-partial to diesels, were relatively slow to see the light on hybrid and electric cars, but they’re now making up for that with a blizzard of new introductions. At the annual Frankfurt show this year, Audi unveiled not only a hybrid version of the top-of-the-line A8 (to complement the hybrid A6 already announced), but showed off an urban concept battery car that is part of its new effort on adopting mobility to the coming world of megacities.


The A8 offers 38 mpg (on the European drive cycle), and an estimated 20 percent improvement over the conventional version of the car. The interior is awfully nice, and heavily interactive. The accompanying video (at the end of this post) shows the Google Earth app in action.


Audi says its new urban pod cars (pictured below) were adopted from studying paper planes and gliders, and indeed there’s something aircraft-like in the sliding canopy of the “Sportback,” a two-seat urban runabout with a carbon fiber chassis that weighs just 1,058 pounds. The seats are staggered, so the passenger sits both beside and behind the driver — the car is narrow, with the cycle-fendered wheels out on carbon fiber struts. It’s a foot and a half shorter than a base Mini. The Lotus 7 comes to mind.


Audi has shown a series of e-tron-branded electric cars, one of which, the Tesla Roadster-like R8, is going into limited production next year. It takes 4.8 seconds to get to 62 mph, and with a t-shaped lithium-ion battery pack has 155 miles of cruising range. That’s a highway car, but Audi obviously has something different in mind with the Urban Concept cars, which have much smaller packs and only 35 miles of range.


The Urban Concept is part of a growing movement (including the BMW i3 Megacity Vehicle and Toyota’s Scion-based IQ EV) of shorter-range, affordable city electrics.”We’ve gone beyond our usual thinking,” Audi said in introducing the cars (the Sportback is accompanied by an open-air Spyder), accompanied by a flurry of acrobatic dancers.


Peter Schwarzenbauer, a member of the Audi Board of Management, said in a press conference that the company’s Urban Future Initiative, which brings together architects and urban planners with auto engineers, is propelled by “an overall strategy to understand what urban mobility will look like in the future. No longer will cities have to adapt to what the auto industry comes up with — we can’t definite the future on our own anymore.”


Audi says that the auto industry usually just talks internally, but there’s a new world coming and it needs outside input. Rupert Stadler, chairman of Audi’s Board of Management, pointed out that the world is heading toward a population of 7 billion, with maybe 70 percent of those people living in large cities. An Asian city with 10,000 people living with 1,000 cars in a single square kilometer will have 5,000 to 10,000 more people in that space by 2030, with another 1,000 cars. “Private space will be a luxury,” he said. “So we need to understand what the issues will be in these new megacities.”


The conference certainly brought up a lot of good questions. Will people own cars in the future, or will they just access them through car-sharing services or new models? Will people even drive themselves, given the known aversion of today’s networked young people to setting down their cell phones to take the wheel? Autonomous driving is technologically in reach (Audi is a pioneer, with a TT that recently climbed Pike’s Peak), but can it overcome the huge liability issues when drivers give up control?


We saw lots of gleaming graphics of livable city downtowns transformed into “mobility centers,” with cars that park themselves, and services that seamlessly interface personal mobility with mass transit. I loved the idea of autonomous cars with windshields that become like TV screens, offering social networking and visual histories of the buildings and neighborhoods you pass through. It’s a lot nicer than imagining gridlock and stasis.


Here's that Audi A8 Google Earth interface on video — like I said, it's cool:



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