Audi CEO on his biggest challenges: "I’ve never seen anything like it"

2 weeks, 2 days ago - 7 May 2024, autocar
Audi CEO on his biggest challenges: "I’ve never seen anything like it"
Gernot Döllner's considered, decisive demeanour is perfect at such an unprecedented time - we hear his plan

When Gernot Döllner arrived in Ingolstadt in September last year to start his new role as CEO and chairman of Audi, he probably found quite the to-do list in a bulging in-tray. 

Shortly before Döllner’s appointment, Volkswagen Group chair Oliver Blume described Audi as “behind] the clagging [ompetition”. That’s why the job had become vacant in the first place: former boss Markus Duesmann was sacked, reports suggest, because of numerous delays to the flagship Q6 E-tron.

But getting the Q6 E-tron project back on track was just one challenge facing Döllner. Audi was gearing up for the biggest wave of product launches in its history, while facing an increased challenge from new Chinese rivals, trying to keep pace with BMW and Mercedes-Benz, coping with a slowing market for electric vehicles and dealing with ever-changing regulations.

Whereas Duesmann had jumped across from BMW to oversee Audi in 2020, Döllner wasn’t a flashy hire. The 55-year-old has been at the Volkswagen Group since 1993, with the bulk of his career spent at Porsche, where he worked with Blume.

Among other roles, he was product manager for the 918 Spyder and the Panamera model series. Since 2021, he has been VW’s group strategy boss – a key if somewhat back-room role.

That seems to fit Döllner’s style – and explains why he doesn’t seem at all fazed by the challenges ahead of him at Audi. In fact, his demeanour is a great fit for the brand: it’s not about being showy; it’s about being efficient, considered and decisive.

Since he started at Audi six months ago, Döllner and his board have spent their time laying out a new strategy for the company, which has been called the Audi Agenda. See, told you he wasn’t flashy.

The agenda is intended to help tackle the key issues affecting the firm. “We’re currently managing the biggest model initiative in Audi’s history,” he says, “while at the same time driving forward a fundamental transformation.”

So the agenda will provide “clarity for the company” and it “contains everything we need to take Audi forward again”. That starts with a focus on four key areas: products, technology, the brand and key regions – with a particular emphasis on raising performance in China and the US. Döllner has revamped the company structure to make it leaner, with more entrepreneurship. He describes products lines as now being “companies within companies”.

The focus is on getting Audi back to what it does best – and that can be succinctly summed up in three words: Vorsprung durch Technik. Strangely, those aren’t words that have been heard coming out of Ingolstadt much in recent years, but expect that to change. Döllner says that, when formulating his agenda, the board has “some quite intense discussion” regarding the brand.

“I grew up with Vorsprung durch Technik, but in the last few years, with not having [new] products, it was not the right time to talk about it,” he says. “But this is still the core of the brand. We have to find a new interpretation, but what remains is bringing technology that helps people. It’s a more holistic view on the customer perspective. That covers design, quality, engineering and even the customer experience.”

The increased emphasis of Vorsprung durch Technik might sound like Audi is joining the likes of Volkswagen and Renault by looking to its heritage, but Döllner says: “That’s not our perspective.”

He adds: “Being innovative is part of our DNA. Vorsprung and technology is always innovation. We look forward: it’s software; it’s artificial intelligence; it’s service quality. We have a rich heritage, and we will use that, but it’s more of an add-on. It’s the spice in the meal.”

New software technology has presented Döllner with his biggest challenge: problems with the E3 software architecture co-developed by Audi and Cariad (the VW Group’s software arm) caused the Q6 E-tron’s launch to be delayed, threatening to disrupt the firm’s ambitious plan to introduce 20 new models in the next two years.

Döllner says: “We’ve put a lot of emphasis on optimising the way we develop software and products. We’ve worked to smooth the processes and operations and we’ve taken big steps.

Given the rising importance of software in new cars – and the goal of ‘software-defined vehicles’, which offer more potential for customisation and subscription services – future software issues could prove even more disruptive. But Döllner insists: “We’ve learned our lesson.”

Although he is a VW Group veteran, Döllner is new to Ingolstadt and is no continuity candidate – and he’s already reshaped some of the core team. Former technical chief Oliver Hoffmann has been moved to a new role as chairman of Audi’s nascent Formula 1 operation, with Döllner himself taking charge of technical operations.

Insiders have suggested that Hoffmann’s move was a response to the software issues that delayed the Q6 E-tron, but Döllner says: “We decided to put more emphasis on our Formula 1 project and Oliver Hoffmann is the right person to do that. He started that project and, as we step in even more intensively, he’s the right one to lead that project: he’s a racer; he’s an engineer; he’s a developer.”

Just as significantly, long-time Audi design chief Marc Lichte will shortly be replaced by former JLR design director Massimo Frascella.

“Marc did an excellent and outstanding job for Audi, with really strong products on the market,” says Döllner. “It’s not that anything is wrong, but we thought it might be time after 10 years – for design, that’s a historic era – for a change.”

Frascella will find much to keep him busy when he starts his new job: the Q6 E-tron and recently revealed A3 facelift are the first of 20 new or updated models due by the end of 2025.

Those will include both new EVs, including the A6 E-tron saloon, and combustion-engined models, including the new A5 and Q5 that will be launched this year. Notably, those two models will use what Audi is calling a new ICE platform named Premium Performance Combustion (PPC).

Although the timeframe has been slightly stretched from the plans announced by Duesmann a year ago, Döllner says that the challenge is still “huge – I’ve never seen anything like it in my career so far. I’m sure when we look back we’ll say: ‘How did we do that?’”

SUVs will be a major priority early in the offensive – especially in the US – but Döllner insists that Audi will not simply become an SUV maker. “The core of our brand will be three low platforms and three SUV platforms,” he says.

And yes, that means Avant estate models will continue. “Avant will be part of the Audi DNA as long as our customers ask for it,” says Döllner. “It could be an interesting opportunity, because there are not so many [electric] ones around.

Performance models will also remain part of the Audi range in future, with the continued expansion of Audi Sport’s RS range – for both combustion-powered and electric cars. “We need emotional derivatives and products – and we are working on it,” says Döllner.

We are thinking about highly emotional additional products, but it’s still too early to talk about that.” He adds that stand-alone performance models – such as a spiritual successor to the R8 or TT – are “in our target portfolio”.

One major challenge facing Döllner is increased competition from Chinese brands – both in that country and in the new models they are now exporting to Europe.

“Competition is good,” he says. One area where Audi is learning from Chinese brands is in accelerating product development. The future small electric model that will sit below the Q4 E-tron will be “developed in around three years”, says Döllner, adding: “Working in China for China, we’ve learned a lot about new development techniques and processes.”

Döllner is clear on the need to give Audi flexibility in its future plans. The company has previously committed to going all-electric by 2033, but the renewal of its combustion line-up in the coming years will provide considerable freedom.

Döllner notes that plug-in hybrid technology has become “a field where we have to plan to do more”, particularly in the US and China. “Seven or eight years ago, PHEV was very strong and then it went down a bit,” he says.

“Everybody knows it’s a bridging technology and it still is. But the bridge is longer than we expected.” In Europe, Döllner expects “a direct switch to battery-electric because of CO2 legislation – but that’s more opinion than knowledge”.

The uncertainty over future regulations is definitely a frustration and Döllner wishes that politicians would give clearer targets “in whichever direction”. He adds: “Right now, our strategy is more long term than any politician’s in the world anywhere.”

So what of that long-term plan? Asked if Audi still wants to become a fully electric brand by 2033, Döllner says: “That’s our firm plan.” But he then quickly adds: “If we see in 2026 that ICE is of more relevance in some regions of the world, we’ll definitely discuss that. It doesn’t make sense to be dogmatic. We are flexible."

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