The PB18 concept shows the company plans to retain the fun side of motoring. Picture: SUPPLIED
The PB18 concept shows the company plans to retain the fun side of motoring. Picture: SUPPLIED

Planning five years ahead in the auto industry at the moment is no easy task, especially if you are the head of strategy technical development at Audi, but that is exactly what Thomas Kamla has to do.

He does so at a time when Audi has been through multiple directors of technical development in six years and as I arrived in San Francisco recently for the reveal of the new Audi E-tron, I was informed that its then technical director, Peter Mertens, was unwell and would not be available for interviews.

A few days later he was out, replaced by the sixth technical development director in as many years. Tough gig, although perhaps languishing in prison without charge over Dieselgate is a little tougher for former CEO Rupert Stadler.

Kamla says his role is to find a "sustainable strategy for the next five years", something that will entail moving Audi from being a premium car maker to being a "premium mobility" company. Kamla takes it another step further though to say that Audi will become a "producer of premium eco systems".

This reflects an industry in a state of change. No longer can car makers just produce cars and entice buyers with fancy marketing. Kayla says that in the past the company developed platforms and technology based on the car itself, but now he and his teams are developing to the new needs of the customer.

He says everything is moving to become "customer centric" but when we asked him if customers know what they want, he replied: "No, not really."

That could well be true because customers say they want autonomous cars but yet they have no real experience of them. They do want more features though, especially convenience features, infotainment and connectivity.

What Kamla also wants to build into the Audis of the future is time. "For me the most premium thing is time. To have privacy, a business environment." But he adds that "pure fun is also a value we have to focus on — we have to keep the feeling of pure fun", citing the PB18 concept revealed at Pebble Beach in September as an example.

There is more to come though, with the company having showcased the PB18 and its Aikon concept as its future plans, but Kamla says there will be two very significant new concepts at the Frankfurt motor show in late 2019. Beyond that, he says that 2021 will be a major anniversary event for the company and we should "expect big things".

For now he says "we are living a little bit in the future", adding that "I hope the company is ready". It is partly his job to make sure it is, of course, but there are areas that are very much out of the brand’s usual remit. One example is Audi’s collaboration with Airbus and Italdesign on the Pop Up flying car project. Kamla is involved in it and says that it will happen, with trials set to being in Audi’s home town of Ingolstadt. He says we can expect the Pop Up on, and indeed above, our roads in five to seven years.

Back to today and Kamla is balancing the needs of the customer today with their wants for tomorrow. Audi has lots of new products coming over the next 12 months including the new A3, Q3, updated A4 and others, but a great deal of the focus will on its first electric vehicle, the E-tron.

"We wanted a car that can be commercially successful," says Kamla. To achieve that he says it needed to "look like an Audi and look like an SUV. It needed to be an everyday car."

Whether it will be an everyday car everywhere remains to be seen, especially in a country like SA, but by the time it arrives here, the environment could be different and the customer could well have a better understanding of what electric vehicles are about and what it is they want them to do.