January 16, 2001

Progress You Can Touch: The "Audi Feeling"
Text and photos courtesy of Audi AG

You could describe Gerhard Mauter as an engineer for the tactile senses, but this would only be a very superficial description of his job at AUDI AG in Ingolstadt, where he manages the "Control Haptics Team", which is usually referred to as "the haptics team" for convenience. Haptics is the science of the tactile sense. There is, however, much more involved than the fact that an Audi is expected to feel good - the work is also about ergonomics and operating logic, light-action controls and how they look, pressing buttons and all the various pulling, pushing, shifting, turning, feeling and touching actions that people perform in cars.

Gerhard Mauter, when asked how one gets a job like this, replies: "It's important to take haptics seriously, and a certain degree of sensitivity is also required. This kind of sensitivity is not really based on physical properties such as the way the fingertips react; it is more of a process of awareness that takes place in your brain." For more than two years, Mauter has been head of the haptics team, which was established in this form in 1995 by the current Chairman of the Board of Management, Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, when he was Head of Technical Development at AUDI AG. It is obvious that haptics are taken very seriously at Audi.

Dr. Peter Tropschuh, Head of the Vehicle Concepts Division at Audi, explains: "A car's haptics are of fundamental importance. The haptic impressions decisively influence the customer's purchasing decision. They have to feel comfortable when sitting in an Audi. In order to guarantee this for all our models, we set up the haptics team."

The team's main goal, which it approaches with all due sensitivity, is to draw up a general haptic concept for each vehicle. To achieve this, it becomes involved in the development of new Audi models at a very early stage. The haptics team evaluates all control elements inside and outside the vehicle during the development process, from the outside door handles to the ignition lock and from the gear shift and steering-column levers to the electrical switches. The team has even examined the haptic characteristics of the pedals. "After the evaluation process, we make recommendations that the technical or design development departments translate into reality," says Gerhard Mauter.

The team members meet every two weeks to discuss new projects. "Sometimes we start with pictures and sketches and make the first haptic evaluations. Usually, however, a developer presents a component, which we discuss and then evaluate in accordance with defined criteria," says Barbara Hondyk, who is currently the only woman in the haptics team and usually works in equipment product marketing. The "hard core" of the haptics team currently consists of 16 members from all areas such as component development, controlling, quality assurance, design and marketing. The aim is for the main occupations of the part-time haptics specialists to be as varied as possible in order to simulate a representative cross-section of customers.

It doesn't stop there, though: the haptics team organises several events every year in order to obtain feedback from customers. They include handing out extensive questionnaires to Audi's plant employees when they take delivery of new cars. As these 'guinea-pigs' only evaluate the Audi model range, the haptics team also organises benchmark tests in which Audi products are compared with competitors' products. This is closely related to the comparative tests using external candidates that are carried out by neutral organisations. The results of such tests are also used in development work.

Nevertheless, Gerhard Mauter is aware that "you can't satisfy every customer, but you can maximise customer satisfaction. If we achieve 80 percent, that means we have a very good haptics concept." It is far from easy to achieve figures as high as that. "It is difficult to express haptic qualities in figures and units. Haptic evaluation is very subjective, but our task is to make it objective and more generally applicable."

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