July 15, 2002

Audi Tech Challenge: Taking Care of Their Own
Text and Photos by Christian Long and David Smith

With Audi's sales growth in America over the past five years, Audi dealers have expanded their sales and service staff tremendously. With so much new blood sometimes the experienced staff gets overlooked and lost in the deluge of growth. Audi sales personnel have always been rewarded for their performance through salary commissions, discounts on new cars, and many other incentive plans sponsored by the dealers and Audi of America. But the service technicians have never had any programs to reward them for their performance beyond smiley stickers on their paychecks, at least until now.

Three years ago Audi of America implemented a program called Tech Challenge under the direction of Mike Nelson, the North American Audi Service Operations Manager. The goal of the Tech Challenge is to identify the top Audi techs in North America and reward them for their knowledge of Audi products. This involves not only testing their diagnostic and technical knowledge of Audi automobiles, but also Audi's 100 year history (sans the 60 Minutes public relations debacle).

Can you diagnose an A8 with a misdirected Navigation system, intermittent boost on a 5000 turbo or a rear differential that won't engage on a Coupe Quattro? Can you interpret vague descriptions of car sounds from customers with the descriptive ability likened to the doublespeak in Orwell's 1984? These are some of the skills required to be an Audi technician, and typical types of problems they will encounter on a daily basis. Successfully competing in the Tech Challenge requires the experience and knowledge to tackle the jobs mentioned above, as well as the ability to answer tough historic questions such as "what is the degree of angle of the V16 in the Auto Union Grand Prix Hillclimb race car?"

What type of reward can a tech expect for being the best of the best? How about a week long trip to Germany, courtesy of Audi? All transportation costs, hotels, tours, meals, drinks, souvenirs, tips, and even some spending cash paid in full by Audi. How about a free 3-year complimentary lease on an RS6 for the top winner? Well, no RS6, but it it's nice to dream. For the 2002 Tech Challenge, the top eight ranking technicians and their guests were invited to Germany for a vacation to see the factories where the Audis are made and to see Castles where wars were made.

I was lucky to join this year's Tech Challenge trip to Germany and see first hand how Audi takes care of its own. I was not invited due to my technical skills, since I am only gifted in the art of driving my car the service department at my dealer. Rather I was invited as a guest of one of the top technicians, Mike Hadley of Classic Audi in Orlando, Florida. Mike was not able to take his wife on this year's trip due to her pregnancy and he generously offered his guest spot to me.

Identifying the Best

Audi started with over 500 technicians in North America and let the games begin! The original Tech Challenge involved inviting all the techs to a remote junkyard to have them battle each other Mad Max style. However the training staff soon realized this had little to do with testing their knowledge of Audis and just resembled the English show Junkyard Wars (but with a better suntan and a dental plan).

These days the first round of the Tech Challenge begins with a written test sent out to all qualified Audi Technical Specialists who have attended at least one required Audi training course during the previous year. The written test assesses each technician's knowledge of Audi history, wiring diagrams, proper procedures, general diagnostic skills, and just about everything short of a Rorschach Ink Blot psychological test. The top 50 scorers of the written test are invited to compete in round two, which is where the real work begins.

Round two brings the top 50 techs to Audi's Atlanta technical training school, which resembles a cross between an Audi service facility and the set of American Gladiators. Round two involves hands-on diagnosis and repair of Audis that have been sabotaged by Audi's training staff. It seems that each year the training staff becomes more clever and more devious in their methods. The technicians must diagnose two cars that are broken and properly fix them according to Audi procedure, all while racing the clock. The cars presented to the techs are riddled with a wide variety of real world problems from major mechanical failures to miswired electronics; the only real world item missing from the test is the annoying 18-year old A4 owner whining about not getting an S8 loaner car.

Next, the techs compete in a classroom setting testing their knowledge of electrical theory and operation. I asked the Audi staff to give me some examples of the Tech Challenge test questions, but they replied by quoting the CIA motto: "we could tell you, but then we'd have to kill you." Ignorance must reign for all of us not in Audi's employ.

From round two the field of Audi technicians narrows to the top 16 in North America. The final 16 are invited back for round three at the Atlanta training facility. Here they will diagnose and fix two cars that have once again been sabotaged in increasingly complicated ways by the sadistic Atlanta training staff. Round three is the final round, and it results in a ranking of the top eight techs in North America. These final eight are rewarded with the free trip to the fatherland and all the glory of being the best of the best.

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