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The keys to Lamborghini's future? Speed, style and SUVs

An Automobili Lamborghini SpA Huracan Performante luxury vehicle sits on display after being unveiled during an event on the sidelines of the 2017 New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An Automobili Lamborghini SpA Huracan Performante luxury vehicle sits on display after being unveiled during an event on the sidelines of the 2017 New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

Maurizio Reggiani, the director of research and development for storied Italian supercar builder Lamborghini, takes in the knife-edge lines of his latest creation, the $275,000 Huracan Performante. He is pleased.

"This car represents so much of what we are," says Reggiani, who joined CEO Stefano Domenicali for a breakfast interview with USA TODAY Tuesday. "We are looking to the future."

The future, these days, seems to be all about self-driving cars designed to completely detach the driver from the transportation experience. Companies ranging from Waymo, Google parent Alphabet's self-driving car arm, to Ford are touting 2021 as the beginning of a mobility revolution that will impact everything from car sales to the oil industry.

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That robotic vision wouldn't appear to bode well for manufacturers of six-figure pleasure machines whose technology is aimed squarely at maximizing driver involvement.

Yet in a wide-ranging conversation, two visiting executives explained why they believe roads filled with self-driving cars will benefit performance car companies such as Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche; why their company has yet to hop on the hybrid powertrain bandwagon and why Volkswagen-owned Lamborghini is betting big on a forthcoming SUV called the Urus.

"The more autonomous vehicles take hold, and I still believe it will take a while for that to happen, the more our brand and products will have value," says Domenicali, who joined Lamborghini in 2016 after leading Ferrari's Formula One racing team for six years. "The gap will increase between cars that take you places, and cars you really drive."

Domenicali expounded on that theme during a Stanford University-sponsored talk Monday called "The Future of the Motoring Enthusiast."

His thesis is simple. As the more onerous aspects of transportation — cue video of any traffic-snarled commute — are handed over to self-driving machines, consumers will have more resources to deploy on special cars that they'll drive occasionally on roads that will be less clogged thanks to smart AVs.

Even he admits, however, that such a scenario is not only years down the road, but likely much farther away than AV pioneers would have us believe.

"If we build a new city tomorrow, the technology is here today to fill it only with autonomous cars," he says, shrugging. "But we live in the real world. One with bad roads, bad (lane) markings. The world is so big. There won't be one (automotive) answer for everywhere."

In the meantime, Lamborghini is taking stock of its audience and the available technology and decided how to deploy the latter to satisfy the former. Domenicali says his customers are far younger than rival Ferrari's, between 30 and 45 years old on average.

"Ferrari is a great company, and they're a reference for us," says the former Prancing Horse employee. "But our consumers are perceived as a bit younger and generally are people who really like the Italian lifestyle that goes with Lamborghini ownership."

Ferrari and Porsche have started to use hybrid powertrains that combine traditional gas-powered engines with torque-boosted electric motors — in Ferrari's case the result is the 1,000-hp La Ferrari ($1.4 million) and in Porsche's the 890-hp 918 Spyder ($850,000).

But Lamborghini is deliberately sticking with traditional power plants for its cars, which top out with the 740-hp Aventador ($400,000), says Domenicali.

"We want to understand what the trends are, sure, but we need to also understand what the trade-offs might be in terms of the maturity of the technology as well as the cost investments required to implement them in our cars," he says. "We need to stay flexible."

Urus SUV a key to company plan

The upcoming Lamborghini Urus, a ballpark $200,000 kids-and-pets duty SUV, would appear to be one example of that flexible thinking.

Although both company executives said a lot of thought went into the decision to pour upwards of $1 billion into a massive new factory in Sant'Agata Bolognese outside Bologna, Italy, the results should be a doubling in the company's production output to around 7,000 vehicles a year.

Around a third of Lamborghini's current production is snapped up by U.S. enthusiasts, and it stands to reason that the Urus is going to compete for Stateside shoppers considering the top of the range Porsche Cayenne Turbo S ($160,000) as well as the Bentley Bentayga ($220,000).

The Urus is slated to pack a twin-turbo V8 good for 650 hp, though Reggiani says he anticipates that a version featuring hybrid EV technology will follow within two years thanks to the SUV's ample space for electric batteries.

"The idea with the Urus is to give the driver and passengers a real Lamborghini experience, but in an SUV," says Reggiani, noting that the automaker was the first to deliver a monster SUV with its late '70s LM002. "Whether you're in a Urus or a Huracan, the handling and the steering and the experience should all be very familiar and very Lamborghini."

Circling the white Huracan Performante sitting quietly at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, Reggiani points on a patented technological breakthrough that he says encapsulates how the company embraces tech that enhances the uniqueness of their products without simply being tech for tech's sake.

"Look at this rear wing," says the engineer, pointing at a carbon fiber attachment that is formed using a unique forged technology that is less costly and more adaptable than the traditional method of layering carbon fiber into molds.

The secret of the Huracan's wing, dubbed ALA for Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva, is inside — the wing is hollow with strategically placed chambers.

The car's electronics open or close butterfly openings that allow air to race into the wing. When the car flies into a turn, one side of the wing is flooded with air to create turbulence and therefore downforce in order to reduce pitch and increase grip. All with no costly and heavy motorized parts.

For Reggiani, that revolutionary feature all added up to one thing: 6 minutes and 52.01 seconds, the record-breaking lap time the car set in March at Germany's haloed Nurburgring.

Driver-assist technology may be revolutionizing the auto business, but in Lamborghini's racy world, fast still sells cars.