AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 37/2005

Enviro-Friendly Autobahn German Auto Industry Is Coming Late to the Hybrid Party

Germany has long prided itself on dominating the automobile world. But when it comes to hybrids, they are falling well behind their Japanese competitors. At the International Automobile Show in Frankfurt, though, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen are trying to make up for lost time.

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The hybrid SUV from Lexus.

The hybrid SUV from Lexus.

This car is an elegant servant. It welcomes its owner at night by automatically switching on its underbody lights, softly illuminating the ground. A night-view monitor in the dashboard lets a driver see beyond the range of the headlights. The driver can even press a button for a "slow and firm" back massage from the pneumatic seats.

Mercedes's new S Class will be unveiled this week at the International Automobile Show (IAA) in Frankfurt. The large sedan series is considered a benchmark for automotive luxury, and the latest model should surpass even Mercedes standards for comfort and safety.

A car this perfect should lack nothing. Right?

Wrong. It only has one engine, which these day is about one engine short.

This year's Frankfurt Motor Show is showing a sudden passion for the hybrid -- a car with both an internal combustion and an electric motor. In essence all German automakers have admitted that the Japanese were right after all, and that they have lagged behind. Honda and Toyota have offered hybrids for years.

The technological gap is awkward. Hybrids may not be new in Japan, but in Frankfurt they're still in prototype. The VW Group is exhibiting a hybrid version of its new Audi Q7 SUV, BMW has followed suit with its own hybrid model, and Mercedes offers an entire line of hybrids. The problem though is that none of these cars will be on the market for two to three years. Development, after all, takes time.

For years German auto executives have disparaged the benefits of hybrid technology -- in which the engine recovers braking energy and feeds it back into the battery, gaining an extra boost of electricity to help power the engine. A major gas saver.

But how much fuel does it conserve? Former Mercedes chief Jürgen Hubbert called the environmental gains of a hybrid car "doubtful." Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder even called the technology "a complete catastrophe," and dismissed the principle as a "rape of physics." As late as this January, BMW's head of development, Burkhard Göschel, said "hybrid" was nothing but a "marketing catchword that narrows our horizons."

Hybrid motors are the talk of the town at the Frankfurt automobile show this year.

Hybrid motors are the talk of the town at the Frankfurt automobile show this year.

The Germans saw the light only after it was clear that Japanese hybrids did save fuel. In tests sponsored by automotive publications, two compact hybrids, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic IMA, consumed just over six liters every 100 kilometers (about 40 miles per gallon) -- noticeably less than comparable non-hybrid cars. With its hybrid luxury SUV, the Lexus RX 400h, Toyota has saved just under ten liters (about 23 mpg). This heavyweight may not be an environmentalist's dream machine, but it does perform far ahead of comparable SUVs powered by a standard gasoline engine.

And the competition's heating up: At the Frankfurt Auto Show, Toyota is presenting another hybrid luxury car that's ready for market, the Lexus GS 450h. The car will have a powerful 340 HP, six-cylinder engine under the hood, combined with an electric motor, giving it the power of a conventional eight-cylinder engine but keeping it as economical as a smaller, four-cylinder automobile. Toyota also expects to come out with the eight-cylinder Lexus LS 480h, a hybrid version of its top-of-the-line model and the most powerful hybrid to date. The company now sells about 300,000 hybrid vehicles worldwide, and expects that number to increase to a million by 2010.

Toyota spends about €5.7 billion a year on research and development, pumping part of that money into a tremendously complex hybrid system. With new high-capacity batteries the new Toyota hybrids can operate exclusively on electric power for short distances. This full hybrid function may not be more efficient than weaker hybrid models, but it impresses customers who realize that they can hop into their cars and drive away in utter ghostly silence.

Other companies have apparently decided that building their own versions of this type of engine would be too expensive. To save costs, DaimlerChrysler formed a joint venture with US giant General Motors (GM), and BMW joined the club last week. The partnership centers around a transmission system that resembles a Toyota gear train. The companies want to use the system in SUVs and pickup trucks for the American market.

Mercedes plans a different approach in Europe (together with other German manufacturers) -- one that should be more cost-efficient but not necessarily inferior to the DaimlerChrysler consortium's. The Germans want to use Honda as their model, not Toyota.

Honda may be smaller than Toyota, but it's long been considered the pinnacle of Japanese innovative power -- as demonstrated by its five consecutive Formula 1 world championship wins (a title Toyota has yet to achieve, not for lack of trying).

Honda's engineers have opted for a "mild" hybrid, based on a far less complex engine structure than Toyota's. The electric motor in a mild hybrid sits between the internal combustion engine and the transmission, integrated into the clutch box -- which means it can be installed onto any conventional drive train without costly conversion measures.

Space constraints make Honda's electric motor less powerful than Toyota's, but it can save more gas. In comparison tests the Honda Civic IMA has proved to be superior in some respects to Toyota's miracle-model, the Prius.

Which is just what German automakers now hope to achieve -- and they expect to do it for even less money. Unlike the Japanese, who develop and produce their hybrid systems almost exclusively within their own companies, the Germans plan to outsource the core technology to shared system suppliers.

Right now just one group of suppliers is ready to submit serious bids. Major suppliers like Bosch and Siemens have missed the boat on hybrid technology, but brake and electronics manufacturer Continental Automotive Systems, along with transmission maker ZF, have formed the first hybrid German alliance to "offer more than sketches and PowerPoint presentations" in the words of one DaimlerChrysler executive.

The Mercedes S-Class hybrid design.

The Mercedes S-Class hybrid design.

Continental has already developed an electro-hydraulic brake system for Ford, and it's been supplying GM with a mild hybrid system for SUVs from its Berlin plant for the past year. Karlheinz Haupt, head of the company's Electric Drives business unit, even sees the makings of an "R&D center for hybrid engines in Germany" in the Berlin area.

Haupt says his technical triumph will be the easy conversion of a car from mild to full hybrid. All it needs, says Haupt, is a coupler to disconnect the internal combustion engine from the electric engine when necessary. This should let the vehicle operate on electric power alone, something customers see increasingly "as a benefit in itself." One problem for his engineers is controlling this hybrid switchover with no unpleasant jolts. German automakers will have to get it right the first time, and can't afford to come up with compromise solutions.

Mercedes may have the boldest design. Its new S Class will likely be the world's first series-production automobile with a (very efficient) diesel hybrid engine.

As a rule, diesel engines are more fuel-efficient than hybrid vehicles running on ordinary gasoline. This has led Europe's auto industry to spend the last decade focusing on diesel hybrids, which has fueled a debate over exhaust emissions. Diesel engines are problematic because of their higher nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions -- the very problem Mercedes wants to tackle.

The S Class diesel hybrid will include a catalytic converter with urea injection, a technology that's already used in large trucks. The device reduces NOx emissions by at least 80 percent -- to a level only slightly higher than in cars running on ordinary gas. A 30-liter tank in the trunk ensures that the customer won't have to fill up on urea, which can be replenished at regular service intervals. The concept has already been hailed as a breakthrough at Mercedes.

Everyone's talking about it.

Everyone's talking about it.

But the solution costs money. A diesel hybrid with such a complex exhaust-cleaning system will be the most expensive engine concept ever used in an automobile. But also the most efficient: Mercedes officials say the diesel hybrid version of their big luxury car would consume less than eight liters every 100 kilometers (about 29 mpg), putting it on par with an ordinary VW Golf.

Volkswagen has come late to hybrids. Wolfgang Bernhard -- new chairman of the company's umbrella group -- is the first senior VW executive to give the issue top priority. But his proposals have only started an internal wrangle over VW's basic approach.

Bernhard wants to hybridize models like the Jetta. He also plans to install hybrid technology in the company's compact van, the Touran. Volkswagen has even started a project with Shanghai's Tongji University with the idea of developing new batteries.

But Martin Winterkorn, executive chairman of VW subsidiary Audi, would rather start at the top and outfit the company's biggest cars with hybrid technology. He thinks the fastest way to do this is to use the hybrid platform DaimlerChrysler will develop with GM. When BMW announced plans last week to join the DaimlerChrysler effort, Winterkorn was clearly fascinated by the technology, say Audi executives. But Volkswagen will place its bets on the less complex parallel hybrid principle.

Porsche boss Wendelin Wiedeking also favors this solution. The double propulsion approach is the only way to upgrade the company's Cayenne SUV to meet future consumer expectations. But Porsche lacks the resources to develop this type of system on its own steam. A simple solution would be possible only with production partner VW, which manufactures the Cayenne platform.

Wiedeking would have preferred to lock out VW and forge a direct alliance with Toyota; in fact the two companies were involved in negotiations last fall. But the project failed. The Japanese technology simply doesn't fit in the Cayenne.

While Wiedeking fantasized about hybrids, VW was tied up with other problems, like fine-tuning its ultimate sports car, the Bugatti Veyron. Engineers had found a little problem with the Veyron's 16-cylinder engine: No conventional fuel pump could pump enough gas to saturate the 1001 horsepower engine at full throttle.

Now the Veyron now has the world's most powerful fuel pump -- a feat of engineering that may not earn much applause this year at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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