Interviewed by Automotive Engineering European Editor Stuart Birch, Anke Kleinschmit, Vice President Group Research and Sustainability and Chief Environmental Officer, Daimler AG, addressed issues facing today’s designers and engineers, such as society’s rapidly changing expectations of automotive functionality and the many facets of ever-more stringent global legislation.
AE : Is reducing vehicle mass continuing to be a matter of combining materials, particularly high-strength steel and aluminum, or is the focus now on other areas to achieve lightweighting? Does carbon fiber remain too exotic and too costly for high-volume applications in the near- to mid-future?
Kleinschmit : Our lightweight construction strategy at Mercedes-Benz is derived from the dictum, ‘The right material in the right place.’ Depending on its operation purpose, each material has its own strengths in terms of weight, strength, stiffness and crash performance. The key success factor for our engineers is to define an intelligent material mix out of high-strength steels, light alloys, plastics and further materials.
When it comes to lightweighting technologies in body, chassis and drive, we pursue the clear goal to reduce the weight of all our new models in comparison to their predecessors.
For example, when it comes to the production of engines, we use the in-house developed Nanoslide process. Within this process, the cylinder surfaces in aluminum crankcases are provided with an extremely thin and low-friction coating, which not only helps to reduce weight, but also leads to a fuel (efficiency) advantage of several g CO2/km due to significantly reduced friction.
Talking about carbon fiber, we do have a quite extensive experience using it as a lightweight material; we use CRP materials in Mercedes-Benz cars, especially within the area of our high-performance cars from Mercedes AMG, to improve the performance and of course save weight. Since carbon fiber is still a very cost-intensive material, the main focus is on hybrid (body) shells with an intelligent mix of all steel grades and advanced aluminum alloys in mass production.
AE : Electric-vehicle technology is improving but are you confident of its ability to deliver (batteries, motors) what is required both for Mercedes-Benz and the auto industry in general, in terms of cost, longevity, quality, and buyer acceptance? When (if ever) would you expect pure EV cars to achieve unit costs lower than that of conventionally-powered models? What is the likely future for fuel cell solutions?
Kleinschmit : We are absolutely convinced that in the long run, the electrification of the drivetrain is one major element of the ‘future of mobility.’
We believe that different technologies will apply to different requirements—and therefore pursue a flexible strategy on our path to zero-local-emissions driving:
First: we’re further maximizing the potential of high-tech combustion engines. Second, we’re increasing hybridization to further reduce consumption. Third, we’re working on zero-local-emissions driving with batteries and/or fuel cells.
Regarding quality, longevity and not least safety, we set the same high standards for all our products, independent of the type of drivetrain.
As for pure electric vehicles, it will be some time until our streets will be dominated by them, but with a growing product (range), the proportion is continuously improving.
It is natural that new technologies are more cost-intensive at the time of their introduction. But we already feel a great commitment to the electrified cars in our portfolio, from plug-in hybrids up to our B-Class ED (Electric Drive) and the upcoming new generation of the smart ED – the first time as a 2- and a 4-seater. And there is more to come. Before the end of the decade, we’re bringing a large electric vehicle to lay the foundation for our future electric strategy with a range of up to 500 km (311 mi). That’s why we are investing 500 million euros in a second battery factory on our battery production site in Kamenz. It is clear that battery technology increasingly allows higher ranges at decreasing costs.
But even if the battery technology is making great progress, the fuel cell will continue to have at least one clear advantage: generous range and short refueling times. In addition, the fuel-cell technology can be applied to larger vehicles such as sedans or even city buses. We are convinced that pushing e-mobility—whether with battery or fuel cell—is a perfect investment in the future of all of us.
AE : Can aerodynamics continue to improve or will they, realistically, plateau at a best of around of 0.22 – 0.25Cd? Do they inhibit design (styling)—or is design inhibiting the figures?
Kleinschmit : The potential for reducing air resistance has not been exhausted, although it will slow down. As long as there are no major changes in the basic architecture of vehicles—like their length and form—there is an asymptotic limit of about 0.20 Cd with “conventional” vehicles. With a drag coefficient of 0.22 our CLA, which we introduced in 2013, is coming quite close to this.
Finding the best solution for portability, space and our overall design philosophy can be further supported with active aerodynamic measures, like our “Transformer” Concept IAA’s features.
AE : Demonstrations of autonomous vehicle technology continue; do you regard its widespread introduction as inevitable? If so, when? Is it just legislation and insurance issues that inhibit its introduction, or technologies—if so, what technologies?
Kleinschmit : For us, it is not a question if the technology of autonomous driving will evolve, but at what pace this will happen. Autonomous driving will become reality step-by-step.
With the new E-Class we already offer a large variety of semi-autonomous driving functions, like Drive Pilot, Active Lane-Change Assist and Remote Parking Pilot.
We expect that it will be possible to realize the first highly-automated driving systems in just a few years on certain types of roads, such as autobahns, and in suitable weather conditions. Fully automated driving in any situation will take much more time to achieve; legislative and technology issues both play a major role in the challenges we are facing to reach the breakthrough of autonomous driving.
Customer acceptance of autonomous driving functions is closely linked to the degree of their reliability and availability. Away from motorways, such a function has to cope with the increasing complexity of the surroundings and manage a greater number of dynamic and static objects as well as different weather and daytime conditions.
And of course, the legal questions need to be resolved. It is clear that ‘political will’ and above all, social acceptance, are decisive factors for the introduction of autonomous vehicles.
AE : Are CAD and CAE capabilities keeping pace with the industry’s requirements and expectations—or leading them? Can you detail?
Kleinschmit : Digitalization is one of Daimler’s top strategic priorities. From product development, production and logistics to after sales; in all processes, the latest IT technologies are in use.
One of our goals is that the many thousands of our developers at our many locations worldwide all use the same tools and work on the same data. Therefore we deploy the same CAD software at our sites and have an efficient data management in place which further enables us to use the same data throughout the lifecycle of a product and parts—from development to after sales.
When it comes to digital development, we use state-of-the-art technology such as augmented reality, fast computer aided simulations and 3D printing. Reducing the time to market is crucial in a competitive environment such as the automotive industry and we are well prepared for this.
AE : What are the major technology challenges facing Mercedes-Benz and the auto industry in general?
Kleinschmit : The ‘Future of mobility’ goes far beyond the automobile itself. Tomorrow’s car is fully connected, drives autonomously and emission-free—and it might be part of an intelligent mobility service, e.g. as part of an autonomous car2go fleet when the owner does not need his car. Especially, innovative and sustainable mobility concepts, intelligent networking and tailored services will ensure the car’s attractiveness in the future. Particularly the areas of ‘smart car,’ ‘smart grid’ and ‘smart traffic’ and car-sharing are important focus topics.
Of course we are facing some challenges in this change process of mobility. To name only a few:
• Connectivity means depending on mobile network coverage.
• Autonomous driving also means talking about regulatory frameworks.
• Emission-free mobility means establishing the needed infrastructure of charging stations.
• Intelligent mobility services mean all of us to get used to new ways of traveling.
But as the inventor of the automobile, as researchers and developers—we at Mercedes love every challenge to shape the future!