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Engineering Excellence: “We Can Be the Glue!”

03.07.2019  — 

Whether electrification or conventional combustion engines, safety-critical driving functions or apps to entertain the vehicle occupants: Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, Chairman of the Management Board at IAV, sees the engineering partner’s key advantage in its broad portfolio.

Dr. Eichhorn, you knew IAV long before you became Chairman of the Management Board in January. Have some things still surprised you?

Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn: During my time at Volkswagen, I worked with IAV on some of my key projects. Most of the powertrain technology in the one-liter car came from IAV. Another joint project was the W12 Coupé, which is still known for the unbeaten speed record it set in Nardo. Apart from my role as an IAV client, in recent years I was also the Chairman of the Supervisory Board so that I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. But, of course, things always look a bit different on the inside.

What exactly?

Dr. Eichhorn: I have always known that IAV is the most competent engineering provider with the most modern development methods. But I’ve only recently become aware of how much this is part of a practiced mindset.

Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, Vorsitzender der IAV-Geschäftsführung

Despite the company’s growth, the start-up spirit still prevails and we maintain close ties with the academic sector. This results in a healthy mixture of experienced staff and young talent, combined with a pragmatic, modern approach.

Sounds very good. Where do you still want or need to make adjustments?

Dr. Eichhorn: Despite our strong growth in recent years, many areas are working up against their capacity limits. While that all sounds very positive, we have to bear in mind that aspects like the new RDE and WLTP test cycles are currently causing a boom in the engineering services sector. This will come to an end at some point, just like the global growth cycle. By then, we must make sure that IAV can withstand whatever comes next.

In recent years, IAV has probably invested more in new technologies than any other engineering provider. Will that really pay off?

Dr. Eichhorn: Being technology leader means more than just selling hours. We deliberately invest our own resources in technologies that we expect to play a major role in future.

Which technologies do you think offer special potential for growth in the coming years?

Dr. Eichhorn: As far as electrification goes, IAV is already way ahead of many car manufacturers who until recently viewed this as no more than a niche topic that was contracted out to engineering providers. We have played a role in about 60 percent of all electric cars that were on display at this year’s Geneva International Motor Show. We also got involved in connectivity at an early stage and address the full range right through to app development. When it comes to automated driving, up to now our main focus has been on partial aspects. I see great potential for engineering partners in this field because it is a field where manufacturers cannot work in isolation and where there will soon be new industry standards.

How much of the market do you think battery electric vehicles can account for?

Dr. Eichhorn: On more than just a European scale, it will simply not be possible to bring CO2 emission fleet averages well below 100 grams per kilometer just with combustion-engined vehicles. To achieve a fleet average of about 60 grams, zero-emission vehicles will have to have a market share of about 40 percent. Battery electric vehicles will be the only way to achieve this by 2030.

What about other alternatives?

Dr. Eichhorn: The share of fuel cell vehicles and combustion engines running on synthetic fuels will not exceed single-figure percentages before 2025 at best or more likely 2030. On the other hand, volume production of battery electric vehicles has already begun. Furthermore, a combination of serious academic and near-business research has achieved huge development progress.

Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, Vorsitzender der IAV-Geschäftsführung

The answer for 2040 or 2050 may look a bit different, but I don’t really see any serious alternative for the near future. However, fuel cell powertrains are a very interesting option for light to mediumduty commercial vehicles.

Are you going to retrain all IAV’s combustion engine experts to work on electric powertrains?

Dr. Eichhorn: I can totally reassure the colleagues working on internal combustion engines. Their skills will be in great demand for many years to come. After all, 40 percent electric drives still means 60 percent for the combustion engine, particularly in view of the fact that the absolute number of vehicles sold worldwide continues to grow. There is also a constant increase in the engineering workload triggered, for example, by the Euro 7 emission standard and the pending CO2 fleet limit values.

However, the current trend among car manufacturers is to electrify the combustion engine rather than introducing completely new technology.

Dr. Eichhorn: The marginal utility of remaining new technologies such as variable compression is limited and is out of all proportion to the additional effort involved. The task really is to consistently enhance the combustion engine as we know it today. The individual calibration is therefore no less complex, which is a problem for car manufacturers. On the one hand, they have to get new electric powertrains ready for the market, while on the other hand continuing to develop the combustion engines with which they earn their money. As engineering partner, we are in the comfortable situation of being able to do both.

Let’s talk about automation. Is the car industry not gradually coming up against the disenchanting hurdle of technical feasibility?

Dr. Eichhorn: You could say we’ve reached the “vale of disappointment” in the hype cycle. Many have become aware that it’s a long way from a functioning demonstrator vehicle through to a volume product that covers all the safety requirements. But that shouldn’t stop us from forging ahead with automation. After all, the “path of enlightenment” will soon take us on an upward trajectory again. Actually, I see two development paths: one is for private cars with consistent further development of driver assist systems, from cruise control to highway pilot. The second path is for vehicles involved in freight and professional passenger transport, where level 4 or level 5 systems will catch on sooner. Although they can only be used in certain areas, they must be able to cope with all possible traffic situations. This is far more complex and therefore comes at considerable additional cost, but will soon pay off in this particular sector where drivers’ wages are currently the largest cost item.

Today car manufacturers, system suppliers and electronics specialists are all working together on autonomous systems. Which role can IAV play in this process?

Dr. Eichhorn: We can be the glue between the partners. Data and computing topics are still challenging for car manufacturers, while IT specialists aren’t familiar with the necessary prerequisites involved in selling safety-critical systems to consumers. We know both worlds.

How digital is IAV at this moment in time?

Dr. Eichhorn: Actually, we are totally digital, like the whole of the automotive industry. The last analog control unit, for example, started mass production in about 1985. If instead of embedded systems, you’re talking about software that customers recognize as such, we have just set up a new division where we will be pooling all of our corresponding activities. We’ll be hiring 200 software engineers. It helps, of course, that we offer an attractive site in Berlin with all the city has to offer. We also have plenty to be proud of in our performance as an employer.

Electrification, automation, software: can Germany’s car industry stay technology leader for all these topics?

Dr. Eichhorn: Well, we certainly cannot take it for granted. The others are also on their toes, whether in China, France or the USA, and this also applies to the engineering providers. Furthermore, all the political discussions in Germany are currently tearing its car industry apart. That’s not happening anywhere else.

The power structure in the automotive industry is already shifting towards the East. How is IAV adapting to this?

Dr. Eichhorn: We have just stepped up our presence in Shanghai. Up to now, our activities in China have been primarily on behalf of established customers, but we have also made good contacts to local manufacturers. They are hungry for progress and have plenty of financial resources. They just have to be taken seriously.

What is your own personal incentive for working at IAV?

Dr. Eichhorn: You could say that a leading engineering partner is like a technology scout. We get to gauge new topics early on, either because we are consulted at an early stage in the process, or simply because we have an overview over a great many projects. Personally, I just love that!

Many thanks for the interview, Dr. Eichhorn!

The interview was conducted by Johannes Winterhagen.

The interview was published in automotion 02/2019, the automotive engineering magazine of IAV. Here you can order the automotion free of charge.