About e-mobility, robo-taxis and hydrogen as energy source

Hubertus Prinzler, Vice President Global Research & Development at BENTELER Automotive, on the future of mobility, flexible modular systems and green energy.

After the Corona pandemic, our lives are now slowly returning to normal. Does this also apply to mobility – or has Corona left its mark?

Corona changes mobility, although this will happen very differently from region to region. We can see that in China, for example, private transport is increasing as a result of the pandemic, while public transport is used less. People now feel safer in their own cars than in crowds.

For Europe, we expect that with Corona- the trend towards owning a car and, for those who can afford it, a second car, will continue – with greater cost awareness at the same time. Many people will no longer care so much whether the car is particularly chic. But it will take time before this becomes noticeable: Due to the more cautious consumer behavior in Europe, such developments are delayed.

Currently, e-mobility is being subsidised in particular. In Germany, financial incentives to buy electric cars will be increased as part of the economic recovery package. A similar situation exists in China, for example. Is e-mobility currently experiencing a boost?

It is being driven forward. By shutting down public life and transport during the pandemic, some people have experienced for the first time how the environment is recovering: how bright blue the sky can be and how many stars there are in the sky at night. In India, people saw the Himalaya, of which they had no idea how close it actually was. Air pollution was much lower during this time – we want to preserve that. E-mobility offers the opportunity to do so.

Opponents argue that battery production is not environmentally friendly.

Especially with batteries, which are actually the key to environmental friendliness, many innovations are currently happening. When the next milestone has been reached in terms of raw material use, range and battery lifetime – which I expect to happen in the coming months – e-mobility will have taken a huge step forward.

In Europe, as discussed, there are economic support programs for e-mobility. Is it affordable in other parts of the world?

We certainly won't see high-end electric cars everywhere like the ones we have on the road. But that is not necessary either. Different countries and cultures deal with mobility differently. Anyone who was in China ten years ago saw mainly mopeds on the roads, which were quite air polluters. Within two or three years, these millions of two-strokes disappeared and were replaced by electric scooters. These may not correspond to the understanding of quality that we have in Germany, but they are a very good alternative to the combustion scooters in China. Something similar can be seen in India: Many tuk-tuks now have electric motors – with a lead battery, but it's a first step.

What does the pandemic mean for the other mega trends in mobility to date, such as shared mobility?

Car rental companies and providers of shared services are already experiencing problems, and not just because of the lower volume of business trips. Shared bicycles or scooters are still well accepted in the cities. But to go into the narrow space of a car where you don't know who was inside before – there are now some reservations.

If shared mobility models are not currently accepted, what does this mean for the development of robo-taxis?

In the short term, the pandemic will slow down innovation in the field of autonomous driving and connectivity – in two ways. Firstly, customers are currently more looking for their own car than a robo-taxi, where these technologies would make sense. And, second, many companies now lack the financial resources to invest in these technologies. Corresponding programs could therefore possibly be reduced, at least for the established vehicle manufacturers. Large technology groups, on the other hand, have been able to increase sales as a result of the pandemic. This also helps their activities in the mobility sector. The established manufacturers' competitive advantage over new players is melting away; it will be a head-to-head race.

Which other fields of innovation are now gaining importance?

In the field of climate protection, an interesting discussion has developed in the areas of "power-to-fuel" and "power-to-gas". It is about fuels produced synthetically with green electricity that are CO2-neutral and emit fewer pollutants. A further advantage is that they could make use of the existing infrastructure – i.e. petrol stations.

Another important component in climate protection is the direct use of hydrogen as an energy source. On the one hand, it can be used in fuel cells to promote decarbonization – i.e. the reduction of CO2 emissions – in heavy traffic. On the other hand, it can also be used directly as an energy source in combustion engines. The National Hydrogen Strategy currently decided by the German government is a first and right step towards a market launch of vehicle drive systems based on green hydrogen.

Innovations in the area of automotive platforms, modular solutions and regarding cost potentials need to become even stronger. I can say with pride that we at BENTELER are well positioned here thanks to the programs initiated in recent years. With our rolling chassis, for example, developed in cooperation with Bosch and Pininfarina, we offer a modular platform solution for electric vehicles. Together with our partners, we cover the entire development process of an electric vehicle up to the start of production. This enables the manufacturers of electric cars to save their own resources and time.

In summary, what does all this mean for BENTELER?

BENTELER is positioned well and we are working on the right topics – for example with our Business Unit E-Mobility, which bundles all competencies in this area. At the same time, 85 percent of our products are independent of the type of drive and are needed in all vehicles. In Europe, as in other regions, there are clear CO2 targets that must be met in order to protect the environment. That's why we have to work hard on the CO2 reduction adjustment screw: we are doing this by driving the topic of lightweight construction forward. We are increasingly working according to the modular principle, reducing interfaces and thus opening up opportunities to use products and modules easily in several vehicle systems and variants. In close cooperation with our customers, we use synergies here and thus enable also cost savings.

Apart from mobility, what do you expect from the future?

The Corona pandemic has significantly accelerated digitization: within a very short time we have achieved a high degree of perfection. We worked from our home offices and in some cases did not see each other for months. Nevertheless, in many cases our work is even more efficient and sometimes with a better work-life balance than before. This raises the question of what should be continued and what innovation possibilities still exist in this area. The younger generation in particular is not only seeking a career, which is undoubtedly important. Work is a part of life. If we now save travel time and set-up time through reduced travel, video conferencing and home offices, then it is lifetime that we gain. However, the informal, interpersonal aspects are lacking on the phone. In order to nurture this again more, I'm also looking forward to working in the office and meeting colleagues in person again.