History and little stories (102): How key technologies travel
Friday afternoon. We’re sitting in Varta’s large conference room, a group of men just before the weekend and right on topic. What moves us becomes unimportant when the sales manager of our starter battery division steps through the door. He looks exhausted but not unhappy. His message: The new prices for starter batteries, which he negotiated in Wolfsburg, are a hair’s breadth from the loss zone. We applaud. Then he is called to the phone. A broken colleague comes back: “That was the strangler from Wolfsburg,” he reports. “I had to drop eight percent again.” Now the group has a topic.
It was late this Friday in Hanover-Stöcken. José Ignacio López de Arriortúa, the Volkswagen purchasing director, was able to report another success at home. His boss Ferdinand Piech had brought him from Rüsselsheim to Wolfsburg in order to push the suppliers down on prices. He was successful, even with the methods that our colleague from purchasing had just experienced. In Wolfsburg, Lopez sealed the deal with a handshake after the price talks, which were successful from a VW perspective. An hour later he called Hanover, the handshake was forgotten, as was the agreed price. And the division delivered more than 50 different battery types to Wolfsburg, all at a loss. Other suppliers experienced something similar in the wild nineties, until Lopez finally had to resign in 1997 because of a comparison with General Motors. But the damage was done. Initially, Varta R&D only had to say goodbye to part of its budget. They had some successes and saw themselves at the forefront of the energy storage world. Welcome to the club! The nickel-metal hydride battery, still active in many millions of hybrid vehicles today, was the battery of choice for vehicle drives at the time. The lithium-ion battery was just learning to walk. And especially the fuel cell. When Mercedes-Benz presented its first fuel cell car in 1994, the battery manufacturer’s press officer at the time used his very first e-mail to congratulate the people from Stuttgart: “Welcome to the club!”. At the time, Varta had already scrapped its first fuel cell vehicle at the research center in Kelkheim after around ten years. The industry had shown no interest. But then the California Air Resources Board put the automotive world under pressure. In 1990, the agency reached a federal law that stipulates that at least two percent of newly registered cars should be emission-free by 1998 and even ten percent by 2003. But it took a while for the problem to become fully apparent to car managers. So it was still a curious experience in 1993 when a team of Nicolas Hayek, the founder of the Swatch Group, wanted to explore the possibilities of cooperation for the Hayek project of a small city car called Smart at the Varta stand at the Geneva Motor Show. He ran in front of the lead-acid wall – energy density too low. So it took about two decades until the Smart became an electric car. First attempt: zero-emission cars Ultimately, however, this law forced all car manufacturers who wanted to sell in America to develop emission-free vehicles. In Germany, this led to the development of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class electric, which was ready for series production in 1996. In the case of the short little one, space was created for the expansive lead-acid battery under the vehicle floor, in the basement, to which this configuration owes its name of sandwich construction. Later, the A-Class came onto the market as a higher petrol engine. It gave us the ESP system because it wasn’t an electric car whose heavy battery in the basement would have prevented the rollover. It was the oil lobby and the auto industry that managed to first defuse and then reverse the Zero Emission Act. One of the arguments: the energy storage is too bad and a rapid improvement cannot be expected in reality. As the then VW Research Director Prof. Dr.-Ing Ulrich Seiffert said to his colleague as she strolled past Varta’s IAA stand in Hall 5: “This is where the battery manufacturers are based. They lie faster than a horse can drink water.” First farewell to the electric car And so the car world said goodbye to the electric car, without any sadness, but with a lot of relief. They no longer had to touch the hot potato. And all research on the battery or on alternative electric drives was gone. Completed. This had serious consequences for Varta. The battery research in Kelkheim am Tausnus was canceled without replacement. There was no longer any interest in increasing the energy densities in various battery systems or fuel cell technologies. The Americans had set the new task: Down with the emissions. And it wasn’t just in Kelkheim that the lights went out. Battery research was yesterday, at least in Germany. No board member of a battery manufacturer could have made a different decision: Lopez and his followers had turned the bread-and-butter business of starter batteries into a cheap product with no returns. Research could no longer be financed in this way. Now the Americans had also released the pressure from the boiler. So stop it! New home for battery chemistry First the Japanese, then the Koreans and the Chinese saw things differently. Germany once again allowed a technology to be introduced into the world and watched idly as others overtook German electrochemistry. Automakers had to focus on the new emission limits and the battery industry set out to shave pennies off the cost of the hundred-year-old lead-acid battery. Both were successful in their own way. The starter batteries are still there. And car manufacturers now have to procure their electricity storage systems in Asia. Only in the last few years has there been a growing awareness that the technology for the traction battery is a strategic factor that we will not have in our hands even if we catch up technologically with the others and build battery plants in Europe. This train also left right under our noses. Technological leadership is on the move This is all the more unfortunate as the automotive industry has hitherto thrived on the reputation of offering the technologically leading automobiles. In the field of electromobility, German companies have missed their chance. Now they are also chasing after their former core competence. But we in Europe are now well on the way to hitting the “fly” emissions with three flaps with the ban on combustion engines and the extremely strict Euro VII exhaust gas regulation: The drive system that previously guaranteed our prosperity will be banned. Before that happens, it will become so expensive due to senselessly tough emission requirements that exporting it will also become a problem. And we are committed to a technology whose core element is led by others who also have the raw materials in their hands. Destiny as a fast follower José Ignacio López de Arriortúa certainly didn’t have that in mind when he gave the “Wolfsburg Strangler” for Volkswagen. It was about tactics. It would probably also be too much of an honor for us to accuse the Americans of having a strategy, because they first triggered investments in electromobility, then switched to the equally costly reduction of emissions and now, with the “Inflation Reduction Act” by US President Jo Biden, that again focus on zero. And the Europeans follow the money very quickly – also as fast followers because they have fallen behind in a strategic technology. This could happen to us again with synthetic fuels. Who invented it? (cen/Peter Schwerdtmann)
Pictures for the article
Historic A-Class (W168) at "moose test".
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Mercedes-Benz Necar from 1994, MB 180 BZ.
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Smart Electric Drive.
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Varta Professional Deep Cycle AGM.
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Second-generation Volkswagen Touran Hy Motion fuel cell vehicle.
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Prototype of a Toyota with fuel cell drive at one of the three hydrogen filling stations in Hamburg.
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Schaeffler fuel cell system.
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Opel Vivaro-e Hydrogen, conversion at OSV in Rüsselsheim, fuel cell unit.
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Metallic bipolar plates are a key element of fuel cell stacks.
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Fuel cell on the test bench at Mahle in Stuttgart.
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Construction of the driving battery at Audi.
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Toyota Auris Hybrid: The nickel-metal hydride battery is located across the trunk and leaves 310 liters of very flat cargo space.
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