Interview: Jörg Grotendorst „E-Mobility is fun!“

Jörg Grotendorst heads the new E-Mobility division. In this interview he talks about driving enjoyment, reducing emissions, and the significance of hybrid technology.

Mr. Grotendorst, is the E-Mobility division a sign that ZF is now really engaging with electromobility?

Setting up the new division is simply an organizational realignment. ZF is already a well-established supplier of electrified and all-electric drivelines, including electric axle drives, electric motors and the relevant power electronics – and that’s not all. We also cover the full range of hybrid technologies, from low-voltage systems to plug-in hybrid systems.

What role do combustion engines play in this?

By providing systems that enable cars to use electrical energy really efficiently, we reduce the combustion engine’s workload. This effectively means that we’re already making a greater contribution to reducing emissions than if we focused on making the combustion engine disappear entirely – which in any case won’t happen any time soon.

But you’re not going to try and sell us hybrid technology as a recent innovation...

We’re not interested in innovating at all costs. We want to help cut fuel consumption and reduce emissions as much as we possibly can. And that’s why I believe the plug-in hybrid is such an excellent solution. Many car drivers in Germany don’t cover more than 30 miles on any given day. Over such short distances, the combustion engine in a plug-in hybrid may not have to do any work at all. Meaning we can cover a large proportion of typical driving profiles with an all-electric solution, without having to worry about consumer acceptance. Because if the same vehicle suddenly has to cover 300 miles in one journey, rather than just 30 – well, that’s not a problem for a plug-in hybrid.

The 46-year-old graduate engineer Jörg Grotendorst assumes responsibility for ZF electromobility activities.

Nowadays, what’s still preventing us from running our cars on pure electricity?

As far as the driveline is concerned, we already have all the technology we need for all-electric vehicles. As a matter of fact, there are already plenty of all-electric cars on the streets, and they’ve turned out to be very practical in certain environments – think of urban centers, or the short commuter journeys I’ve just mentioned. More broadly, all-electric vehicles will probably only start to proliferate once we’ve found optimal solutions for the two key issues: storing and recharging electricity. With respect to battery capacities and prices, the industry will soon break the “sound barrier” of 100 dollars per kilowatt-hour. As for charging, at present, it takes too long, and the infrastructure is too sparse – at least if you’re talking about nationwide electromobility. And of course that doesn’t solve the perennial problem: that electric vehicles can only have a significant impact on emissions if they recharge from renewable energy sources.

Would it make sense for governments to offer purchase incentives to boost the electric-car market?

As I see it, government purchase incentives wouldn’t be sustainable. Customers already have other incentives for buying electrically powered vehicles – whether they’re plug-in hybrids or all-electric cars. Quite simply, they’re fun to drive! Just try pulling away from traffic lights in an electric vehicle. Over the first few yards, you’ll leave most conventionally powered sportscars standing. And you can enjoy having fun in the knowledge that it’s all being delivered by a highly efficient drive system. As car buyers become aware of this, at some point the market for all kinds of e-vehicles will take off even without government subsidies – reinvigorating the related technologies. In any case, we’re already seeing indirect government incentives at work. One of the main factors driving the spread of hybrid technologies is the legislation curbing CO₂ emissions. In Europe, the fact that an upper limit of 95 grams per kilometer will become mandatory in 2021 and there’s no realistic way for cars to achieve this target without some kind of electric auxiliary drive is really boosting our business.

The best of both worlds: Plug-in hybrids combine the range of a combustion engine with a locally emission-free electric drive.

Until buyer demand rises significantly, ZF – or more specifically, your division – will have to maintain a highly diversified range of products, from low-voltage hybrids through to all-electric drives. Is this commercially feasible in the long run?

Well, that’s one of the reasons for creating the new division: yes, we need this broad and highly diversified portfolio – at least until the automotive industry starts to focus on specific solutions. But we intend to exploit all the synergies between our various products to the full, so we can respond swiftly to customer needs. Our various products and concepts shouldn’t compete with each other for customers’ attention. They should build on each other, complement each other. And we intend to use our pooled expertise to systematically push the development of electric motors for hybrid drivelines in the direction of central axle drives.

Looking forward, what other irons does ZF still have in the fire – especially in terms of technological innovations?

One of ZF’s main advantages with respect to electric drivelines is the fact that we already have all the skills and expertise we need within the company. In the future, we must take full advantage of this broad technological understanding to develop and deliver even more highly integrated systems. For me, one example would be the power electronics integrated into the driveline. Whenever we offer our customers new options with more compact packaging, more functions, streamlined interfaces and enhanced cooling systems, we know we’ve really done our homework.

What will be the new division’s role within ZF?

It will make a crucial contribution to the company’s future development by focusing its business activities on “efficiency” in particular – one of our key corporate objectives. At the same time, the new division will safeguard the future of ZF’s high-tech facility in Schweinfurt following the transfer of our complex CDC damper manufacturing operation to Eitorf.

What opportunities will this bring for employees and new recruits?

The new division further enhances ZF’s image as a forward-looking, socially responsible technology company that creates environmentally sustainable personal mobility solutions based on a structured and steadily growing commitment to e-mobility. Our employees have the opportunity to play a major role in shaping and evolving tomorrow’s mobility.

So what motivates you personally?

In my view, it really is important for us to curb emissions by reducing our consumption of resources, and at least attempt to hand over the planet to the next generation with some awareness of our responsibility. In actual fact, this means we shouldn’t be satisfied with the threshold values due to come into force in 2021. Do you know how much 95 grams of CO2 per kilometer really is? It weighs about the same as a bar of chocolate. So just imagine this: as you’re driving your car along, you open the window every kilometer and throw out a bar of chocolate. As I see it, there simply must be better solutions.

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