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This week, on a special German Mobility Moments, Auto Futures sits down with Olaf Schilgen, who is responsible for Public Affairs in E-Mobility and Hydrogen at the Volkswagen Group. 

Germany is the home of the automobile. So what happens once the industry finally shifts over to clean mobility and a net-zero future? What happens to the brands that shaped not just Germany’s transport industry, but the rest of the world?

Strong visionary brands that are open to this change will very likely survive and prosper. Such a structural change from internal combustion engines to electric drivetrains will create opportunities for new brands to come and take over, just like a forest glade in a jungle after the fall of a grand tree. It is a chance for young new aspiring trees, especially if older brands are managed badly and not open to this change.

It is an interesting time to work inside such a huge part of the industry. The speed of the change – externally and internally – is the key to survival. If you are working in a company with a lower speed of internal change than the external change, you may have to search for a new job in the coming years. 

On the other hand, if you work in a company with a higher speed of change to the new technology, you will probably get lots of chances to prosper in a market-winning organisation.

In terms of German brands, there is not a single one totally behind. The positive thing here is that everybody knows that change is coming. The speed of action to manage the internal speed of change will give the answer to the final outcome to this question.

Battery electric and hybrid vehicles are here today; do you think they are stepping stones towards hydrogen, or will they still have a place in the distant future?

With hybrid vehicles you talk about plug-in hybrids, with a chargeable battery. Hybrids without that are still gasoline cars, with slightly higher efficiency.

At present, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are not ready for the mass market, which includes price and the availability of filling stations. But we are seeing hydrogen in other sectors, such as interlinking electricity supply for industry use. It is a traded good with the ability to become a source of energy for trucks, trains or some passenger cars.

It will not happen overnight, but it will start with some isolated and local solutions, such as trains on dedicated tracks and trucks on dedicated routes. Further down the line, we will see some OEMs offer hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars.

It is not the question of this or that. It will be a decision of the car concept design process, asking what is the best drive train for a truck, a bus, a train or a car.

One of your previous roles was Future Car Concept Designer, back in the early 2000s. What has changed in your vision of the ‘car of the future’ since then?

Even before my job started, I made a patent for a better and drivable joystick to control a car. My expectation was that, around five years later, I would have a serial production car for my personal daily use.

However, I had to lower my expectation of the developing automotive market as we are still some way off. But I still believe it would be great to not have a steering wheel in a car; it was so much fun!

What makes Germany so special in terms of building and designing vehicles on the world stage?

It is a little bit of a cultural effect in my mind. Germany tends to engineer everything to perfection – and sometimes as well to death. Each car has a lifecycle, and the German engineers are extremely good at learning and making things ‘more perfect.’

The driveability of the currently offered new cars is so tremendously perfect that it is very hard for any competitor to make it better. And each life cycle it becomes even better. That is one part of the answer.

On the other hand, this can also be a problem. Once German engineers have found a good solution, they typically like to stay with it. With new products, they want to engineer it to perfection before it enters the market which, believe it or not, is sometimes a bad thing. 

For example, I was following a design process for an emergency call phone for home use. Just before it was finished, the company then opted for a bigger battery, before making it water-resistant and then decided to use a bigger screen. It took years and totally lost the market. 

Compare that with what a new automotive company like Tesla is doing. They sold the Roadster first, which wasn’t really a good car; certainly not perfect. Then they did the Model S, which was much better. Now, look at their latest cars.

What do you expect the key trends to be in the automotive industry moving forward? 

Throwing the steering wheel out of the window. Drive-by-wire, drive-by-stick, drive partly and then, finally, fully automated. That’s what I have been waiting for since I started my career. Now, after some years, I see some light on the horizon.

Even if tech giants like Apple have not been successful until recent years, I am pretty sure that we will start to see multiple car companies on different levels of the market roll out new vehicles without a steering wheel, whether that’s by-wire, with a stick, with zero emissions or flexible autonomous driving.

Thankfully, we are already seeing glimpses of this with some of the largest automakers around the world; even in Germany, which, despite its automotive history, continues to look forward to the future of transport. 

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