A PROBING REVIEW OF SIGNIFICANT GLOBAL MOTOR INDUSTRY NEWS
In January, Volkswagen AG reported that it had sold 10,7 million vehicles globally during 2017, which represented a 4,3% increase over its 2016 performance. This placed the Volkswagen family, which includes the Scania and MAN heavy truck operations, at the top of the global automotive group sales volume listings, ahead of Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi at 10,6 million units, and Toyota with 10,4 million. The battle for the industry leadership position has heated up considerably since Mitsubishi was drawn into the Renault-Nissan alliance, with the rankings now determined by the definition of the corporate groupings in terms of their respective product mixes, and this has led to an intensified focus on the protagonists. Volkswagen has an interesting recent history in regard to its top management, and it seems that unfolding developments have added spice to the story
n April, 2015, a palace revolution in the German company’s inner sanctum became a leading story in the global business media. This conflict manifested as a power struggle between Chairman of the board, Ferdinand Piëch, and CEO, Martin Winterkorn. Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, had been a major power broker in the German motor industry for several decades, with the Piëch and Porsche families controlling 52% of Volkswagen shares. However, much to the surprise of many observers, the Volkswagen board sided with Winterkorn in the struggle, and Piëch was obliged to resign from the board. However, later that year, revelations of Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” manipulation of emissions and fuel consumption performance emerged, and Winterkorn, together with other top management incumbents, were obliged to fall on their corporate swords. Former Porsche chief executive Matthias Müller was subsequently named as Winterkorn’s successor.
On April 12th, it was announced that Müller had, in turn, been replaced as Management Board Chairman by the former Volkswagen passenger-brand CEO Herbert Diess. The global media, predicting this development ahead of the official announcement date, described it as yet another boardroom coup, and reported that Diess’ appointment had been championed by Hans Michel Piëch (that name again!), Wolfgang Porsche and Hans Dieter Pötsch, all Volkswagen board members. The Group reportedly described the shuffle as “an evolution of the management structure”, but from outside it seems that Müller has been scantily rewarded for leading the VW Group through arguably its toughest period yet, as it faced a series of governmental and regulatory inquiries, and expensive recall and buyback campaigns related to the Dieselgate scandal. Interestingly, despite the serious implications and disruptions caused by Dieselgate, Volkswagen achieved its stated goal of becoming the global industry leader ahead of its 2018 target date, but it now seems that the consolidation of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi grouping may move the leadership target even further out in years to come.
“Herbert Diess has emerged from a top-management realignment to lead the Volkswagen Group ”
Dr. Herbert Diess is 59-years of age and came to Volkswagen early in 2015 from the development chief’s position at BMW. Before that he worked at global parts supplier Bosch, and managed BMW’s Oxford plant in the United Kingdom. His multi-company experience and absence of any Dieselgate association have reportedly resulted in him attaining favoured status among the VW corporate hierarchy. Diess will now assume responsibility for VW’s Group Development and Research and Vehicle IT functions in addition to his Chairman’s duties. He has identified e-mobility and digitalization of the automobile and transportation as areas that will require special attention going forward. Organisationally, the VW Group will now be made up of six business areas, plus the China region.
Meanwhile, the emergence of a new Volkswagen 4-door dual cab pickup concept at the New York International Auto Show has raised the possibility of a bigger brother for Amarok. Dubbed Tanoak, the unibody concept vehicle was based on VW’s MQB global platform which provides the underpinnings for the Atlas SUV model, was powered by a transversely-mounted 280 hp V-6 petrol engine, driving all four wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission and 4Motion dual-range system, and featured a front bumper-mounted winch, LED daytime running lights, multi-spoke 20-inch wheels shod with 275/55 profile tyres, concealed rear door handles, raised ground clearance, and full-sized spare wheel mounted beneath the 1 626 mm cargo box.
The decision to proceed with production of the Tanoak at VW’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant is not certain at time of writing and may reportedly hinge on perceived export potential for the model (VW currently exports the Atlas from the US to Russia and the Middle East). If marketed in North America, Tanoak will compete most directly with Honda’s Ridgeline, which is similarly of unibody (chassisless) construction, but dimensionally slightly smaller than the Tanoak concept. Interestingly, VW has announced plans to offer 12 new or revised SUV models in China, where it currently sells the Tiguan short- and long wheelbase variants, Touareg and Teramont (Atlas), by the end of 2020. These will include the Chinese-built T-Roc, the so-called Advanced Mid-Size SUV, and Powerful Family SUV, which are to be produced in China by joint-venture partners FAW and SAIC respectively. The last-named model will also reportedly be built in Argentina, Mexico and Russia.
Nissan Terra – A Modern Sani?
Many South Africans, including yours truly, were introduced to the Sports Utility Vehicle concept through the Nissan Sani. This vehicle, developed by inventive local company Sani Conversions in the 1980’s, took the form of a single-cab body-on-frame pickup converted into a station wagon, with the mainly fiberglass rear bodywork fully integrated with the steel front-end structure of the pickup. The Sani conversion was a brilliant solution in that it provided the South African market with a differentiated and highly attractive product under a strict local content regime that otherwise limited the availability and affordability of “niche” products to local buyers. Following the acquisition of the company by Nissan SA, the quality and finish levels of the Sani evolved to highly acceptable levels, with the 3,0-litre V-6 4-wheel-drive derivative, in particular, being perceived as a highly desirable executive vehicle in the local market.
When the market was opened up through relaxed local content legislation in the 1990’s, increasing numbers of more refined overseas-sourced dedicated SUV models became available, and the inherent limitations of the Sani conversion, including its less than optimal interior layout and the less sophisticated ride dictated by bakkie origins, led to its discontinuation. However the local taste for the SUV genre was well-established, and has continued to grow ever since. More recently, global SUV designs have moved away from the body-on-frame configurations initially used, with an increasing number of unibody (fully integral) models now being offered. This has resulted in the creation of a sub-family of “crossover utilities”, built on adaptations of underpinning architecture as used by passenger car models, and are usually referred to as CUV’s.
“The Nisan Terra body-on-frame SUV has been specifically designed for the Chinese market”
Meanwhile, in 1998, Nissan introduced its Xterra four-wheel-drive midsize body-on-frame SUV in North America, and this continued in production until 2015, when it was run out in favour of unibody CUV models. However, Nissan recently announced that the company is to introduce a new body-on-frame SUV model in China this year, to meet demand for a rugged, go-anywhere pickup-based vehicle. This “mid-size, four-wheel-drive” model, which was due to make its debut at the Beijing auto show, will be known as the Terra, which suggests that it may well inherit some DNA from the Xterra. The Terra will be built alongside the Navara pickup in China, and no export plans have emerged thus far.
Trade War Implications
The threat of an all-out trade war between the United States and China has, no doubt, been causing sleepless nights for global automotive management. Threats, counter-threats and possible concessions have been passed backwards and forwards, with the final outcome being extremely difficult to predict. Much of the confrontation has been caused by China’s alleged disrespect of intellectual property rights, which has been all too evident in the number of cloned international models that have appeared in the Chinese market. While the implications for the two main protagonists may be obvious, the global nature of motor manufacturing suggests that foreign-owned production operations located in North America may also be exposed to negative consequences. During 2017, nearly 1,25 million vehicles were reportedly imported into China from foreign sources. Companies such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen ship considerable numbers of their products from the US to China, the volumes for 2017 totaling 223 500 units for BMW, 183 500 units for Daimler and 178 900 units for VW. The products making the trip to China include BMW’s X-range Sports Utilities, models from the Mini lineup, Mercedes’ GLE, GLS and R Classes, and various Porsche, Audi and VW branded models. Toyota/Lexus exports from North American plants to China totaled 219 100 units in 2017.
Ironically, since the inauguration of Donald Trump as US President, foreign manufacturers have come under increasing pressure to build vehicles in the US for the domestic market. Inevitably, some of the US-built models also have export potential, and this has allowed manufacturers to develop a flexible sourcing strategy where production can be located according to major market demand, and smaller markets can be supplied from viable high volume manufacturing operations. Ironically, manufacturers who have moved to comply with President Trump’s wishes for more US market vehicles to be built in-country may now find themselves between a rock and a hard place, with sales to an important export market coming under threat.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made some conciliatory remarks about reducing import tariffs and tightening up on intellectual property protection, but details of the measures to be implemented are still awaited. It has also been reported that China intends to progressively scrap its present requirement that vehicle-producing joint ventures between Chinese manufacturers and foreign partners be 50% locally owned, starting with electric and plug-in hybrids this year, commercial vehicles in 2020, and passenger vehicles in 2022. Observers believe that this concession will have particular benefits for new-energy vehicle joint ventures, and it appears unlikely that any foreign manufacturers will ditch their Chinese partners completely, as they provide valuable contributions in the areas of product distribution and the navigation of China’s somewhat unique business conditions.
The recent decision by BMW to shift production of its X3 SUV from North America to Rosslyn, South Africa, may prove to have been a master stroke if the imposition of punishing import duties on US-built vehicles by the Chinese authorities becomes a reality. The SA plant could be used to supplement potentially growing Chinese demand for this model, should the production capacity currently existing in Shenyang prove to be inadequate.
Driving the Rim
During the Twentieth Century, motor vehicle design evolved into a configuration that usually consisted of a fossil fuel-burning internal combustion engine, mechanical gearbox (either manual, semi-automatic or fully automatic) and one or more driven axles. As the century progressed, the quest for improved performance, greater safety, reduced fuel consumption and lower exhaust emission outputs was achieved by the progressive introduction of electronic engine, transmission, suspension and braking management systems, which also substantially reduced the skill demanded of the driver. The location of major driveline component enjoyed some flexibility, but in most cases the IC engine was mounted at the front of the vehicle in unit with the gearbox, with drive being taken to the axles through a system of shafts, gears and differential devices that allowed wheels on either side of the vehicle to vary their rotational speeds when cornering. Rear- and mid-engine locations were also used, mainly in heavy passenger vehicles, after several light vehicle manufacturers had used, and then discarded, the rear-engine option.
“First glimpse of the Atlas-based Tanoak concept, a possible bigger brother to VW’s Amarok pickup”
As the Twenty-first Century has rolled out, it has become increasingly evident that the evolution of “traditional” vehicle design to reach even higher levels of environmental compliance, while retaining acceptable performance and economy standards, would become extremely complicated, and expensive. This has led to the development and increasing adoption of hybrid drive systems, where varying degrees of electronic propulsion has been used to supplement, or even partially replace, the efforts of the IC engine, but also to tentative steps into the realm of all-electric drive, with the IC power unit relegated either to a range-extending function as a generator of supplementary electric power, or completely removed from the system.
Back in 2002, General Motors engineers demonstrated an intriguing concept that combined a skateboard-like rolling chassis platform, barely 150 millimetres thick, with various interchangeable body superstructures, including a sports car, 10-seater bus or even an agricultural tractor. This was made possible by the incorporation of fuel cells, a hydrogen fuel storage system, tyred and braked individually-driven wheels, suspension, running gear and an electronic control system within the concept platform. The layout and shape of the alternative superstructures were totally free, and, as there was no mechanical linkage between controls and the propulsion, guidance and retardation systems, the traditional locations for components, driver, passengers and goods could be discarded. In an era where electric propulsion is making a serious comeback in the public mass transit arena, it has also been noted that city bus manufacturers, in their quest for ever lower floor levels, have passed through the portal axle era, where offset wheel driving hubs enabled lower mechanical drive axle profiles, to the adoption of individual electric wheel motors. These eliminate the need for axle crossbeams entirely, and enable floor heights that are only limited by practical underside road clearance requirements.
So now, with electronic propulsion being predicted as the logical next step in mass-sale vehicle evolution, the opportunity can be taken to think “outside the box”. Clearly, this move has been greatly facilitated by advances in battery technology, which was the major stumbling block preventing the widescale adoption of electronic traction in the previous century, where electric vehicles were either limited to short-distance applications, or tied to an outside power source by overhead wires. The widespread adoption of individual wheel motor traction is a no-brainer, given the obvious benefits it offers in terms of mechanical simplicity, lack of inter-connecting axles, infinitely variable torque splits, optional wheel drive configurations, and total flexibility of vehicle configurations, as ably illustrated by the GM concept. Early examples of all-electric vehicles have tended to follow conventional practice with regard to their shape, but as the power mode becomes more widely accepted, we can expect that manufacturers will employ new thinking, if they see a potential marketing advantage.
Initial efforts with this technology employed an electric motor to drive the entire wheel, including the hub. However, at the 2018 World Congress of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit, California-based startup company Orbis Driven revealed its Ring Drive Wheel, in which only the rim is driven, through an inside-mounted ring gear meshed to a high-speed lightweight electric motor, while the hub remains static. Orbis claims that this design saves vehicle weight (up to 40%), reduces unsprung mass, and lowers cost and complexity when compared to electronic systems that are used to drive a live axle or individual complete wheel/tyre units. The rim-drive concept was demonstrated at the SAE Congress on a Honda Civic Type R fitted with two Orbis units at the rear, providing a 140 hp supplement and all-wheel-drive capability to the car’s normal 306 hp output delivered through its mechanically-driven front wheels. Previous Orbis projects have included similar rim-driven systems that were fitted to an electric scooter and a wheelchair.
“The Orbis Ring Drive Wheel is claimed to provide a revolutionary alternative to established electric vehicle drive technology”