GKN Automotive’s Senior Vice President for Engineering, Rainer Link, describes how improvements in the driving experience of electric cars will bring more drivers into hybrid vehicles.
As a mechanical engineer and a petrol head, I like cars and motorbikes a lot. The fun element is important for me and when I was younger I was a big fan of all-wheel drive and cars like the Audi Quattro. I remember doubting that e-mobility could ever be an attractive alternative.
In my position at GKN Automotive, I see first-hand how much things have already changed. Since the late 1990s, GKN has been pioneering the introduction of its electric axle eDrives, which hybridise vehicles by giving them electric all-wheel drive.
In the past hybrids have put electric power into a normal car's transmission, you blend the power just after the engine. Instead of just putting an electric motor on the back of the engine or on the side of the transmission, we've been encouraging car companies instead to connect the electric motor directly to the rear axle.
GKN Automotive came up with the idea of a different kind of eDrive system, an eAxle module. We attach an electric motor to a small single-speed gearbox and then connect it to the rear axle. It’s a simple idea that requires precision engineering to produce the high torque you need to make this really interesting.
We have been building and demonstrating prototypes for almost 20 years. Now the technology and the market are aligned.
First, all-wheel drive started to become much more popular globally. And car companies saw GKN Automotive’s eDrive modules gave them a way to give vehicles all-wheel drive and a pure electric range. In the long-term, this makes it easier for them to steadily downsize engine size and the role internal combustion plays.
A decade ago, companies were advancing all kinds of exotic ideas, methanol engines, hydrogen engines. GKN Automotive focused on what it knew best: driveline efficiency and all-wheel drive. We saw that plug-in hybrids with all-wheel drive could provide the efficiency in a way that is simpler to integrate and more fun to drive.
The Porsche 918 Spyder and the BMW i8 sports cars are great examples of how powerful our eDrive modules can be. They also show the direction car companies will take in the next 10 years – there will many more plug-in hybrids sold than pure EVs. Plug-ins that use our modules will make the transition easier for everybody: drivers, car companies and energy providers.
My car is now also a plug-in hybrid, it’s a Volvo XC90. You drive plug-ins differently to traditional cars. The experience is smoother and more relaxing. You quickly learn to recuperate energy whenever possible and to ease back when a little extra speed makes no difference to you.
As a plug-in driver, I’m less likely to set off late, hoping to make up the time. Journeys are less taxing and it feels good to be saving energy. I’m still a petrol head who loves all-wheel drive, but I doubt that internal combustion alone will provide the dynamics and efficiency future drivers expect from a car.