Electric cars

‘I must provide the impetus – or no one will believe me’

Electric cars are expensive, which is one reason why they are hard to sell. Günther Schuh, a mechanical engineering professor from Aachen, aims to prove there is a different way.

Text: Andreas Molitor
Photo: Felix von der Osten

Günther Schuh takes the lead when there is fresh ground to be broken. At 58, he is joint head of the machine tools laboratory at RWTH Aachen, a technical university that has few rivals in the drive and consistency of its research into the digital networking of production. But the mechanical engineering professor takes a dim view of talk of revolutionary visions. Nor does he think everything has to be brought crashing to the ground before the new can emerge. What he wants is “to help our supertankers get back on course, precisely to avoid a great crash!”

As a consultant on restructuring and sitting on the supervisory boards of various companies, he has experienced all too often thousands of workers losing their jobs because firms had not seen change was in the air and got themselves into difficulties. And he fears that could happen to the leaders of German industry: the carmakers. While they have now all realised that e-mobility – the development of electric-powered drivetrains to shift vehicle design away from fossil fuels – is not a minor matter that can be safely neglected and that in future they will have completely new competitors to contend with, so far they have not found the right answer to the challenge. After all, the issue concerns not just new technology but also the future of what has been a successful business model. What will the big manufacturers be selling in a few years? What kind of market will it be? Will customers still want a car of their own or will they just want mobility? Who are the competitors? And to top it all, there is a new US president intent on reviving protectionism. If barriers to trade, rather than globalisation, become the “new normal” it could play havoc with German carmakers’ business in the USA, where their cars have always sold so well until now.

For a long time, gloomy predictions have been doing the rounds in the car industry about how many tens of thousands of jobs the electric car might wipe out. What will become of the makers of engines and gearboxes, or the suppliers of radiators, petrol pumps, pistons and exhausts when there is only a battery and an electric engine under the bonnet? “An eight-cylinder engine has 1,200 parts that have to be assembled; an electric engine has only 17,” was the dry comment from Manfred Schoch, chairman of BMW’s central works council, which brings together staff and management. “Unless there is some way to offset this, only one in seven jobs in engine production and assembly will be left,” was the rough estimate of Michael Brecht, chairman of the Daimler works council.

Carmakers are already far from happy about the e-mobility market. Hardly anyone wants to buy the big manufacturers’ sophisticated electric vehicles. Despite a subsidy of up to €4,000 (£3,500) from the German state, Motorwelt magazine, which is published by Germany’s leading motorists’ organisation ADAC, calculates there are only 40,000 electric cars on the road – light years away from the German government’s target of a million vehicles by 2020. Only 11,410 new electric cars were registered in 2016, almost 1,000 fewer than in the previous year. That amounted to a 0.3% share of total new registrations.

Günter Schuh

But Günther Schuh sees this as being the result of bad decisions rather than simply inevitable. “They are just not making the right electric cars. They usually take a proven model, like a VW Golf, and just put a battery in it, instead of a petrol or diesel engine with a clutch and gearbox.” This approach makes small cars for driving in big cities disproportionately expensive, although urban use is the best argument for electric transport. The result is vehicles such as Volkswagen’s e-Up, an electric small car which, at €26,900, is more than twice the price of the petrol model yet has a battery that is often flat after only 80km (50 miles) in cold weather.

Schuh is a restless researcher, an optimistic believer in progress, an entrepreneur and, five years ago, a somewhat bewildered-looking Christian Democrat candidate for the post of economics minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He wants to prove to Volkswagen, Daimler and other carmakers that there is a better way. More importantly, he wants to show them how to make an affordable electric car, fit for everyday use, that seats four people: his e.GO Life is a little runabout produced under his direction by a team of only 70 at a fraction of the usual budget and is ready for mass production. No more expensive than a petrol-driven compact, the basic model will probably cost less than €14,000: a cheap car but not cheap-looking, and above all with no corners cut on safety.

The motivation of derision

Schuh’s initial question was purely pragmatic: was it possible in a high-wage country such as Germany to make an electric car that cost significantly less than the models already on the market – and for the manufacturer to still make money? It gradually dawned on him that to prove his point he would have to manufacture cars himself. Production of the e.GO Life will start in February 2018 in a new factory built with a minimum of investment at an undisclosed location in Germany. The plan is for 154 employees to make 10,000 electric cars a year, working a single shift. The planning application has been submitted; the factory design is complete. It will bear little resemblance to the plants of Volkswagen in Wolfsburg or Mercedes-Benz in Sindelfingen. “It will look more like a vacuum-cleaner factory,” says Schuh.

The concept he has devised over the last two years with a network of researchers from RWTH Aachen and business enterprises will create a paradigm shift in car production. He has already proved that cheap electric cars are possible in a niche market. In 2009, he and a university colleague, Achim Kampker, started to develop the StreetScooter – an electric car ideal for short distances and mass production. At first all he got from the bigshots in the car industry was a condescending smile. He mimics the whispering and scoffing: “Now this professor from Aachen is trying his hand at cars.” He was regarded like an entrant in some competition for hopeful teenage researchers, he remembers. “And that annoyed me.”

But when he came up not just with prototypes but a pilot series, the sneering stopped. The German mail-services group Deutsche Post DHL was so keen on the StreetScooter that in 2014 it bought the whole start-up and since then it has been producing the electric vehicle itself. Now the StreetScooter is a familiar sight in the delivery of letters and parcels in city streets.

Schuh knew he had what it took to be an entrepreneur when he began studying mechanical engineering in Aachen in 1978. He was still only in his second year of university when he wrote his first business plan. The seventh one found some success. Schuh set up his first firm as a spin-off from the university’s machine tool and production engineering laboratory, developing special software for variant diversity in production. Since then he has had a twin-track career: university professor and entrepreneur.

Though Schuh had pulled off a coup by selling StreetScooter to Deutsche Post DHL, his mission for affordable electro-mobility was not finished. An electric vehicle for everybody, not just postal workers, was his goal. “So I had to do it all again and launch another setup.”

From the start, the vehicle Schuh had in mind was never intended for long journeys or speeding down the autobahn. “In the next 20 to 30 years,” he says, “we’ll see cars like the ones we have now, but mainly with a hybrid engine.” His car was intended solely for driving in cities and tailor-made for the suburbs, where the car gets plugged in at night in the driveway or the garage; ideal as a fleet car for homecare providers or delivery firms, or simply as a household’s second car. It was the kind of car that has no need to compete on range: 120km is plenty for city driving. The start-up capital for the development came mainly from the sale of StreetScooter: “I had a couple of million available.”

The result of nearly two years of hard work is the e.GO: 3.2 metres long and 1.7 metres wide, with two seats in the front and two folding seats in the back. It is limited to a top speed of 100km an hour, but it can accelerate from 0 to 50 in just 3.9 seconds. “It drives like a comfortable go-kart, but it kicks in like a mini-Porsche,” he says. And, thanks to the extremely low centre of gravity – the battery is in the middle of the vehicle – “you can take a corner at right-angles”.

A compact car with a 120kg battery

Schuh was very keen that his car should look like a conventional car. When the first prototype was in the factory, he would walk around it for hours on end, trying to get a feel for the impression the car makes when you walk up to it. At well over 2 metres tall himself, Schuh felt the car had turned out a bit on the small side, so he added a few centimetres in height and width.

A lot of the silhouette and the interior was created in a virtual reality lab at the RWTH. A designer wearing data glasses sits in the three-dimensional virtual car and can make changes in real time. “Thanks to these procedures,” says Rupert Deger, head of IT for the start-up, “the first prototype did not take us years, as is usual in the car industry, but only a few months.”

What is truly revolutionary about the e.GO is its chassis, which has more in common with a tractor or a Formula One racing car than a compact. Faced with the job of safely placing a 120kg battery in such a small vehicle, the developers had to break with the usual conventions of car manufacturing. “Simply to protect the occupants, you have to build a kind of armour-casing round the battery; one that is very tough, stiff and crash-proof,” explains Schuh. Logically, this casing has to go in the middle of the chassis. “There it adds stiffness and firmness to the whole bodywork – and that automatically brought me to the concept of a racing car. That is an opportunity I could not miss.”

Like the earliest cars of the automobile age, a racing car chassis consists of a frame that used to be welded together from steel pipes. Today, modular aluminium profiles are used. This works without the complicated production of a stiff, steel skeleton with wings, wheel arches and boot floors.

Schuh managed the breakthrough to cheaper car production. Abandoning the self-supporting bodywork meant that the costly army of robots to create the shell was no longer necessary. A pressing plant for sheet-metal parts made of steel or aluminium was also surplus to requirements. The outer shell of the e.GO consists completely of thermoplastic, which can be shaped when heated. It is rather reminiscent of the famous East German Trabant, the panels of which were mixed from phenol resin reinforced with cotton fibre. And as the plastic is made in the required colour, there is no need for painting the bodyparts. “The pressing shop, the shell and paint shop are the parts of a classical car factory that swallow by far the most capital,” says Schuh. “Apart from an automated chassis-welding unit, our factory is pure assembly plant.”

According to Schuh, the tooling costs alone of conventional car manufacture come to about €100m. “My set of tools for all body-shell parts costs just €300,000.” Whereas BMW invested €400m in the production of its i3 electric car in Leipzig, Schuh’s factory will not cost more than €40m. And the e.GO Mobile company will only have to find about half that sum itself. The land belongs to an investor who is also building the factory and renting it to the start-up. Schuh has acquired the capital in two external financing rounds: “It’s enough to start production.”

The professor himself has created the ecosystem to develop his electric car. One of Europe’s biggest technology research centres has come into being over the last seven years on a large plot in west Aachen, bordered by functional university buildings from the 1970s, a university clinic that looks like something from a science fiction cartoon, a motorway and railway lines. The RWTH Aachen Campus, as the research centre dreamed up by Schuh is now called, is a meeting place for university and industry, where scientists from various faculties and institutes can come together with the representatives of large and small businesses, currently in six clusters.

Knowledge flows to and fro, as if through a permeable membrane. Schuh is confident of not only incremental improvements but genuinely innovative leaps forward. “We are seeking technical breakthroughs that will secure a clear competitive advantage on world markets for the enterprises taking part.”

Deger sees the campus as a melting pot for technologies that “harbour disruptive potential. And the wonderful thing is that you can test them, protected by traditions and custom.”

Hybrid aircraft

The e.GO is the showcase product of the campus, making innovation visible. “It’s easier to use a car to show the public what we can achieve here than a high-precision grinding machine that only the knowledgeable are interested in,” says Schuh. With a car he can now demonstrate “the whole bouquet of ingredients that are available here”. Everything he needs is on the spot: a construction centre, a tool-making academy, a 3-D printer, a prototype factory, an electric mobility laboratory and the European 4.0 Transformation Centre, which showcases the digitalisation of industries. And he has access to the suppliers registered at the production technology campus cluster. Schuh elicits the know-how from the campus partners, browses “with their help on their intellectual shelves”, and then designs a “fully networked total architecture, which does not just consist of a few digital boulders scattered around the landscape”, says Deger.

For example, the prototypes are given a “digital twin”. While the car is going round the test circuit, its data are transmitted via sensors in real time to the car’s virtual shadow – and can immediately influence the further development of the prototype. Various scenarios can also be tried out with the digital twin, such as variants of an axle suspension that weighs less than the current one but is just as stable. Afterwards, all it takes is a keystroke and the print order for the optimised axle suspension is sent to the 3-D printer. A few hours later the modified component is ready for fitting.

Several dozen research institutes and companies are working on developing the e.GO to production-readiness, but most of them prefer to remain incognito – unlike the firm of Bosch, which is supplying the electric engine, battery and display instruments. Some firms far from the automobile sector are also involved – such as software companies, which are contributing their knowledge to the processes of motorcar manufacture.

Schuh never dreamed of being a carmaker. At first, he cherished the hope that if he came up with a prototype, one of the big manufacturers was sure to come along and take an interest. But none of them did; not after the first prototype, nor after the 12th. “I need to provide such a strong impetus that it gets noticed,” he says. “That is why we are going into production with this car. If we don’t do that, nobody will believe us.” Production of a model called the Booster is scheduled to begin in February 2019. It will be a five-door car, “well up to VW Golf size”, with a top speed of 130km an hour (80mph).

And where will it all lead? Will the Aachen start-up’s electric vehicle challenge the major carmakers? Schuh is cautious: “That would be seriously presumptuous. With our mini-company we are not a serious competitor for Volkswagen, Mercedes or BMW.” But he is already thinking about his next project, entitled Air S-Pace, a six-seater hybrid aircraft that is practically silent at take-off and landing, and which in theory does not need a trained pilot “but can be flown by a taxi driver”.

So, is the engineer content with proving that an inexpensive electric car can be built in Germany and still be profitable? Schuh takes his time to answer. Finally, he says: “If I have managed to entice the established carmakers out of their habitual territory, if they realise that their conception of an affordable electric car should be different from their models so far – then, yes, that would be my greatest success. And if the e.GO were then to belong to one of them, I would not really care about that.”

Günther Schuh would then be a retired carmaker, having achieved his mission: to prove that not everything has to be wiped out before something new can emerge.