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Vienna Waltz

The International Vienna Motor Symposium has long been considered a bastion of the internal combustion engine. Today, its handling of alternative powertrain concepts mirrors a sector in upheaval in response to climate change. Fuel cells as well as battery and hybrid technologies will be the key topics in 2021.

A group of Chinese tourists, each wearing earphones, followed a petite woman who was talking into a microphone. They stopped in St. Michael Square where the carriages stand. The guide was probably not dwelling on the hardships of the persevering horses, but rather drawing attention to the exposed foundation walls of an outlying Roman encampment. They date back to a remote past, like so much in this city. Men in suits with nametags on their jackets were making their way through the visitors from the Far East. Their destination was nearby: the Hofburg, or to put it more precisely, its roughly 1,000­square­meter (nearly 11,000­ square­foot) Hall of Festivals, which is used for international conferences as well as gala evening balls. The International Motor Symposium has taken place there for four decades, as the chestnut flowers begin to bloom in Vienna each year.

For a long time, alternative powertrains were not really taken seriously here.

Professor Eberhard Bock, Head of Advanced Product Technology at FST

Dr. Eberhard Bock vividly recalls his first visit more than ten years ago. “As a young engineer and team leader, I was impressed by the fact that a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of the auto industry gathered here,” said Professor Bock, who now heads Advanced Product Technology at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies. “Back then, I had the feeling that you’ve made it if you ever get the chance to lecture here.” In fact, among the many conferences that deal with powertrain technologies, Vienna is considered the most elite by far. Some even refer to it as the “Opera Ball of Powertrain Engineers.” Using elaborate animation, top development managers delve into the technical details of new engines ranging from three to sixteen cylinders. Whether the focus is on a new piston bowl shape or a new cooling channel guide, nothing is too inconsequential to send an unmistakable signal: We build the world’s best engines. Major suppliers have always seized opportunities in Vienna – and not just as exhibitors. They can introduce new technologies after stringent testing. At the event in 2014, Dr. Bock presented the friction­free seal Levitex for the first time.

New directions: Quo Vadis International Vienna Motor Symposium?

E-Mobility: Long a Niche Topic

When the CO2 fleet limit of 95 grams was announced in 2009, the majority of the lecturers were still convinced that the future belonged to the internal combustion engine. Electric mobility was a niche topic, they said. In the beginning, there were just a handful of lecturers who broke free of the mantra. They included Bosch CEO Volkmar Denner, who in his opening lecture in 2013 acknowledged that 2­ton SUVs no longer had a chance to meet weightspecific limits. Two years later, it became clear that the driving cycle used to measure fuel consumption to that point was being changed. So the experts at the symposium discussed countermeasures such as variable compression and cylinder shut­offs. At the end of the conference, BMW Board Member Klaus Fröhlich summed up the situation. “With the new emissions specifications, the costs for internal combustion engines and electric powertrains are approaching one another – unfortunately, at the wrong level“

Since 2019 at least one out of every two lectures was devoted to hybrid or battery­electric powertrains.

In 2016, the debate over the diesel’s future was in full swing – in part because emissions during real­life driving, and not just on the test stand, were becoming important for vehicle approvals. But little of the debate penetrated the Hofburg. Mercedes­Benz presented a four­cylinder diesel engine that was supposed to secure the diesel’s future thanks to its combustion behavior and a very closely coupled exhaust gas treatment system. BMW countered with a six­cylinder diesel, which reached a rated output of nearly 300 kilowatts with a total of four turbochargers. And Audi introduced its new generation of V­8 diesels with torque as high as 900 newton meters, which would be sufficient for a 12­ton truck. Only Gilles Le Borgne, then PSA’s development chief, made the case for greater honesty. He pointed to fuel consumption measurements made on public roads in cooperation with the non­governmental organization “Transport and Environment.” The truth hurt: The Peugeot 308 with a 1.6­liter diesel engine, which officially consumed 3.2 liters of fuel over 100 kilometers (62 miles), actually burned 5.0 liters under the new specifications. In the corridors of the Hofberg, the lecture was deemed to be “politically unwise.”

Other manufacturers responded a year later. Fritz Eichler, who would soon move into chassis development, presented Volkswagen’s diesel powertrain program. The small TDI three­cylinder option came out of the lineup. From then on, VW’s diesel options started out with an engine displacement of 1.6 liters. Going forward, VW wanted to leave overstatement behind. The “muscleman” with a per­liter output of 100 kilowatts that was announced in Vienna a few years earlier was as far from realization as the 10­speed, dual­clutch transmission. But the lectures on new alternative powertrains continued to take place mainly in small quarters next­door, as they had for years.

A New Spirit of Departure

The industry finally turned the page in 2019. At least one out of every two lectures was devoted to hybrid or battery­electric powertrains. As “Fridays For Future” activists gathered in front of the Hofburg for a demonstration, Andreas Trostmann, BMW’s production chief, was beginning his closing speech with a quotation from Greta. Only the battery­electric vehicle is promising a fast track to climate neutral powertrains, he said. In his lecture on the electric propulsion of the ID.3, Frank Welsch, Trostmann’s colleague on the development side, described the technology in a way that had only been reserved for combustion engines in the past – in the grand hall, with elaborate technical animation and in a voice filled with pride.

It’s still not a settled matter whether Vienna will retain its role as the leading symposium for powertrain technology. BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen have significantly reduced their presence already. “For a long time, alternative powertrains were not really taken seriously here,” Dr. Bock said. “It is only now that the switch has been thrown.” The success of the adjustment process will likely depend on who sets the pace at the Opera Ball. Last year, Bernhard Geringer, a professor at the Technical University of Vienna, took control of the symposium. He said: “The internal combustion engine is certainly not dying or dead. But the range of new, pure combustion engine powertrains will decline, and hybridization, the combination of internal combustion engines with electric propulsion, will grow.”

A Virtual Symposium

The unfolding drama of the corona pandemic also caught up with Bernhard Geringer and his comrades-in-arms in April 2020. For the first time in the history of the Vienna International Motor Symposium, the doors of the Hofburg remained closed, and the conference was quickly moved into the digital world. What the organizers deeply regretted turned out to be an advantage for engineers and development specialists: Lectures from the event’s 41st edition are still available on the symposium’s website. They reveal the structural changes underway in the vehicle industry in 2020. The preparations for the 42nd Vienna International Motor Symposium, set for April 28-30, 2021, are moving ahead at full speed. Fuel cells as well as battery and hybrid technologies will be the key topics. The deadline for the submission of unpublished papers is September 30, 2020. The hope is that the everyone will be able to get together again at Vienna’s venerable Hofburg next spring.

This article originally appeared in ESSENTIAL, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies’ corporate magazine that covers, trends, industries and new ideas. To read more stories like this, click here .

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