Derek Crabb oversees Volvo Cars’ powertrain engineering and is also executive director for the company’s motorsports activities. He’s been with Volvo since 1998 and he tells just-auto editor Dave Leggett about the company’s current powertrain strategies.
DL: I guess there’s a pretty rich history with Volvo and powertrains, not least because the firm has a long history of being independent?
Yes, that’s right. When I first came here Volvo was an independent company and we were aggressive in our own powertrains, developed our own petrols and diesel. Then we went into Ford ownership for a ten-year period. We shared lots of Ford engines and stopped developing our own engines and we also cut back engineering resources for engines and so on. Now, as we have emerged from Ford, we have had to be self-dependent in engines again. We are now very aggressively developing our own engine programmes. So we have to grow the competence internally, both through recruiting and using consultant house, we use a mix of our own test facilities and some that we rent in.
DL: How does that play into what you see as the big trends in the industry with respect to powertrain?
Well the big trend is downsizing and down speeding and we have to get on to the back of that trend. We are developing a modular engine family with petrol and diesel engines, all four-cylinder. We have our own factory two hours from here that was already designed to do modular engines when I first came here. At that time we had 4-, 5- and 6-cylinder engines and were starting to develop a similar 4-, 5- and 6-cylinder diesel family. We got as far as 5-cylinder. So we’re going back to that base with a whole new engine structure.
DL: And that means you won’t be doing anything larger than 4-cylinder?
That is correct. We have a 6-cylinder at the moment which we take from Bridgend [Ford] in the UK, but we will eventually stop taking that. When that time comes, Volvo will also have a new platform – a platform of our own, a large car platform – and that will be ready for the future, particularly electrification. It will not be capable of taking anything more than 4-cylinders.
DL: Will that be problematic in the US market?
Short-term perhaps, but it is more a time issue. But when you look at the predictions for growth for 4-cylinders and reductions in 6-cylinders, you’d be a brave man to invest in 6-cylinders at the moment. The period in the middle of this decade may be problematic for us. We need to consider the wishes of Volvo customers and they don’t seem to want absolute sporting performance at that end. You can fill in on top of 4-cylinders with a degree of electrification and get 6-cylinder equivalent performance. The technology is available and the question then becomes, can you balance the business case?
DL: That all sounds impressive and obviously comes at a cost. Some OEMs are opting to collaborate on powertrain projects. What are the main advantages in going it alone?
A major advantage is that we had a factory in place to do modular engines. We are not having to reinvest in a whole new factory. We can do about 500,000 engines a year, which meets Volvo’s immediate needs. That makes the business case work.
But its not just about the plant.
If we take ‘total powertrain’, it’s not just the engine, it’s the transmission, the fuel system, cooling systems, it’s all the calibration. By taking all the Ford engines from different sources with different designs, with exhausts at the front, exhausts at the back, we worked out how much money we were spending on application activity – so many different types of fuel tanks, exhaust systems – and we futured that and we compared that to doing a modular engine with a much-reduced range of exhaust systems and cooling systems. Again, the business case was evident. It’s about control of complexity and commonality moving forward.
DL: As far as Europe goes, do you think we will see more gasoline engines?
Yes, but there’s a real conflict coming up. Gasoline engines are a negative in terms of fuel economy compared to diesels, but if we start to go into real-world emission measurements then diesels could get pushed out or made more expensive. I think we are going to go into more gasoline, but I don’t think it will be as dramatic a shift as when diesels came in, but I think it will drift in that direction.
DL: Diesel plug-in hybrids appear to be a technology focus for Volvo. How significant do you think they will be for Volvo?
I think they will be significant. Our 5-cylinder diesel and 5-cylinder gasoline are built off the same facility and have many features in common, so for us it’s a fairly easy mechanical process to change from one to the other. We’re protected in both directions.
DL: And what sort of increase for Volvo hybrids do you see?
I think it will be gradual over the next ten years. What we are doing at the moment is introducing them, watching the market reaction, controlling the volumes and seeing the evolution of the business case. It’s about preparing for the next platforms to really make this thing work for us.
DL: And gasoline hybrids for the US?
I think that’s inevitable and not just the US. China is another market with a strong preference for gasoline.
And there’s a reality with all these new developments at Volvo that we have to fund this. We’re at the stage of prioritising to get the business base stable and then we can grow into new areas as the business allows.
DL: Why do you think diesel hybrids have taken so long to emerge?
The building blocks are straightforward – diesel engine, hybrid technology, ERAD – but the control technology that links it all up and meets all the customer demands, what happens when you start the engine, controlling NVH…that’s all quite complex. In essence we end up with three buttons on how you drive the car but there are lots of permutations on how you control the combination of diesel and hybrid. That’s where the biggest challenge has been, making sure that it is a fault-free experience for the customer.
DL: What’s your view on the international emissions regulations that you have to work to?
They are converging to a certain extent and they are not as aggressive in terms of the step changes as they used to be.
CO2 is the big issue for us now. The legal demands are there, but competitive pressures are actually greater than the legal demands. The planning long-term is really important. If you are stuck with the wrong architecture or engines, you are not going to get to where you want to be in the long-term.
DL: So how are you meeting that CO2 challenge at Volvo?
In the short-term I think most brands are offering a low-CO2 derivative. We have driveE which offers a low-CO2 variant. We do lots of work on real fuel economy. The new model architectures – on engine and vehicle – have lots of CO2 actions, frontal area, aerodynamics, weight-saving. On the engine we ensure that it has low frictional losses, the right combustion chambers, right after treatment. It’s about lots of things and about lots of details. If the architecture is wrong and the weight reduction is absent, you’re never going to get there.
DL: It’s a holistic approach…
Correct. There’s not one magic solution.
DL: And I guess turbochargers figure quite significantly?
Yes, it’s turbochargers on everything. It’s just a question these days of how many turbochargers you can fit on an engine.
DL: A few years back – and there was something of a focus on this in Sweden – biofuels were seen as a positive growth area. There was a fair amount of excitement on prospects in this area in Europe, but it’s gone quiet in the last few years. What’s you take on that?
There is very little work on that going on here. Demand seems to have fallen away for things like E85 fuel. There are some customers but nothing major in terms of development. For flex-fuels, we use an external house to convert our cars now. It is very low profile for us at this moment. There are other priorities.
DL: What about Volvo and electric cars?
There is already a fleet of C30s running around that are pure electric. We’ve got some in Sweden and some in China. So our first development is in a trial. We have produced just short of 300 of these cars now. The C30 electric has been in fleet use for about a year.
DL: Are there many technical tie-ups or synergies emerging in the powertrain area with [parent company] Geely?
It’s an interesting question. At first we assumed there would be huge demands on us for technical assistance in one way or another, cooperations and supplier stuff. But Geely started off by saying: Volvo is an independent business and we’ll manage you at the bottom line level; we’ll put investment in and we want a return on investment; how you wish to cooperate is up to you.
So there were no deep demands like we have seen with other companies where you have to do so much percentage share of in-group parts, for example. It’s a very mature management style.
Obviously we knew we have to start selling in China, so we built our own test facilities and R&D facilities in China. At the moment I have just under 50 engineers in Shanghai working for me on doing application and calibration work.
We have had talks with Geely to discuss areas we could explore together and maybe future engine architectures is one area, but at the moment those discussions have not gone very far at all.
DL: You’re being left to your own devices…
Volvo and Geely are very separate entities both financially and also from the point of view of having very different brand images. You don’t want to disturb one with the other. Geely could not afford our cost base, we couldn’t afford their image on our cars. The Geely top-level approach has been very dogmatic about that.
DL: Will Volvo engines be made in China?
Inevitably. At the moment we are building an S80 long-wheelbase for China. We were building in China out of a Ford plant before, so building in China is not unique for us. If we are going to push our volumes up in China, we are going to have to build engines in China. We are looking at an engine plant too.
DL: And the same modular approach for engines in China?
Yes, we need to be able to flex on engines. And we have to have some degree of complexity control and commonality – and sharing – to justify the huge sums we are investing in powertrain at the moment.
DL: How quickly do you see the production economics for electric cars – generally – changing so that the cars can have a lower price tag and get more share?
We have been gathering data on driving patterns and you start to realise that a lot of customers can live with electric cars. Therefore there has to be some sort of business model on how fast the battery costs come down, how many customers are there really out there. There are still a lot of uncertainties. Beyond that, I think range extenders are a potential way forward.
DL: And Volvo could go down the REEV route?
There are several ways of doing it and we are building three different prototypes at the moment, with Swedish government money, in this area.
DL: How do you think the powertrain split will look in twenty years’ time?
I delivered a lecture twenty years ago and was asked the same question. I was actually roughly right. But I think 2032 is very hard to see. There will be combustion engines around, but the split is difficult to call. Fuel cells are an interesting one. There is more focus in that area now.
One thing I’ll say is that if we are laying down vehicle platforms now to start in say 2015, they will run for 15 years as most vehicle platforms do, so we’re talking 2030. Some of the stuff we are laying down now has to cover for that period.
DL: There’s much more life in the combustion engine yet…
I think so.
DL: Just to pick up on fuel cells, some manufacturers are talking about 2015 as being a key year and claiming that they will have fuel cell production vehicles by then…what’s Volvo doing?
In the Ford period we did nothing, the parent company was making some investment in that area. Since we have been independent we are starting to go more seriously into it. We see some advances coming forward that we can’t ignore.
Derek has held the post of Vice President , Powertrain Engineering Volvo Car Corporation. Since 1998, he has managed over1000 staff based in Sweden and China. Responsible for engines, transmissions , control and calibration plus all application components such as exhaust and cooling systems. Derek is also Executive Director, Volvo Motorsports responsible for the Volvo Polestar Team in Sweden and other local market motorsport events
- From1984 to 1998 Derek held various positions in Rover Group leading to Director for Powertrain Engineering for Rover, Land Rover and Mini brands. The first years were in deep cooperation with Honda but the last period involved integration with BMW.
- During 1982 to 1984 Derek was a Project Leader Lotus Cars. Development of a competition engine for an external company
- 1979 to 1982 Development Engineer , Rolls Royce / Bentley working on advanced engine projects
- 1975 to 1979 Research Assistant Imperial College London working on combustion processes
- 1970 to 1975 Engineer , Perkins Diesels , Peterborough
Qualifications: PhD in Combustion Fluid Dynamics and BSc in Mechanical Engineering
Author: Dave Leggett