Building a vehicle that?s as environmentally sustainable as possible is never an exact science. It requires a lot of research, time and money, as well as the occasional compromise.
It?s the specialty of Prof. Dr. Herbert Kohler, whose lengthy title at Daimler in Stuttgart includes the role of chief environment officer, as well as that of vice-president of group research and sustainability. Kohler works closely with third parties.
?The real research is being done in universities and research organizations. We try to combine our activities with them, and rely on their expertise.
?Our intention is to sort out the right technology for us and transfer it for an automotive application. We will look at something like carbon fibre to become more familiar with its specific properties. This is normally a combination between mathematical analysis on one side, and on the other, some sort of crash test.?
As a student in the 1970s, Kohler?s passion for technology was ignited when he discovered the Club of Rome, an international think-tank, formed in 1968 by a group of independent leaders in the fields of business, science, and politics.
One of its publications was a book called The Limits to Growth, which used computer models to look at what might happen with unlimited population and economic growth in the face of finite resources.
?They made the first prediction of when crude oil will end,? Kohler says. ?This was an interesting topic, and I engaged my studies on environmental topics. I ended my studies in 1976 and got a chance for a PhD degree at the old Daimler-Benz.
?I never thought that would be a long-term solution for me, but it was very interesting. My first idea was to stay at that company for two or three years, but now it?s been 36 years.?
Kohler has held various positions at the company since, including vice-president of body and powertrain research, of advanced engineering including electric-drive vehicles, and of strategic product planning.
His work has always been forward-thinking, but, in his early tenure at Daimler, it also included practical real-world experiences when he worked with the aluminum foundry.
It was a first-hand lesson in how to work with maximum production capacity, while still considering the environment, and the people who lived nearby.
?We had a lot of problems in those days with the neighbourhood with the emissions,? he says. ?We had to reduce the emissions and not generate environmental problems, but without any losses of volume or quality, which is very important.
?Coming from the university, I was more on the side to say, ?Well, there has to be a modification and it has to go better (environmentally),? but I was not trained to care about production and quality. There is volume production day to day. You can talk about limiting growth, and say that with an outside perspective, but when you are forced to do that in reality, there is that other totally different responsibility.?
Most of the time he is hard at work on future technologies, including such things as lightweight construction, lower emissions, and recycling, but he also lectures at Stuttgart University, overseeing some 1,200 to 1,400 PhD students. His early experiences trying to reach a balance at the aluminum foundry guide many of his lessons, which primarily focus on the idea of balance. While his emphasis is on automobiles, his goal is that students can take his teachings and apply to them to any number of products or cicumstances.
?I?ve been working more than 30 years on that topic, and it?s more difficult than learning from a book or from a theoretical topic,? he says. ?It?s a complicated situation to look at the technical solutions we have, but with the effect on the product for the consumer, and for the production line.
?No one will accept a bad product even if it has only 10 per cent of the emission rate,? he says.
?We always look for the optimum. We could build a car out of fiberglass or carbon fibre, but reducing the weight with these expensive materials isn?t enough. We need to bring additional stiffness to the car. We need to use the right materials at the right place, and we have to look at recycling, which is a problem we haven?t solved.?