VWTB: Mr. Nielsen, as CTO you are coordinating the joint Research and Development (R&D) activities at the Volkswagen Truck & Bus Group. What is it that you do exactly?
Nielsen: My team and I drive the core engineering collaboration between our brands. This means we avoid duplications by applying lead engineering decisions to the brands, and make sure we are creating synergies by reusing technologies across the Group.
VWTB: Why is this important?
Nielsen: We want to bring benefit to our customers. To do this, we need to be fast and we need to be worth the price. Creating synergies means using fewer resources and speeding up the development process. This enables us to be faster to market with new technologies, but at the same time update our conventional platforms to state-of-the-art technologies. You can only afford to do this when you share the costs with the brands.
VWTB: What does this look like in practice?
Nielsen: Of course, the brands do the majority of the work. We at the CTO office mirror the brands’ R&D organization and create meeting forums. We have what we call a Volkswagen Truck & Bus Technical Committee, where we meet once a month. At the sublevel, while preparing for this meeting, we have sub-technical committees for all technological areas involved in the collaboration.
VWTB: You used the term “lead engineering.” What does that mean?
Nielsen: It means that one brand has the main responsibility for developing a platform or technical component for all brands. The brand has the responsibility to take in all different requirements within the Group and make sure that it fits to the customer base of each brand. The other brands then have their responsibility to adopt that platform to their vehicles.
VWTB: How do you decide who gets the lead?
Nielsen: We try to build on the brands’ strengths. This means where they have more capabilities and more competence. We try to make sure that we reuse that by giving them the lead.
VWTB: Does the joint development of platforms and components mean that the brands are becoming more alike?
Nielsen: That is a risk we need to be aware of, because we don’t want to create identical brands. So we as engineers have to provide solutions to maintain the brand identities, including, in particular, on the joint platforms.
“A strong group is built on strong brands, and we have those.”Anders Nielsen, CTO of Volkswagen Truck & Bus
VWTB: That sounds like a lot of work…
Nielsen: Of course. But a strong group is built on strong brands, and we have those. Our task now is to make this an opportunity for all individuals working within the engineering organization.
VWTB: How is that working out so far?
Nielsen: There are four brands involved in this collaboration. This means we are confronted with four different corporate cultures, four different national cultures, and 7,000 individual engineers, who also have their own way of looking at things. This multicultural combination is, of course, a challenge. But it is also a fantastic asset, if we learn to understand how it works.
VWTB: And how will you get there?
Nielsen: We need to approach this multi-brand collaboration with an open mind. As our CFO Matthias Gründler used to say: It’s like being a member of a club team but also playing for the national team. Of course you are loyal to both, but these shouldn’t be in conflict with each other. The competition is on the outside, not the inside. Besides, it could be quite cool to know that you’re developing an engine for the Group that will be used around the world in hundreds of thousands of units per year.
VWTB: The Group is still quite young, but already has an ambitious goal. Where do you stand today?
Nielsen: That is correct. Two years ago we basically didn’t exist. Now we have built the complete organization, and we have built the landscape in which we meet. We have established a collective roadmap on the ACE technologies: autonomous, connected, and electrified vehicles. And we will bring new products to the market in the next three to five years. If you ask me, the collaboration between the brands is right on track!
VWTB: And when will you reach your full potential?
Nielsen: We are improving our understanding of the collaboration year by year. I am sure that within just two or three years we will see products on the market that are based on joint technology and will also have a clear understanding of what we can achieve as a Group.
A look into the future
VWTB: Mr. Nielsen, what does the truck of the future look like to you?
Nielsen: The degree of freedom in how to design an autonomous, connected, and electrified truck is endless. Our imagination is, indeed, our biggest limitation when painting the picture. I am sure that if we look 30 years ahead, our trucks will look very different. But change will come gradually.
VWTB: So how far away are we from your truck of the future?
Nielsen: I think from a purely technical perspective, we are perhaps three to five years away from being able to do something autonomous that looks completely different. First, we will see opportunities in closed areas like mining and ports. I am sure we will also see Advanced Driver Assistance Systems coming very soon that will support the driver to increase security and safety in traffic. If we are talking about autonomous vehicles in urban environments or on highways, I think that we are more likely to be five to ten years away. But it depends a lot on how legislation and regulations are changing.
VWTB: And what about electric mobility and digital services?
Nielsen: Digital services are here now. When it comes to electrification, it highly depends on the technical development of components such as batteries. In some applications, like city buses, we can already see it happening. In other applications, like long haulage, the challenges are bigger.