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Complexity and the IC powertrain – is there a solution?

Sometimes, things just don’t work out as planned. Taking coffee with John Fuerst, Delphi’s Vice President Engineering, Powertrain Systems, was one of those moments. Having come prepared to discuss the company’s developments in diesel, gasoline and hybrid vehicle technologies, Fuerst’s approach to portfolio management was so intriguing that the interview finished with barely a mention of 48 volt architectures or cylinder deactivation.

As Delphi’s most senior powertrain engineer, Fuerst’s role is more about vision and planning than it is about the details of each innovation. He is an engineer in business, thinking like an entrepreneur on behalf of Delphi’s investors and customers. To the man in the street it may look like globalisation is creating uniformity, but from Fuerst’s perspective it is opening up a challenging gap that requires increasingly clever thinking to ensure that each regional requirement is met with the most appropriate technologies.

“My challenge is working out how to help our customers be more competitive while meeting all the regulations worldwide,” he explains. “That makes cost a very important element of our strategy, but we must not lose connection with the other factors that increase competitiveness such as fuel economy, durability, low warranty, light weight, serviceability and how the car drives. The balance of priorities is different in each market, and so are the challenges – such as fuel quality and service capability – that set the boundaries for our technology choices.”

Take fuel quality as an example, described by Fuerst as “the only mission-critical component over which we have no control”. Figures from Volvo suggest that while the UK and Northern Europe have consistently less that 10 ppm of Sulphur, some of Southern and Eastern Europe retails fuel with multiples of this level. On the South Eastern perimeter, the level of fuel illegally imported from Africa is so high that a long-distance haulier could unknowingly fill his Euro VI truck with fuel at 500 ppm or more. Some of the additive blends have been described as ‘frankly bizarre’.

“As countries industrialise, they adopt Western standards in their big, wealthy cities, but the rural areas typically advance far more slowly,” says Fuerst. “China is an example where we will increasingly have to meet world-class emissions standards in the cities, but the vehicle may then be driven 50 miles into the countryside and filled-up with fuel that really shouldn’t go anywhere near modern fuel injection and emissions control systems.”