As vice president of DaimlerChrysler's Hybrid Electric Vehicle Engineering group, Lawrence Oswald is charged with moving hybrid vehicle technologies from the research labs into production. His top projects are getting the gasoline-electric Dodge Durango TTR (for Through the Road) ready for its 2003 introduction and the Dodge Ram Contractor's Special ready for 2005. Oswald, who started his career working on hybrid vehicles at General Motors, joined DaimlerChrysler in 1998. He was interviewed Monday, Feb. 19, by Automotive News Industry Editor Dale Jewett and Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
Has the recent financial turmoil at the Chrysler group affected plans to bring out the hybrid Durango on time in 2003?
No. There has been no fallout yet. Nothing has been scaled back.
Has the Durango TTR hybrid package changed much since journalists saw and tested it in Stuttgart in 1999?
No, not at all. Nothing has changed about it at all. We are in the process right now of sourcing the components. The componentry on that prototype was a Siemens motor and either lithium-ion batteries or nickel-metal hydride batteries. It turns out that the lithium-ion battery, perhaps, is the less expensive way to go in the long run and for high volume. We are also, just to cover ourselves, looking at nickel-metal hydride just in case lithium-ion doesn't pan out the way we want it. It's a little safer technology right now, and, of course, Honda and Toyota are both using it in their vehicles and it is working quite well. We are pretty familiar with it. We want to make sure we are not late to production. Unfortunately, it's a little more expensive when you have to carry two technologies along. But it is one of the indicators of our dedication to this. We will go a little extra here to make sure we are not late.
Five years ago, when the industry really got its first whiff of hybrid powertrains, did you think we would advance this rapidly to reach the point today where you are actually ready to put a hybrid-powered vehicle into production?
Well, for me it actually seems quite slow. I've been trying to get a hybrid-powered vehicle into production since 1988 - starting at GM and for the last three years here at DaimlerChrysler. I think if you ask me the question why now and why not three or four or five years ago, I think the answer is that everything is a lot more ready now. We are starting to see light at the end of the cost tunnel here in terms of being able to get the cost down to where people can afford the additions that you have to put in the vehicle.
Why build a hybrid Durango first? Why not a car?
We feel the Durango is a great place to start. The Durango is a larger vehicle. When you actually calculate the number of gallons of fuel used per year on the Durango compared to the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, it's much greater. It makes much more sense to me - and since it is one of our big sellers, we would start introducing hybrids in the area where we use the most fuel and try to save the most fuel for our customers, our country and the sake of the atmosphere.
The Durango is normally sold with four-wheel drive. One of the cool things we can do is take the two-wheel-drive version, downsize the engine a bit and get the performance back to four-wheel-drive levels by making the front axle electric.
Putting the electric drive on the front axle is the most logical place because you want to try to charge the battery with regenerative braking. When you do the braking maneuver, the weight transfers to the front. You want to make sure you get lots of traction on the front wheels. So you will recapture the kinetic energy of the vehicle and stuff it back in the battery and use it on the next acceleration.
What is the Chrysler group's strategy for expanding hybrid powertrain availability?
One of the other things we want to do is expand the TTR concept into other platforms. I am not prepared to announce what those are, but you can imagine that many of our products could benefit from the TTR approach as a way to get all-wheel drive and get better acceleration and better fuel economy, which are all the things we are doing in the Durango.
What are the fuel economy and performance goals for the Durango TTR?
I hope to do a 25 percent fuel economy improvement. It will be about one second faster to 60 mph than the Durango with the 5.9-liter V-8 engine.
Are the technologies involved in the TTR concept easily scaleable? If you wanted to use it in a bigger truck, for example, could you?
We are actually trying to do the componentry so that it can be scaled up and down. For example, the motor can be scaled up and down simply by adding an extra stack length, so you use common laminations in the motor and build the motor longer or shorter depending on how you wanted to go. So that would make common componentry in your manufacturing plant. Same thing goes for the battery packs that you use. When you make the motor longer, you need more power out of it. You need a more powerful battery pack, so you put in more battery modules and up the system voltage. We are going to do that. The module that we produce will be a standard module that we can put more in for higher voltage or less in for less energy and power.
Will the consumer have to sacrifice interior room on the Durango TTR? And how will it work?
The operation and appearance of the vehicle should be totally invisible to the customer. The engine will not shut off at stoplights. If the customer is used to doing robust, all-wheel-drive, off-road driving, that is something you will not be able to do with the Durango hybrid. It is not meant to do that because if you keep pulling with the front wheels you will eventually run the battery pack down. When I say eventually, I am talking about a mile or two.
How much will the Durango TTR cost?
We think the price premium will be $3,000. We think the cost is under that. But we have to make a little profit on it. Our strategy is to get the component set numbers up higher, drive the costs down and perhaps someday take the price premium below $3,000. We are also hoping and we're actually campaigning to get this $3,000 tax credit that was talked about last year. During the elections it kind of went down the drain. But now the Bush administration has recovered it. It is sort of quid pro quo for some of the drilling they want to do up in Alaska.
Why do you think consumers will buy hybrid sport-utilities?
Once we get people paying a little bit extra and seeing the benefits of these vehicles, they will enjoy them and therefore keep buying them. We think the penetration for the Durango TTR is only going to be 15 percent of the market. And it will be normally the people who buy the two-wheel-drive version who will want this. This two-wheel-drive version really is four. For a little bit more money, you get better acceleration, better fuel economy, plus all-wheel drive just when you need it. It makes a lot of sense that the two-wheel-drive buyer will switch over to this electric all-wheel-drive version.
Ford will aim the hybrid version of the Escape at buyers interested in saving fuel and being kind to the environment. GM's message for its hybrids will be performance. How will you position the Durango TTR?
Both ways. It will provide additional fuel economy. But the performance aspect is what we think people will pay more money for, having all-wheel drive that is electronically controlled so it is almost instantaneous, as well as the additional acceleration performance. People will pay $1,000 or $2,000 to get extra acceleration and they'll pay $1,000 to get all-wheel drive, so we think it makes sense when you add them together that $3,000 is really not a lot to ask for this system. And at the same time you'll have lower fuel consumption.
Have you calculated how much of an emissions benefit you are going to get from this powertrain?
I really haven't looked at the regulated emissions. It should be better from an emissions point of view simply because as engine technology gets better normally so do the emissions. And we won't be loading it as much during acceleration. Most of the time when people accelerate, the engine has to do all that work and you go, of course, a little bit into fuel enrichment to get the acceleration so the engine doesn't stumble. In this case, we'll be doing it with electric power. The consumer is not requesting as much power demand.
Have you been able to leverage any Mercedes-Benz technology for the Durango TTR?
Absolutely. We are sort of at the point right now of deciding who our suppliers are going to be. It looks very much like the Mercedes-Benz people who are beginning an electric motor center of expertise and a manufacturing center near Stuttgart will be the motor manufacturers and suppliers. We have worked out a joint strategy with our colleagues in Stuttgart where we try to put common components in the other products. Hopefully, getting volume of component sets as high as possible will help all of us with the cost issue.