Rainer Link oversees engineering at the ePowertrain division of GKN, a UK supplier of automotive, aerospace and metallurgy products that was acquired last year by Melrose Industries in a hostile takeover. GKN is a leader in conventional all-wheel-drive components, but it is also a pioneer in electric axles and drive units. Link says the global market for conventional awd systems will continue to grow for a decade, but after that, electrified units will start to dominate the market. Link explained why in an interview with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Peter Sigal.
How is GKN's automotive division organized now under your new owner, Melrose Industries?
We have 29,000 people in GKN Automotive working on a portfolio of technologies including CVJs (constant velocity joints), propshafts and sideshafts, and all-wheel-drive systems, both conventional and electrified. There are 54 manufacturing locations worldwide. We provide equipment for the entire range of cars, from small, low-cost A-segment vehicles [minicars] to sophisticated premium vehicles with complex driving dynamics. We make complete e-drive systems, but we also offer final-drive units, power-transfer units and drive modules with couplings and disconnects. In addition, we have a dedicated hybrid transmission that we call Multimode. It's in the Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid. That is as far as hardware is concerned. But what is even more important today is that we can provide the full software controls for the vehicle integration.
A lot of suppliers are becoming experts in software. What does GKN's software control?
First, it has to take care of the functionality of an all-wheel-drive system, which is not just distributing the torque to the different wheels. We are trying to drive efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions, so that means all-wheel drive on demand. And you also have to connect or disconnect it depending on many parameters. We are cooperating with automakers because the driving dynamics of the car are heavily influenced by us, as providers of the mechanical system for all-wheel drive. For example, the "drift mode" in the Ford Focus RS was developed by us in cooperation with Ford.
Has the switch in ownership to Melrose Industries affected your business or r&d strategy?
Not really. Melrose aims to bring clarity, accountability and focus to all of GKN's business, and I think that's a good thing. That should be the driver for any business.
Within the ePowertrain unit, what is the split between conventional all-wheel-drive systems and electric-drive systems?
Our total turnover in all-wheel and electric drive is 1.3 billion euros in sales. Electric-drive systems are a smaller part of that, but it will grow rapidly. Within the last year, we have seen a 50 percent increase in the value of our e-drive order book, from 2 billion euros (about $2.25 billion) at the end of 2018 to 3 billion euros (about $3.4 billion) now. We are predicting that the market for all-wheel-drive products will grow at a low rate until 2030. We are aware that in the long term, our conventional systems will be replaced by electric all-wheel-drive systems, namely the P4 e-axle [where the electric motor is integrated at the axle].
Regarding the P4 all-wheel-drive systems, we are now seeing electric motors independent of the engine, but are they sufficient for heavy-duty uses such as rough terrain or pulling a trailer?
We need to do some more development work. But with different ranges of torque and electric motor power, it shouldn't be an issue to pull a boat from the water, for example, or climb a hill. You will also need a two-speed gearbox with a low range and a high range for normal roads. We have also done some simulation studies that combine an electric driveline with conventional all-wheel drive -- instead of an internal combustion engine, you have a big electric motor. Then you have a propshaft to the rear with a conventional all-wheel-drive system. That's one possible future for the U.S. light-duty [pickup] market.
Electrification encompasses a wide range, from mild hybrid systems all the way up to full-electric vehicles. Are you focusing on a specific area?
Our focus is definitely on P4 solutions. Our EDUs [electric-drive units], work with battery-electric or fuel cell vehicles or plug-in and conventional hybrids. We try to standardize as much as possible, so we have product families to meet all the requirements for different segments.
How does your customer base break down by region, and where are you forecasting growth?
We are well-distributed in the main regions -- Europe, the Americas and Asia -- but again, we don't expect huge growth in the conventional all-wheel-drive business. However, we see big growth in electric drive in Europe and Asia. Our market forecasts are for 110 million vehicles produced globally in 2030, with 20 percent electric vehicles, including fuel cells; 10 percent plug-in or high-voltage hybrids; and 30 percent mild hybrids. That still leaves 40 percent internal combustion engines.
What innovations are you most excited about?
What we are excited about is torque vectoring [in which the differential varies the torque supplied to each wheel]. Conventional cars and electric vehicles are becoming heavier, but customers still expect a high level of safety and driving dynamics. Torque vectoring is key to this. Another point is that we need to be cost competitive, and that is also driving innovations in manufacturing and materials. Design to cost is what we need to do, and that means working with manufacturing engineering and logistics.