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VW head explains plans

  • Future for hydrogen cars
  • Plans to become top car maker

  • New Beetle due in 2011

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The Volkswagen group consolidated its position as the world's third-largest car maker in 2009 and has ambitions to become number one by 2020.

This year it will launch 16 new cars to help it on its way to achieving that goal.

At the Detroit motor show we caught up with VW's head of research and development, Dr Ulrich Hackenberg, to learn something about the company's plans and the new powertrain technologies the group is working on.

Q) At Detroit 2009 you revealed the Concept Bluesport roadster. This year your colleagues at Audi are showing an electric coupe based on the same architecture. When will a decision be made about production plans for these cars?
A) Within the group there are some brands interested in using the architecture of the Concept Bluesport and I hope we can make a decision about whether to go ahead in the next one or two months. The financial crisis stretched the limit of our timing and some brands are saying they need engines with more power.

Q) The Beetle is now one of your oldest cars. How do you go about creating the next generation of a retro car such as this?
A) Actually, we are in the prototype stage already and I will be driving the car next week. I think it will appear in 2011 and there will be a coupe and a convertible again. We will move forward in one big step, keeping the same design language but making the car a bit more sporty and emotional.

Q) When will we be able to buy the Up!, the small car you have been showing in various forms at motor shows?
A) It will be out towards the end of 2011, first as a two-door and then as a four-door.

Q) What do you think are the most exciting engineering challenges today?
A) I would say the most exciting engineering challenge of the moment is the development of electric vehicles. Globally, they are a niche, but in some mega-cities it could be there will be rules and incentives that will accelerate the whole process of switching to electric cars.
Every customer is looking to maintain mobility and does not want to lose it. The technology we are investing in now will be the technology in use for the next years. The batteries are currently very expensive but prices will go down.

Q) Are there still things you can do to improve the efficiency of petrol engines?
A) We have already started downsizing, and we see some possibilities to go a little further forward there. There could be more use of three-cylinder engines, maybe with some form of electrification. We are working intensively on what you might call classical technologies.

Q) With the Euro VI regulations for diesel engines due to come into force in 2014, will they become so expensive that hybrids will be cheaper?
A) Hybrids will still be more expensive than a Euro VI TDI, but the two are coming closer together. Hybrid is a technology that customers are asking for and there are a lot of incentives for them worldwide.

Q) What are the realistic prospects for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in the comparatively near future?
A) If you take a helicopter view, fuel cells are the right way to go. But you need hydrogen, which uses a lot of electrical energy to produce. You then have to transport it and store it, which means cooling it and keeping it under very high pressure.
So, on a well-to-wheel basis it is not the right way, but as a technology it is absolutely not dead. We are not pushing as hard as we are with electric vehicles, but we are at the same level as the other manufacturers. We have the technology and the cars, but there are still some aspects to be solved.