On a lap with… Christian Schultze talking about innovations

The automotive industry is an industry in transition. What inspires the research and design departments? What do independent experts have to say? In our series “On a lap with…” we let insiders have their say. Our guest this time: Dr Christian Schultze, Director Research & Operations at Mazda Europe.

Mr Schultze, you have been involved with innovations in the automotive sector for 26 years. Are there any innovations left at all that have not been tried out?

We have to distinguish between innovative ideas and real innovations. A boy sent me a picture with an electric car on it that is powered by electricity from many small wind turbines on the car. That is of course a very nice idea and shows creativity, but we will certainly never try it out. When we discuss innovations, it is not just about new or different, but about added value, improvement and the experience of it. Especially in a strong competitive environment, an innovation has to pass the toughest test, because the customer has to say: Great, I’ve always wanted that! Therefore, innovations are not only born from ingenious ideas, but mainly from hard work. In our Research & Development Centre in Oberursel, we try to harvest a pearl from the ocean of innovative ideas every day.

Where do you harvest?

The customer is always in focus, of course, but the ideas don’t just come from the automotive sector. Mazda’s Kodo design, for example, draws inspiration from the grace and elegance of animal and human movement. Furniture, yachts and architecture are often the inspiration for interior design. In technology, we look far into other domains: displays from aircraft construction, cameras from consumer electronics, sensors from medicine, operating logics from computer games – the list could go on and on, and I haven’t even mentioned the topic of smartphones and the internet yet.

An innovation is innovative…

…if it results in a real quantum leap. If a new model simply drives faster, that is not an innovation. But if my car recognises an impending accident on the basis of the braking pressure I apply, the road conditions and the difference in speed to a car in front and avoids it automatically, then this is an innovation that the customer notices. This is exactly what happened to me when I was driving a first prototype with autonomous emergency braking function in Frankfurt. I was in a turning queue, looked in the wrong direction for a second too long when starting off – and I would have crashed the expensive prototype. Fortunately, our SCBS system was on board and I was able to experience the usefulness of this innovation.

How much time passes from the first idea to series production?

Unfortunately, this cannot be generalised. Often, the technology itself or economic constraints have a great influence. In some industries like IT or consumer electronics, product cycles are extremely short. Accordingly, new ideas must be able to be implemented quickly. Automobile manufacturing has cycles of several years, but development is increasingly accelerated by external factors. In the area of connectivity, customers expect that the functionality in the car should not lag behind that in the smartphone. As a result, all car manufacturers have to deal with the issue of updates and upgrades after the sale of a vehicle.

Taking a step back from the self-driving and connected car, what’s next?

The automobile came from the mechanical world, being a replacement for the horse-drawn carriage. We have seen the electrification of the automobile with radio, lights and fuel injection and have now arrived at the software-controlled automobile age. The next step is the intelligent automobile: it knows from specific indicators when we want to go where, recognises our wishes for dynamic movement, but also if we make mistakes or our performance drops. It not only understands the traffic situation, but also how to keep us happy: by suggesting a fun roadster route or reminding us to buy some flowers for the evening’s visit – and ordering them in consultation with us. The vehicle is not only a safe means of transport, but also our buddy who is always there to help us. The vehicle is not only a part of our way of life, but of our life itself.

What is Mazda working on right now?

Mazda is a brand that does not act dogmatically and simply follows trends. We often have our own very unique approaches, but for us they make a lot of sense. Vehicles with zero local emissions are certainly very pleasant locally. But when emissions happen decentrally and indirectly through them in our ecosystem then you have to start looking at the overall effect. Mazda has long been researching and developing efficient engines that are increasingly environmentally friendly when viewed globally, i.e. with all emissions from source to wheel. We also see a lot of potential to improve the actual engine. In addition, we are of course concerned with how mobility will develop in the future.

Do testing tracks – like the Bilster Berg – play a role in this?

We all know that the development of cars is happening more and more on the computer. Yet in the end, there is a real object there in full complexity that has never seen the light of day before. The psycho-technical experience of good-smelling materials, sunlight on the bonnet, the sound of the accelerating vehicle and the singing of the tyres in a dynamically driven curve must still be experienced as a real human being in order to realise that an automobile and locomotion have a positive emotional appeal. Of course, we also want to share this feeling with the press, who should then tell our customers about the joy with and in the new Mazda. In order to generate this excitement and to be able to present everything properly, we need test grounds where we can test and present real vehicles.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Author: Michael Aust (Zimmermann Editorial)

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