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“Failure can lead to great innovations”

Interview with historian Kurt Möser

It was a long way from Volkswagen Beetle to the eGolf. A journey of many small steps, according to historian Kurt Möser from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. He explains how some innovations succeed while others do not.

Mr. Möser, innovation is one of the buzzwords in business. But what actually constitutes an innovation?

First of all, the improvement of something that already exists – a device, a machine, a condition – or the creation of something new on the basis of something that already exists. Sometimes the innovation lies in using something familiar in a new, disruptive way. Take the container, for example. Technically, it’s not really innovative. The concept of the container has existed since the advent of industrial transport. But the standardized containers of today, the 20- and 40-foot containers, which are actually just simple metal boxes, have revolutionized our modern world and are the objects of globalization: these were a disruptive invention.

Was it similar for the car?

For their automobiles, Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler assembled parts that, on their own, had already existed for some time. For example, take the wheels that Carl Benz used: he had bought them at a bicycle factory in Frankfurt. The pipes were also taken from a bicycle. The stationary engine was also a well-known technology. It was only then that certain innovations came into play. To use liquid fuel, Benz developed the carburetor.

At first, the automobile was more of a toy for extravagant and wealthy men. In the 1920s it became a status symbol for doctors, lawyers, business people, but only after the Second World War did it become a means of mass transportation suitable for everyday use. What changed then?

Starting in the 1950s, we began experiencing a design revolution. Everything on a car that, in the 1930s and 1940s, was separately mounted onto the chassis, was now melded together. The fenders were integrated in the chassis, as were the headlights. The front windshield became increasingly flatter, and the hatchback was on its way. And the three-box car – engine, passenger cab, luggage compartment – became the two-box car, which combined the luggage compartment with the passenger compartment. This was, in principle, the Golf shape: a lower mid-range vehicle with front-wheel drive, front engine, four doors and a tailgate.

And technically?

The technical innovations were principally electronic ignition and fuel injection, or common-rail injection for diesel engines. Then there were developments that primarily enhanced safety and comfort: headrests and seat belts, for example – the latter only after massive pressure from the authorities – as well as power windows, power seats.

Worldwide success: 1955 the millionth beetle rolled off the production line

How did these innovations come about?

They generally appear in the top class first in order to allow more affluent customers to distinguish themselves from ordinary drivers. Then they trickle down to the lower vehicle classes. Second, through changing regulations such as the introduction of the catalytic converter. Third, because there were some inconveniences. With the normal ignition of the 1960s and 70s, you either had to tune it regularly yourself or have a shop do it in order to keep the car from driving increasingly worse as time went by. Electronic ignition was the solution to this problem. Fourth, innovations emerged out of an effort to produce cars more efficiently. That’s what Ferdinand Porsche did with the Beetle. He designed a car that would be easy to produce. Porsche consistently looked at things from the production side.

The Beetle was an innovative concept and successful on the market. Why do some innovations, like the famous Wankel engine in the NSU RO 80, fail?

With the Wankel engine, we can say with some precision why it failed. It was marketed with an incredible degree of hype, but couldn’t deliver on some of its promises – a miracle engine that ultimately wasn’t. Another factor was simply that requirements for a car engine change over time. The Wankel engine was scarcely on the market before the oil crisis forced a paradigm shift. Cars were supposed to be more economical from then on. But the Wankel engine needs a lot of fuel, much more than a diesel engine, which was then picking up steam. And which was getting better all the time.

The Wankel engine in the RO 80 from NSU failed to catch on

Was diesel a game changer?

Oh yes, absolutely. The diesel essentially redefined the car in the 1970s. Driving cars was heavily criticized in those days because it used up resources and polluted the environment. It was the diesel engine, among other things, that saved the car. Carmakers were suddenly investing heady sums in diesel, and consumption was going down further. The diesel engine was an extremely innovative engine at that time. And well into the nineties. Then common rail technology increased efficiency yet again. I’m a big advocate of diesel technology. If we kill the diesel for political reasons, then we won’t, for example, be able to meet our CO₂ targets.

The Golf 1 created a new vehicle class of its own in 1974

What are the long-term innovation trends?

The most notable trend is the shift toward automation that has been going on for some years. Operation of this machine known as the car has been reduced to just a few hand and foot movements. Parking assistants, cruise control, adaptive cruise control have simplified the act of driving, and navigation systems get us to our destinations. Cars use sensors and cameras to brake autonomously and keep us in our lanes. More and more tasks are being taken out of the driver’s hands.

Until at some point self-driving cars will be able to do entirely without drivers?

I’m not too certain that there will be a big market for that in the near future. The advantages are evident, of course. But I believe that most drivers don’t want to completely relinquish control, not to mention the legal and safety issues. So we’ll have to wait and see. I hope that I’m around long enough to experience autonomous driving.

Is there such a thing as a favorable climate for innovation?

It’s really not possible to say that there is a favorable climate for innovation in a society generally. It varies by sector. The same people who buy a new smartphone every two years might reject new power lines, for example. On the one hand you have an openness to innovation among customers, and on the other hand you have the “not in my backyard” principle.

Mobility for the future: concept car ID. Vizzion from Volkswagen

How can you create an atmosphere that has a positive effect on the development of innovations?

If I could just say a word about KIT. We’re trying to create a climate that fosters innovations by promoting disruptive thinking. Not “Keep it up!” but “Try something new!” We want to support people with new ideas in a targeted way – an approach that I would say is already widespread in Germany.

That encompasses failure as well.

Of course. Interestingly, the Volkswagen Foundation recently sponsored a prize whose entry conditions read as follows: You have to have a good idea that no one has wanted to support because no one believed in its success – come to us. That’s actually exactly what we have to do: encourage people to learn from mistakes as well. Failure can lead to great innovations.