Wolfsburg, West Germany — The brand-new Volkswagen Passat (Dasher in the US) moves up to the traffic light. I brake the car and push a button to the right of the steering post. The engine stops and I wait for the light.
When the green light flashes on, I push in the clutch and step on the gas. The engine springs to life and I move with the Traffic.
The newest Passat-dasher was introduced in Europe in October but won't reach the US, along with a new Scirocco, until the fall of 1981. The start-stop switch, an option, is just another way to save fuel. If the engine is shut off, it isn't using gas. It's that simple.
The state-of-the-art RSVW II (research safety Volkswagen), unveiled a few weeks ago here in Wolfsburg, also uses the engine start-stop device. But in the RSVW II, it is tied into an automatic transmission, unlike the manual transmission that's now on the road.
"We have far more advanced system now under study where the engine is automatically cut off whenever your coast," reports Dr. Wolfgang Lincke, head of research and development for Volkswagenwrek AG. "However," he quickly adds, "the system still has a lot of problems, such as power brakes. But that problem can be overcome by a sensor which deactivates the system when the booster is empty, according to Dr. Lincke.
"The worst problem is heating. If you have a very fuel-efficient engine -- a diesel, for example -- and you switch if off often and coast, you could end up with perhaps half you driving time without heat," he explains.
Nonetheless, he smiles: "The potential of such devices is high and we feel they have a good chance.
Despite its potential, Dr. Lincke admits he dislikes such manual devices. "I never stop the engine even though I have such a button in my car."
The disabled-cylinder system, now used in the '81-model Cadillac with an 8 -cylinder engine, has a probable future as well, says Dr. Lincke. Porsche is working with that idea as well. In this system, the engine works on 4, 6, or 8 cylinders, depending on the load.
"We have to think of lower-cost systems in the VW," asserts the VW R&D chief.
Meanwhile, the "car of the future" is taking shape today.
All major carmakers -- Europe, the US, and Japan -- are looking far ahead, not toward next year's models or even those of five years from now, but to a petroleum-short world in the late '90s and beyond.
The West German government, for instance, is funding up to half the cost an industrywide project to explore an automotive answer that makes sense.
Daimler-Benz, Porsche, and Volkswagenwerk, including Audi-NSU at Ingolsstad, are each working on ideas of their own, using the same specifications, for the "car of the future." The Ministry for Research and Technology will provide up to
Further, a West German University team will develop its own version of the car.
"The universities' philosophy is different from that of the auto industry," asserts Dr. Lincke, who adds:
"The universities are now trying to stay a lot closer to reality and would like to have a car that's better than the mass-produced car of today."
Dr. Lincke says that VW will introduce its own version a year from now -- five or six vehicles, "all with different engines, interior layouts, and so on."
Included, he says, "will be an alcohol-engine version and one with either a turbocharger or mechanical supercharger."
The Audi 2000 car, as the "turn of the century" car is called, is not intended for mass production any more than the new VW safety car, the RSVW II. However, the ideas and components which are generated by such projects are funneled into the production line as they are adapted to the realistic conditions of the highway.
Out of the 120,000 who work for VW in West Germany, about 5,000, or 1 in 24, works in a research lab. About 1,500 of the 5,000 are employed in the prototype shop. Another 250 engineering people work with Audi-NSU, about 1,000 are employed in Brazil, and 300 work in the US.
Among its R&D work is a 3-cylinder diesel which was adapted from the 4 -cylinder engine. Yet, like every other engineering challenge, there are problems.
For one thing, the idling behavior is bad; there is too much vibration. Yet the engine is small and will fit in very small cars.
"I give the 3-cylinder enginer a 20 percent probability," assesses Dr. Lincke , "unless there is a severe fuel crisis.
"If that happens, then we'll have to change our attitudes."
VW also is working on a superhigh-mileage car, but so is everyone else. The goal is for a practical car that will go at least 80 miles on a gallon of fuel.
"When I was research manager," says Dr. Lincke, "I told my people we should have a target of 100 miles per gallon. But 80 mpg seems to be a value we can realistically achieve by aerodynamics, lighter weight, transmission engine cutoff, cylinder cutoff, and things such as that."
The VW diesel Rabbit already gets in the 50s and some owners even report highway mileages of 60 or better.
Taken together, VW's forward-looking research is as productive as anyone else around. The Rabbit is still setting a track-burning pace.