Bosch puts diesel scandal behind, pivots to electric—and fuel cells?

Volkswagen TDI ‘clean diesel’ television ad screencap

Regulators, carmakers, and everyone still reeling from the ramifications of the Volkswagen diesel scandal have to face the future—and that means, for some of the companies involved, putting the scandal behind them and moving on with a variety platter of new technologies.

Last week, the German supplier Robert Bosch confirmed a settlement with Stuttgart prosecutors that requires the payment of a $100 million fine, ending a probe into the company’s involvement in the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal.

According to an e-mailed statement obtained by Bloomberg, Bosch is being fined for “negligent breach of supervision duties.”

Earlier on in the diesel scandal, Bosch had said that the company had nothing to do with the use of “defeat device” software that allowed the Volkswagen and Audi vehicles to effectively cheat on emissions tests.

Rather early in the development of the diesel scandal, however, it had been uncovered that Bosch knew, before many of the affected vehicles went on sale, about VW’s plans to use emissions-control software in an illegal way. Bosch maintained that carmakers bore the responsibility, and at the time Bosch CEO Volkmar Denner even called diesels “air cleaning machines” with emissions that are cleaner than the air they take in.

Bosch electric powertrain

Last year, after it was clear diesels weren’t going to rebound and more fines were looming, Bosch changed its tune. It repositioned itself toward some new ideas, and took more of a reconciliation stage. It also stated that the “everyday use of Bosch products should safeguard human life as well as conserve resources and protect the environment to the greatest possible extent,” and made clear that this took priority over what its customers wanted.

Cleaning up after “clean diesel”

Prior to this announcement—earlier this month—Bosch said that it planned to reduce its own carbon footprint to zero by 2020. That would include the goal “to reduce air pollution from traffic to virtually zero.”

Bosch CEO Volkmar Denner

Earlier this year it assumed full control of the electric motor maker EM-motive, as part of a strategy to move forward in pursuing all the various forms of electromobility, from mild hybrids to fully electric powertrains, including motors, power electronics, and battery packs. Cell production is a piece Bosch won’t become involved in, though. “In-house cell manufacturing is not decisive for success in electromobility,” the company declared in February 2018, essentially calling the internal production of them too risky.

The company’s pivot appears to be happening rapidly. Last month, Bosch said that it has entered an alliance with Powercell Sweden AB and plans to co-develop mobile polymer-electrolyte membrane fuel cells for trucks and cars, which Bosch will manufacture.

The supplier then said that it saw the share of electric vehicles (worldwide) powered by fuel cells to be as high as 20 percent by 2030—a ramp-up that seems riskier than battery commitments and runs contrary to most other market-mix predictions for fuel cells.

Powercell (Bosch) fuel-cell stack

Still not walking away completely

Bosch has had control of a large portion of the diesel-technology and diesel-parts market and was known for being almost painfully optimistic about diesel technology. It predicted in 2012 that from 2012 to 2015 diesel passenger vehicles would go from less than 1 percent of the vehicle market to 10 percent of the market.

With that, it’s not surprising that the supplier isn’t entirely ready to walk away from diesel entirely.

Last year Bosch also went public with some extraordinary claims. Part of it involved revealing that diesel had a new life through better thermal management and AI-based control strategies that, it claimed, would have “almost zero impact on air quality.”

Let the transition over time from “air cleaning” to a cleaner technology’s “almost zero impact” be noted.  

With its newest tech, Bosch said that it could reduce levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) to just 13 milligrams of NOx per km (21 mg NOx per mile)—way below the 120-mg/km standard for European diesels that goes into effect in 2020 and roughly a third of what it calculated NOx emissions to be using the current European power mix.

“Climate action that makes business sense, together with air-quality solutions, can stabilize the social climate,” noted Denner in a recent release. And with all the fines and investigations hopefully soon past, a little reinvention away from diesel may go a long way.

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