Ulrich Hackenberg may be the best automotive engineer you have never heard of. During his time first at Audi and later at Volkswagen, he pioneered the modular kit approach that allows many different cars to be built on the same basic chassis. His first success was the MTB, a kit for cars with longitudinally mounted front engines. Over the years, it provided the basis for many Audi sedans from the A8 to the A4 and for the mighty Bentley Continental GT.
Hackenberg’s secret, according to Top Gear, was rigidly defining certain key dimensions of the cars. Suspension mounting points and the relationship between the engine and the pedals were fixed, for instance. Even the apertures for the climate control and infotainment systems were identical. This made it possible for one assembly line to build many different cars. That, in turn, gave a big boost to profitability.
Prior to Hackenberg’s innovations, cars were built on shared platforms. That was also good for profitability but made all the cars built on that platform look the same — like a Chevy Impala and a Pontiac Bonneville from the 90’s. If all the world’s cars don’t look the same today, it’s because lots of other manufacturers have adopted the concepts Hackenberg brought to automobile manufacturing.
At Volkswagen, Hackenberg created the MQB modular kit — the basis of all it transverse engine front wheel drive models from the company’s smallest cars to 7 passenger SUV’s. That kit has spawned cars powered by gasoline and diesel engines, hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains, and battery electric cars. Today, nearly 5 million cars a year are manufactured using the MQB kit and sold in markets around the world. There is hardly a person alive who hasn’t ridden in one.
Hackenberg finished his career back at Audi where he began. He lit the fire under the new Q6 e-tron SUV and the R8 e-tron. Then suddenly, he was gone. Top Gear journalist Paul Horrell says he never met a man in the auto business who saw not only the big picture but every detail of every car he ever worked on. He says Hackenberg was firmly in control when it came to producing the diesel cars that landed Volkswagen in hot water because of false emissions settings.
Is it possible that someone who knew such small details was blissfully unaware that those cars were not in compliance with emissions regulations? All of Volkswagen’s top management are under suspicion, including former board chairmen Ferdinand Piech and Martin Winterkorn. No charges have been brought by German authorities as of yet, but Hackenberg’s abrupt departure is seen by some as damning. It would be most unfortunate if such a brilliant career is tarnished in the end by the taint of scandal.
Photo credit: Top Gear