Charting the ICE Future with Mahle’s Martin Berger

According to one of Mahle’s key research leads, the remaining development path for internal combustion is clean, electrified and ready for alternative fuels.

Revealed in 2019, its fully integrated Modular Hybrid Powertrain is a 2- or 3-cylinder, turbocharged gasoline plug-in hybrid drive incorporating Mahle's latest technologies. (Mahle)

Electrification nets the current headlines and Wall Street fervor, but the internal combustion engine (ICE) will easily soldier on for several decades, serving as the core of many propulsion systems until it’s regulated from existence. During that time, the ICE will keep evolving under increasingly stringent emissions regulations. With the end of the ICE age coming into view, we canvassed some of the industry’s top minds for perspective on continuing ICE development.

As part of its Propulsion Executive Roundtable, SAE queried Mahle’s Martin Berger, head of the Stuttgart-based Tier 1’s corporate research and advanced engineering.Before taking on his current VP role, Berger (right) spent more than five years as Mahle’s director of engineering services, experience providing key insight into ICE evolution.

“We’ll need clean combustion engines in the future – preferably driven by a certain share of renewable fuels. There won’t be a single powertrain of the future,” Berger explained. “Market environments, vehicle sizes, use cases and driving profiles are too diverse for this to be the outcome. We have to have more than just one path, be it battery electric propulsion, be it fuel cell or be it hydrogen, and alternative fuels in the combustion engine.”

According to Berger, the ICE of 2030 will look like an extension of today’s program goals. “The answer is clean, electrified, and ready for alternative fuels,” Berger said. “Our Mahle Modular Hybrid Powertrain [MHP] pointed the way already a few years ago. It has proven that there is still a great potential in the combustion engine.” Often the case, the MHP doesn’t highlight one new technology; instead, the savvy application of multiple engineering advancements.

“This was made possible with products such as heat-resistant valves that allow high exhaust- gas temperatures. Special pistons and rings ensure low oil consumption and low particulate emissions,” Berger pointed out. “In the transient range – or in dynamic driving situations – we support the combustion engine with an integrated electric motor, avoiding the related emissions. We can address the existing fleet immediately by blending with synthetic fuels, up to 100% for some applications.”

Berger labels this targeted technology application ‘intelligent electrification,’ which he said “will characterize the combustion engine of the future, supported by at least one electric motor, combining the best of both worlds. Continuous power output can be achieved using the combustion engine in a few highly efficient operating points. Cruising range and fast refueling are not an issue at all, whilst transient power for dynamic driving situations is generated by the electric motor. The result is a much simpler, smaller, cheaper and yet cleaner engine.”

As the industry shifts large resources toward battery electric vehicles (BEVs), Mahle is shifting with it, pivoting its expertise and product offerings. “We are continuously expanding our portfolio in the field of mechatronics, electronics, battery and thermal management,” Berger detailed. “We simultaneously keep an eye on efficiency, packaging, and resources. In R&D/pre-development, more than 85% of our resources are dedicated to alternative drivetrains – including battery electric vehicles and fuel cell.”

“Most of our resources in advanced engineering have been shifted towards new mobility approaches,” Berger noted. “Nevertheless, we keep supporting our customers in traditional fields – as long as needed. Over time, we are continuously shifting our activities into new drivetrain technologies, such as fuel cells and all products around electrification.”

Production also is affected, Berger points out. “We are constantly keeping up with all kinds of modern manufacturing approaches,” he said. “These days, digitization of all our plants and processes plays a central role in our way forward. Talking new approaches, 3D printing technologies are developed for use in the engines, electric motors and peripherals such as thermal management components. Although Mahle had applied this technology to the Porsche GT2 RS pistons, its applications extend way beyond engine components to include parts like charge-air coolers and electric motors.”