You work at TU Graz’s Institute of Vehicle Safety. What kind of research is carried out there?
Christian Ellersdorfer: We deal with people, vehicles and infrastructure, so everything related to traffic and transport. This includes very diverse subject areas. Biomechanics deals with the effects of accidents on people. In simulations, we make use of virtual models of the complete human body with all its organs. Regarding vehicles, research deals with safety precautions in and on the vehicle itself – from motorcycle to passenger car to HGVs and buses. Active safety deals in particular with accident prevention. A classic example is as follows: a child runs on to the street. The vehicle attempts to recognise the child so that it can brake. The new safety systems are going in the direction of autonomous driving. But what we like to forget about is infrastructure. Here, relatively simple measures can prevent accidents or at least diminish the seriousness of accidents – for instance, by physically separating footpaths from traffic lanes. Guardrails are also a big topic, which we’ve worked on with motorway operators. Where should we put up guardrails? Where and how does it really make sense?
If research was carried out separately in theses areas earlier, today it is always done together in combination. This is because it is really a question of the interaction of humans and vehicles with infrastructure.
What research topics are you yourself occupied with at the moment?
Christian Ellersdorfer: I’m currently occupied with safety in electromobility. In the project SafeBattery, I and other researchers are examining how individual lithium-based battery cells and modules behave during accident-caused stresses.
Just let me explain the background for a minute. Battery technology was first applied in mobile phones and laptops. Only in the last few years have they been used in cars. It is a very recent technology compared to the Otto engine. At the Institute of Automotive Engineering we have been building up know-how relating to the safety of electric vehicles for round about eight years. We have a lot of previous knowledge about model design and can support the vehicle producers. But up to now, only new batteries have been tested. In the COMET project SafeBattery we’re going a step further and are including vehicle ageing. We’re investigating how batteries change with regard to their life in a vehicle, possibly over many years – and what that means in the case of a crash.
In the case of a crash, what are the weaknesses of EVs (electric vehicles) compared to petrol or diesel vehicles?
Christian Ellersdorfer: There are no particular weaknesses compared to other vehicles. In crashes they are just as safe. They have to prove this in the consumer tests, just like other vehicles.
Precisely because the technology is very recent, a lot has been done to protect the battery against all conceivable stress. The reinforced battery housing places more weight on the vehicle and a lot of installation space is lost. If we really know what forces the battery is subjected to during an accident, and what actually happens in the cells, we will know what precautions are really necessary. We can perhaps better integrate more electrical storage capacities in the vehicle and thus extend the range of EVs – at least to the same degree of safety.
Many people currently go on holiday by car. How will they gain from research on vehicle safety?
Christian Ellersdorfer: A lot is going to change regarding the range of EVs. As regards safety: vehicles themselves, whether they are driven by petrol, diesel or battery, are becoming safer. There are more and more sensors and active safety systems, such as brake assist systems, to prevent accidents. Should an accident happen, passengers are increasingly better protected by the vehicle components, which are being constantly researched. If you want be on the safe side, invest in a vehicle model as new as possible. This is because safety concepts are being constantly developed.
What car do you drive privately?
Christian Ellersdorfer: Privately, I drive an Audi A5. Unfortunately I don’t drive an electric vehicle. However, there is a “but” to this. I’m thinking of changing over to an EV. Not to a hybrid vehicle, but to real e-mobility.
How did you get involved in battery research?
Christian Ellersdorfer: By way of my doctoral thesis. E-mobility was just starting to grow at the Institute. And vehicle safety had always interested me. It’s an “honourable” topic because it deals with protecting other people – something I personally find very worthy. When the opportunity arose to do a doctoral thesis in this area, it didn’t take me long to decide. Since then I’ve stayed with e-mobility and vehicle safety. There are always new problems which come up. And answering them is what really motivates me and the reason I’m at TU Graz. I’m not the kind of person to always do the same thing.
What would I have to study to become part of your team?
Christian Ellersdorfer: Many roads lead to Rome (smiles). I personally studied mechanical engineering and economics. But because we deal a lot with simulation techniques, there are also colleagues coming from mathematics and physics. But you should definitely do a technology study programme if you want to work with us.
What do you do to recharge your own personal batteries?
Christian Ellersdorfer: I need something in my leisure time that challenges me. At the moment I’m fulfilling a long-held dream of training for my private pilot’s licence. I’ve been fascinated by flying since childhood. And in addition to my flight training, I’m planning to build my own aeroplane.
That sounds like a big project?
Christian Ellersdorfer: It is. It’s a big project and again something completely new. I have this dream and I’m trying to fulfil it.
It’s no different to building your own car. It has to get a certificate of air-worthiness of course – there are all sorts of regulations – but that’s exactly the challenge.