VORSPRUNG DURCH DCT
This week, the automotive industry learned of the passing of former VW Group Chairman and legendary engineer, Dr Ferdinand Piech. In this article, AutoMate’s Harrison Boudakin takes a look back at some of his great engineering achievements, most notably the dual clutch transmission
In the cut-throat corridors of Germany’s automotive Valhalla, few individuals have ruled quite so definitively as the late Dr Ferdinand Piëch: grandson of Ferry Porsche, former Chairman of the Volkswagen Group, and arguably the single most dominant and pugnacious leader ever to run a car company.
Dr Piëch, who passed away in August aged 82, leaves behind an astonishing contrail of influence, blasted into the automotive atmosphere during a 55 year rise from lowly engineer to arch-autocrat, which saw genius innovation and raw product ambition mix in biblical proportions.
Notorious for his hard-line stewardship of the Volkswagen Group – leading it from near bankruptcy in 1993 through a combination of obsessive attention to detail and uncompromising managerial guile – Dr Piëch’s back catalogue of product wins in fact stretches right back to his early days at Porsche and Audi, when his penchant for pushing the engineering envelope was already on full display.
Take, for instance, the legendary Porsche 917: it may have nearly sent its parent company bankrupt, but it ultimately provided Porsche with its first ever Le Mans 24 hour victory – and it was the brainchild of Dr Piëch. So too was the fearsome Audi Quattro – the ground-breaking all-wheel-drive system which gifted Audi total podium dominance in world rallying for years, and paved the way for Audi to take on BMW and Mercedes with their pioneering work in turbocharging and aluminium body construction.
By the early 2000s and in full command of the VW Group, Dr Piëch had set the ailing German behemoth on its way to becoming the single-largest automotive entity in the entire world, acquiring and reforming Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini, SEAT, Bugatti and Skoda, primarily off the back of a remarkable platform-sharing plan that returned VW to profit and set a template that continues to be followed across the industry today.
His most famous moment, though, was surely the Bugatti Veyron: the Concorde-like supercar that was nothing less than the fastest and most expensive car in the world. Rumour has it that when Ferdinand laid out the superlative objectives for the project, his chief engineer declared they were impossible. Unperturbed, Ferdinand simply fired him and half the other staff too, starting again from scratch and spending nearly a decade bringing the ultimate supercar to life. And of course, he succeeded.
Amongst this great pantheon of achievements, then, the fact Dr Piëch oversaw and encouraged the development of the first-ever dual-clutch transmission seems almost mildly insignificant – except, of course, for those who understand just how complex, remarkable and prevalent these DCTs have become.
Dual-clutch transmissions have found a home in road cars since 2003, when VW debuted the technology in the Golf R32 and the Audi TT. Yet the truth is that the DCT lineage stretches all the way back to the 1980s, when Porsche began experimenting with the concept in its 956/962 Le Mans sports prototype racers, under the guidance of – you guessed it – a certain Dr Ferdinand Piëch.
Ever perched on the bleeding edge of automotive innovation, Porsche’s goal was to develop a sequential racing transmission that delivered truly lightning shifts, and in doing so, out-change and out-perform even its most advanced track rivals. They proposed the Porsche
Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, or PDK – essentially an automated manual gearbox that incorporated two concentric shafts, one for even gears and one for odd gears, and each with its own clutch.
The result was a system that was able to begin engaging the next gear the moment the clutch for the previous gear began to disengage, producing an almost-seamless shift and reducing the interruption to the torque flow.
Porsche debuted PDK as a five-speed system in the 956 of 1983, and won its first race with the transmission by 1986. What PDK wasn’t, however, was simple – or reliable. With its complex array of electrohydraulic actuators, early mechatronics and extremely-fine tolerances, the early PDK developed a reputation for grenading shafts and cogs at every available opportunity.
This, and the fact that engineers were constantly chasing their tail with design challenges, meant the PDK almost – but didn’t quite – make it into Porsche’s road cars several times throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, by which point others in the Volkswagen Group had taken Porsche’s PDK baton and run with it.
Indeed, as early as 1985, Dr Piëch had encouraged Porsche to share its PDK tech with Audi, whose motorsports program also answered to him. He saw an opportunity to showcase the tech in another of his engineering masterpieces – the virtually unregulated and terminally unhinged Group B ‘Evolution 2’ rally car.
With PDK fitted, the mad Quattro did 0-100km/h in 2.6 seconds, and was so blindingly, unnervingly fast that it caused Audi’s legendary rally driver, Walter Rohrl, to crash during the British RAC round after his co-driver temporarily lost the power of speech as the sheer pace of the car overwhelmed him.
No matter, the PDK’s towering capabilities had been proven – and Piëch’s initial investment in the idea’s genesis was to bear spectacular fruit for the VW Group in later years, as very quickly after its ‘03 market launch, drivers realised that DCT gearboxes set a new – and to this day untouched – performance car benchmark. Pretty soon, everyone who was anyone in the car industry had a DCT to their name – and the rest is history.
Today, dual-clutch transmissions are unremarkable only in their ubiquity, with all manner of manufacturers – from Hyundai to Ferrari – offering versions of the technology across their model ranges. Despite some reliability wobbles – particularly for VW in earlier, dry-clutch iterations – they have proved both popular and successful in a market that demands ever-increasing driver automation and hyper-efficiency.
Going forward, they’ll continue to play a major role so long as the internal combustion engine reigns supreme, likely working in tandem with 48-volt and full-hybrid systems to prolong the existence of ICEs, even as the regulatory overlords tighten their legislative screws.
For Dr Piëch, the success of the DCT beyond the realm of hyper rally cars and prototype racers, really is a testament to his broader vision and judgement about the future song-lines of mainstream automotive engineering.
Then again, given his remarkable CV, you’d expect nothing less, wouldn’t you? Vale Ferdinand Piëch.
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