Fabian Wyssmann: How and where did you actually grow up?
Fredi Durot: Rurally, in a single-family house with garden in Diepoldsau in the St.Gallen Rhine Valley. In an average nuclear family with two older sisters.
So tends to be close to nature, right?
Yes, very close to nature. My family has always been – and I mean this politically as well – close to nature. Maybe that was one reason why I ended up at BRUSA Elektronik AG after my studies. At that time, however, electromobility was not yet a real issue. The Think City was the best on the market at the time.
In other words, you didn’t become an engineer because you were interested in sustainable issues?
No, after my apprenticeship as a polymechanic, I simply wanted to prevent a certain monotony from ever setting in. I often found with my work colleagues at the time that this could cause dissatisfaction. That’s why I studied to become a systems engineer – a switch to e-mobility was not an option at the time.
So where does your passion for electromobility come from?
Well, we have to face the fundamental question of how to get by with fewer resources; how can we reduce our ecological footprint? Mobility is known to have a major influence here. I want to be part of this movement and make my contribution to a future free of fossil fuels. History has shown anyway that only the most efficient technologies prevail. Now that battery technology is so advanced, it’s a no-brainer that electromobility will take hold wherever it’s physically possible. In my opinion, it is precisely the efficiency that speaks in favor of e-mobility and against hydrogen propulsion for the masses.
We’ll come back to that another time. You went through a number of stages before founding Durot Electric. What do they look like and what has shaped you in particular?
After graduating, I joined BRUSA Elektronik AG directly. At the time, the company was considered one of the undisputed technology leaders. What made the company special was that it manufactured all the power electronics components needed to build electric vehicles. And that’s with a team of only 20 people. From hybrid synchronous motors to inverters, DC/DC converters and chargers as typical BRUSA products – there was simply everything. At the time, AC Propulsion was one of the only suppliers with a similar set of core competencies. That’s also why we got projects that were unique. This also includes the developmental participation in the first electric round-the-world trip with the Zerotracer from Designwerk. The “sister vehicle” eTracer also won the Progressive Automotive X-Prize as the most efficient street-legal and highway-legal vehicle ever. We were allowed to participate in the construction of the first electric sports cars. We were the first to implement torque vectoring, i.e. single-wheel drive, in a hypercar. We were even allowed to develop the first hybrid race car for a twenty-four-hour race. The list is long and I have had the great privilege of playing a central role in many projects. You may say: I was in the right place at the right time thanks to BRUSA.
Why do you think electromobility hasn’t moved toward the mass market sooner, despite these exciting solutions? If you look at BRUSA, a lot was possible early on.
What is often underestimated is the cost and effort required to turn a prototype into a saleable series product. A prototype moves very quickly once. But mass production? That’s another story. The demands on a series – especially for passenger cars – are immense. If a manufacturer has two development-related failures out of 100,000 vehicles, that’s two too many. Production on a larger scale only started when Renault and Nissan entered the market with the Leaf and Zoe, respectively. It became clear then that electromobility works on a mass scale. Tesla provided the tailwind – they have shown that e-mobility works in the luxury class. This has certainly also contributed to a change in thinking. Electric cars need not and should not be ugly anyway.
So even you, as an absolute industry expert, are of the opinion that Tesla’s entry into the luxury class was formative for e-mobility?
That was certainly decisive. But again, the commitment of Renault and Nissan was just as important. These manufacturers should be given even more credit for that. This is because, in my opinion, it is more difficult to offer a vehicle with new technology at competitive prices in their price range than it is to offer a corresponding vehicle in the premium segment.
Where did you end up after your time in this automotive-heavy environment?
I made a trip around the world on a sidecar motorcycle. Afterwards, I spent several months in Singapore at the University of Technology and Design. Back in Switzerland, I joined Designwerk as head of the software department. I wanted to work more with customers again at the complete vehicle level.
Your path led from a contract developer and component supplier to a kind of think tank and then on to self-employment. Was it the allure of the whole thing that made you decide to start your own company?
Yes, that definitely played a role. For me, it’s especially satisfying when I can be involved from conception to series. The holistic development approach is also a strength of the company. Systemic knowledge is required here, as well as a knack for component selection, VCU programming and functional safety. Only a few providers can draw on this comprehensive knowledge. Most of the smaller manufacturers of vehicles, with series of a hundred to a thousand units, do not have their own software development team with comparable experience or electrical engineers who deal solely with this topic. We therefore see ourselves as a catalyst for the rapid introduction of and transition to electromobility. We are also happy to assist with sub-projects.
I’m sure some people will be reassured if a catalytic converter is needed in the future. Even if he looks a little different than before. But seriously, let’s talk about culture. If a contract developer suddenly becomes a component supplier or even an established vehicle manufacturer – doesn’t the corporate culture also change? How do you deal with this issue at Durot Electric and what did you take away?
Some of us, like me, come from BRUSA or the automotive industry. On the one hand, this means that we are all characterized by standards in terms of quality and processes. Professionalism is therefore our top priority. On the other hand, we are equally characterized by innovation and bold entrepreneurship in the field of electromobility. With us thus remains space and will to design. We also have a good sense of humor – those who know us know exactly what I mean. Even if sometimes one can miss the laughter before loud standards *laughs*.
Why is that?
Because of ISO26262 as derivative of IEC61508, ISO13849, ISO25119, ECE R100, LV123, LV124 …
That really doesn’t sound very funny.
Yes, and what was once envisaged for passenger cars already applies to trucks and motorcycles and is being steadily extended to other vehicle classes. This is likely to continue until tractors. Harmonization has long been sought here. Fortunately, we have development using the V-model in our blood. Other areas are now also benefiting from this.
Is that the explanation for the focus on the topic of “functional safety”? This is an issue that, viewed from the outside, is neither tangible nor particularly “sexy” compared to the vehicle as a whole, to put it bluntly.
No, if you delve deeper into the subject, you will see that the topic of functional safety is at the core of every development. It must be considered from the beginning. Imagine developing a vehicle and integrating manufacturer X’s battery into a prototype. At the start of production, you suddenly realize that the battery cannot meet all the necessary safety standards.
Such mistakes sound expensive. But development to so many standards is also likely to be costly.
It’s like this. It’s a bitter lesson to pay. If you focus on safety right from the start and consistently, the first development phases naturally cost more than usual. But that is the case in all areas of development. For example, if you don’t simulate a vehicle cleanly, this will take its toll later on. It is therefore important to take a holistic approach to a development right from the start and thus protect against follow-up costs.
Consequently, you would have to accompany the customer from the very beginning. Is this a clever selling point or necessity?
It is simply most efficient to involve a development service provider from the beginning. This is the only way to achieve holistic results.
Looking at the environment in which you operate, it all seems very complex. Are you able to recruit employees in this environment? And this just now, when the market is really running high?
The Swiss labor market is relatively dry in the engineering sector – especially in our environment. Nevertheless, we manage to attract proven experts who bring a lot of know-how with them. Precisely because we have good seniors, we can selectively and specifically promote young talent.
But when I look around here, I see mostly experienced engineers.
Because we have been in this business for 15 years, our network is correspondingly large. Thanks to this network, we have so far been able to recruit and inspire the right people with the corresponding wealth of experience for our cause.
And yet, according to rumors, you are planning a location in Winterthur. What moves you to orientate yourselves more towards the eastern midlands?
This has to do with the fact that we seek proximity to universities. These include, for example, the ETH and the ZHAW. In addition, there is the proximity to existing employees from the Zurich region and the advanced digitalization in our company. Commuting is a waste of time as well as resources. So our approach is to create multiple independent teams. And that’s where the talented people are.
Work forms and models: how should Durot Electric’s teams be structured in the future? Do you plan interdisciplinary teams with several experts for a project or does it go through different departments depending on the stage.
We employ capable all-rounders but also technical experts. The teams are put together according to need. In principle, we want to maintain this structure. Up to twenty people, this is tradable for the management in its current form. If there are more, we see the path of small and agile teams, each of which can make use of the know-how at a central location.
It’s a little different with your customers. They are significantly larger, even if many of them pass for SMEs. What advice do you have for companies developing their first or a new electric vehicle?
In any case, you need a technically competent project management team that is passionate about the project and has electricity in its blood, so to speak. The appropriate person should be given the opportunity to assemble a team that is infected with this enthusiasm. Development is teamwork. Different disciplines interact and different processes intertwine, which is why project management is the key to success.
Nevertheless, you often develop the complete vehicles for the clientele and sign appropriate non-disclosure agreements. Isn’t it bitter not to stand there as the creator of “one’s own” vehicle? Or are you happy about the success of your clientele?
Of course, we are pleased with the success of our clientele. Moreover, the vehicles and machines are always our babies as well. In general, we take the approach of not keeping our know-how to ourselves alone. We want to give customers something to go on and entice them to build staff internally. If they subsequently dare to do more and continue, this will promote electromobility. In addition, we usually remain the first point of contact for sensitive issues as well as for future projects. We therefore strive to always keep our finger on the pulse of technology.
Durot Electric has been around for five years now. What has changed in the original strategy?
You certainly always adapt something to the customers. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We had to learn to react flexibly to the order situation. What has clearly developed somewhat differently than expected is the market for retrofits. Initially conceived as a mainstay, we now work almost exclusively on projects for business customers. This is also due to the fact that we only develop vehicles that are suitable for practical use without any restrictions. But that requires an enormous amount of engineering hours in the area of retrofits – you first have to find someone to pay for it. We are talking about many times the cost of an off-the-shelf vehicle. However, the retrofit still has a future – for example with smaller manufactories.
Let’s talk about trends. What developments and ideas are keeping you busy on the market side?
Core developments for us are the areas of functional safety and autonomous driving. Particularly in the machine sector, this opens up incredible potential.
The last mile. In the future, smaller but autonomous vehicles could be used here. The same applies to dumpers in gravel plants. No one has to steer to get from A to B anymore.
As is well known, a trend rarely comes alone. After all, people talk about connectivity, autonomy, electromobility and sharing models. What’s going on with the clientele?
There are many applications that you don’t even think about. For example, a tunnel fan like the one we developed. As a combustion engine, it is not even conceivable in this form. With the vehicles that are registered today, any diesel vehicle can actually be electrified and automated. From the airport apron to the construction site. The market potential and the work that still needs to be done here are huge. But the work will not be manageable by us alone. It takes a lot of other “Durot Electrics”.
Then the question of growth plans is superfluous.
Of course, we are trying to grow in such a way that we can serve our clientele in the best possible way. We basically grow organically and from existing projects. However, there is an upper limit that we can act as technicians and managers.
Interesting. Do you regret not being the developer of the electric Opel Manta?
Um, no. I drive an Ampera. My personal time in passenger car development is through anyway. For me, however, it was enriching to be able to help develop the first hypercar. The first electric round-the-world race car, the first hybrid race car, the first fuel cell race car, …
No. We’re doing more exciting things now. Or should I say yes?
Yes I regret it. I’ve wanted to do this for years. Now Opel is doing it itself. We would have actually wanted to do it ourselves.
I knew it. Thank you for the exciting interview.