Branson Beats Bezos and Musk to Space and German Automakers Guilty in Collusion Scheme

This Week in Engineering explores the latest in Engineering from academia, government and industry.

Episode Summary:

In the billionaires’ space race, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos have been vying to be the first to fly into space. Branson has won the impromptu contest, flying into suborbital space aboard the VSS Unity, as part of a test crew to validate Virgin Galactic’s commercial flight service before public operations. Bezos is scheduled to fly on a Blue Origin rocket on July 20, and although SpaceX has been flying astronauts to the International Space Station since 2020, Elon Musk will not make his first trip to space aboard a Falcon 9, but will be one of the first paying customers for Branson’s new service. 

In a landmark ruling, the European commission has levied a substantial fine, over $1 billion, to three major German automakers over a scheme to collude in engineering development of selective catalytic reduction emissions systems for diesel engines. Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen were involved, although Daimler’s fine was waived because the firm came forward in the case. There are potentially serious legal implications for automotive and engineering design in general if the ruling becomes a precedent. 

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Transcript of this week’s show:

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Segment 1: At the beginning of the Space Age, in the early 1960s, the race to put humans in space ran between the Soviet Union and the United States. Names like Gagarin, Shepard, Titov and Glenn were known worldwide, and although orbital spaceflight is now so common that few can name a current astronaut, there is a new space race, a competition amongst billionaires. Those names are well known: Branson, Musk and Bezos, and like Gagarin 1961, Richard Branson has become the first of that his select group to reach space, aboard the VSS Unity, on Virgin Galactic’s fourth rocket powered spaceflight. The suborbital trip on July 11 was the 22nd test flight of Unity, and the first with a full cabin crew. Virgin Galactic intends to offer regular operations, and the crew performed a number of tests related to measuring the customer experience both inside the cabin and of the outside view, and studied the effectiveness of the company’s five day pre-flight training program for future passengers. The spacecraft reach an altitude of 53.3 miles reaching a peak speed of Mach 3. Virgin Galactic’s system uses a jet aircraft to lift the passenger carrying  rocket to the stratosphere, eliminating the need for a booster. VSS Unity lands on a runway like a conventional aircraft. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is developing a conventional ground launched spacecraft that will ascend to similar altitudes and descend for a propulsive soft landing near the launch pad. Blue Origin is planning their first flight into space on July 20, carrying Bezos, and a special guest, 82-year-old Wally Funk, one of the original Mercury 13 trainees evaluated for spaceflight in the early 1960s. She will be the oldest human to fly in space. Both the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin vehicles are suborbital: they ascend roughly vertically, give their passengers a few minutes of weightlessness, then land. Over at SpaceX, the considerably more difficult challenge of orbital spaceflight is now routine, with the company delivering astronauts to the International Space Station since 2020 under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Elon Musk will fly in space personally, but his first trip will be aboard Richard Branson’s space plane. Musk has reportedly placed his $10,000 deposit for the quarter million-dollar ticket. His launch date has not yet been released. 

Segment 2: Well, while the Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating scandal is over, controversy in the German auto industry goes on. In a landmark decision, The European Commission has found that Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen group (Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche) breached EU antitrust rules by colluding on technical development, specifically use of urea injection for oxides of nitrogen reduction in diesel engines. The EU fine was a whopping €875 million, and all three automakers have agreed to settle with the commission. Daimler was not fined, as they revealed the cartel to the investigators. The three automakers held a series of engineering meetings to coordinate development of selective catalytic reduction technology, using urea injection into the exhaust gas stream, commonly called AdBlue in Europe. According to the commission, over a five-year period from 2009 to 2014, the manufacturers colluded to avoid competition by slowing the development of technologies that produce cleaner exhaust gas emissions than required by law. Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen also agreed on limitations to urea solution tank sizes and ranges based on standardized urea consumption rates. According to the commission, this restricted competition on automotive technologies that would be relevant to end-users, activity explicitly forbidden by the European Economic Area Agreement. This expansion of antitrust legislation into areas of automotive engineering at the design level may have serious implications for the way automotive and other engineering firms approach new product design. Will design engineers need to consult lawyers during the concept and rendering phase of new-product development? Will engineers now have a duty to engineer beyond strict legal requirements? There are many unanswered questions, and the automotive industry is watching the case with interest. 

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.