Mechanical and automotive engineer Philipp Wolf tells the story of how one fateful June evening changed his life — and his studies — forever.
I grew up in a quiet neighborhood, close to a beautiful green forest, in a city called Frechen – a peaceful suburb of Cologne, Germany, made up of 50,000 residents. I loved this place – not least because of the tennis club a few hundred meters up the street. I went there to practice almost every day, mostly with my older brother. My dad would also often take time off to take us to tournaments, and I had serious ambitions to become the next Pete Sampras. In my childhood optimism I thought my prospects were quite good.
Back in 1999, when I was 11, I can remember sitting at home in the living room with my mom and my uncle on a warm and clear June evening. We were all excited to go to my parent’s friend’s 40th birthday party, where my brother and I could play with fellow kids in their huge backyard. We were waiting for my dad to arrive home from work, and as usual he was running late. It happened fairly regularly. He ran his own company – a small business specializing in providing high-end dental prosthesis – and just recently relocated his Frechen office closer to Cologne to accommodate his main client base.
I was sitting on a couch next to my uncle who was in his twenties and would always play football or tennis with my brother and me in the garden. That day I was more excited to go to the birthday party, though. At quarter to seven PM I got impatient and picked up the phone to call my dad’s office. The answering machine picked up which meant that he was on his way. He drove a light blue metallic Golf III convertible. It wasn’t the newest car but I loved it. On weekends we would clean it together and my dad would explain me how parts of the vehicle work. He had a thing for cars. In the summer he would take me to tennis tournaments with the roof open and Michael Jackson tunes blasting out of the car. When he arrived home I would recognize him by the sound of the car’s engine, run to open the door and jump in his arms. He always worked long hours so I was happy to see him during the week.
At eight PM finally the doorbell rang. Strangely enough I didn’t hear my dad’s car, but was nonetheless excited to finally leave for the birthday party. Only, it wasn’t my dad waiting outside the door. It was two young policemen standing in the doorway. “Ms. Wolf?,” one of them asked my mom, “Can we come in?”
It was a peculiar scene. My uncle and me were sitting together on a couch by the wall when my mom came back into the living room and stopped right beside us, the policemen standing across from us right in the middle of the room. Their skin was pale, the looks on their faces serious, even anxious. Their uniforms accentuated their strong physique. Guns, bats and handcuffs hung around their waists. They looked utterly out of place, like a disruptive element in a peaceful sphere. The scene was one of ominous tranquility. Yet the man in the front who was about to break the silence had a soothing aura about him. He spoke with a steady, reassuring, almost paternal voice. But his eyes didn’t reflect that. His eyes looked sad and it seemed as if he had an inner reluctance to deliver whatever he was about to say.
“Your husband was involved in a fatal car accident,” he said. Silence. For what felt like hours no one spoke a word. An oppressive atmosphere filled the room. I didn’t fully get what he said. “What happened?,” I whispered to my mom. My mind was racing: car accident? How is he? Where is he? Can we go and see him? I looked at my mom for clarification, but she was just gazing back at the policeman with incredulous incomprehension. Then I turned to my uncle who was sitting there stonily. I noticed the policeman looking at me. I looked back. When our eyes met I could feel his unease, an inner struggle to stay reassuring, knowing the scope of what he just announced, knowing that with one sentence he just destroyed a family’s world, knowing that my mom lost her husband, knowing that I would grow up without my daddy. He saw all the things that I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to understand at that time. What I did understand though, was the feeling that his look left me with. I’ll never forget that moment, and it was then when I realized that something terrible had happened.
I heard my brother coming down the wooden staircase. Unlike me he understood immediately. He smashed his keychain on the ground with all his strength and started shouting. I don’t remember much of what happened next. Emptiness started to lay over me like a veil, leaving no space for emotions. The next thing I remember is lying in my bed, staring at the wall for hours, days, feeling nothing but grief and sorrow. People came in to pass on their deepest condolences, and while I knew to appreciate their support, I didn’t really care. Nothing mattered. Words wouldn’t bring back the person that I loved so much. I started questioning my own faith, my sense of everything. I tried to understand. I wondered if everything would have been different if I had called just a minute, or even a second earlier. I didn’t accept the truth and I was sure I would see him again someday. It took me a while to let go of that thought. Before the funeral I kept asking my mom if we can see him one last time to say goodbye. She would answer that I wouldn’t want to. It was one of the worst things for me, not being able to say goodbye. I’ll never forget when many years later she told me how she went to see the post-mortem examination report and left sick to her stomach after reading the doctor’s note: “heavily deformed body.” I was glad then that I didn’t see him again.
But in his passing, my dad passed on his passion for cars and technology. That is a piece of his legacy to me. It is also what has driven me on a mission to improve car safety. Motivated by my experience I committed myself to study mechanical engineering, eager to learn as much as possible about cars to continuously raise the bar of my ability, and propel me towards new ways of preventing others from experiencing what I and my family had endured. I got accepted to Germany’s top engineering school and made incredible strides. Much of this passion culminated in a design challenge, focused on creating parts for a small-scale formula-style racing car. The goal of the competition was to design, build, test and race said car against other teams around the world.
Our challenge was to reduce the weight and costs of the formula-style racing car by five to 10 percent. Being part of the suspension team, I chose to re-design the wheel hub and adjoining parts of the car. Aware of our affiliation to one of the leading engineering schools in Germany, we were determined to push the limits and go the extra mile. We didn’t want to just achieve the ambitious goals we set ourselves as a team, but also to come up with something special that no other team had ever implemented.
For this reason we chose to deploy a drive shaft – the part of the vehicle that connects different critical parts of the car, allowing the vehicle to operate as one machine – made from carbon fiber reinforced plastics. It has a much higher specific strength (strength-to-weight ratio) than steel, providing significant weight advantages, and most importantly to us, it was the coolest thing out there. High-end, high-tech racing teams use carbon fiber materials to explore their car’s full potential, and in our case it added the final touch to the carbon fiber look of our car.
However, using this material for the design of the wheel hub – which is how the wheels connect to the body of the car – brought about a whole new set of challenges. A stress-bearing, composite-to-steel connection had to compensate for the differing material characteristics, and the much larger diameter of the new drive shaft required a new connecting device. Not least of all, the new design had to ensure that the connection between drive shaft and wheel hub would allow for stress to be transferred without causing fractures or failure to any one part.
Fond of the idea to create something exceptional, I came up with a novel solution. I reversed the connecting area from the outside to the inside of the wheel hub, and made use of a self-reinforcing polygonal-shaped connector, rendering screws superfluous, and enabling a smooth transfer of forces. The design was not only implemented and successful, but it over exceeded the target cost and weight savings manifold.
Ultimately we did not win. But it didn’t matter because the sublime challenges we overcame, not only as individuals, but even more so as a team, made us rise above ourselves professionally and personally to achieve what nobody thought was possible. For me this made us winners regardless of the competition. In addition to the challenges mentioned, we were among the very few first student teams to build not only a conventional racing car, but also a second electric racing vehicle for the first-ever formula student electric competition. Being affected by the financial crisis through our sponsors, the story behind our success was motivated exclusively by passion, team spirit and an aspiration for the extraordinary.
My studies equipped me with the skills, theories, creativity and courage needed to overcome the status-quo and make an impact for the better. But it is hard for me to imagine even pursuing these ambitions without that tragic, fateful night many Junes ago. That experience, and my family’s loss, remains my single greatest motivator.