Volkswagen Magazine

Innovation

No smell is the best smell of all.

Everything that is installed in a Volkswagen first needs the go-ahead from the expert noses in Quality Assurance. We visit the laboratory, where olfactory expert Jörg Göldenitz divulges how a new vehicle should smell these days.

 Text Elisabeth Jungklaus
Photos Malte Jäger

The first object to be tested on this Tuesday is a red piece of seat belt. Jörg Göldenitz slightly lifts the lid of the canning jar containing the fabric sample and breathes in deeply through his nose. This time he furrows his brow and shakes his head. “Burnt, intensely spicy and pungent” he notes in the log and enters 4.5 in his marking system – a mark that falls between sufficient and poor. The belt also fails the odour test performed by his colleagues. Such a result means the supplier needs to improve the smell.

»The nose plays a major role in the decision-making process when buying a new vehicle.«

Jörg Göldenitz 

Göldenitz is an olfactory expert. A down-to-earth man from Lower Saxony who wears a white shirt and possesses the right nose. In technical terms, his title is Laboratory Administrator in Materials, Emissions and Error Analysis. He and his colleagues are based in the Quality Assurance department at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg. As far as odours are concerned, the 47-year-old chemist is a specialist here, where he controls the sophisticated process technologies and testing methods in the climate chambers. Today, his laboratory distinguishes between around 150 odour nuances ranging from “amine-like” to soapy, and from muddy to pungent. “While this topic is unfortunately often ridiculed, it is of great importance to our customers,” says Göldenitz. “The nose plays a major role in the decision-making process when buying a new vehicle.”

Jörg Göldenitz, Martina Thomsen-Schmidt (centre), and Marie-Christin Bock check the test air, which escapes from the bag at the touch of a button.
Jörg Göldenitz identifies volatile substances using air samples. These are filtered from the air using absorption tubes.

But how does a Volkswagen get its smell? And what smells so pleasant that it wins customers over? The second question, at any rate, is quite easy to answer. Seat covers, dashboards, or headliners should preferably be odour-free because the majority of customers like a neutral smell. Since each synthetic material contains additives to improve its technical properties, the ambitious goal of “zero odour”, however, is unrealistic. The daily challenge for Göldenitz and his colleagues is to ensure that the smells of the individual components do not interact to generate an unpleasant odour.

It takes a series of tests before the smell of a car can be deemed pleasantly subtle. The parts and materials used in the vehicle interior are first of all tested by materials technology experts for harmful and allergenic substances – even those parts that you can’t see, such as the insulation under the footwell carpet or the foam in the seat. If they turn out to be harmless, a second step then involves them being put to the test by the demanding noses.
The laboratory specialists test the materials at three different stations. To start with, there is the odour laboratory for component sections in jars, then a chamber for larger parts such as steering wheels or doors. And finally, there is the vehicle test bench, which is a type of garage for the whole car. Here the entire interior is sniffed. The principle remains the same: the material is heated in order to intensify its smell. The marks that are given by Göldenitz and his two colleagues ultimately decide whether the material is allowed to be installed in the vehicles, or if it needs to be improved.

»I once had a component that smelled of liver sausage.«

Jörg Göldenitz

The scientist’s expertise is already appreciated in the early development phase of new models or components. “I am basically always the first one assigned to sniff, because thanks to my 15 years of experience, I can immediately distinguish between the odours of most construction materials.”

He also advises various Volkswagen departments with regard to material concepts and production procedures. If there are complaints from internal test drivers or customers, Göldenitz is the one who tracks down the cause. “Sometimes this involves real detective work because I have to incorporate the information from all of the tests,” he says.

Some materials are stored for drying in glass desiccators. The desiccant at the bottom removes moisture.
A piece is cut out of each interior component and then analysed to see how it smells under various conditions.

The odour tests are carried out twice a day in order to ensure that the “test noses” have time in between to rest and recover. A maximum of eight jars are tested per cycle. 

There are basically two types of tests. Materials that absorb and retain water easily – such as foams, leather, and upholstery – are heated to 40 degrees Celsius in warm and humid conditions. All other materials are stored dry for two hours at 80 degrees.
Sometimes, Göldenitz even smells something when the state-of-the-art electronic measuring devices display nothing. And sometimes his nose check also reveals surprising results. “I once had a component that smelled of liver sausage. Or to be more precise, of delicious, spicy Palatinate liver sausage”, says the chemist. Needless to say, his verdict was still a straight fail.

The odour test at the vehicle test bench.

This method entails taking an air sample at room temperature during the first run of the Volkswagen. Three testers then take turns sitting in the driver’s seat and assess their first olfactory impression. In the second test, the interior is heated to 65 degrees Celsius by four infrared radiators after which the air sampling and nose test is performed.

It is not possible for all Volkswagens to have a uniform smell because the equipment in each model is different. Nevertheless, there are objectives defined by a standard that also reflects the fashions and preferences of the day. Whereas up until the 1990s the smell of synthetic materials was popular proof of a “brand new” vehicle, today the emphasis is on minimizing odours in general.

Only one smell continues to be desirable – that of leather. Most customers associate it with a feeling of well-being and quality. Chinese noses by contrast find leather pongy. The 12-member team has long since addressed this: today, only leather with a low inherent odour is used in Volkswagen models in China.

In the extreme garage: the complete car has to go into the hot climate chamber, after which the odour test is conducted.