Volkswagen is getting ready for life after the TDI scandal, AKA “dieselgate”.
The company isn’t giving up on the internal combustion engine, but it’s putting an unprecedented focus on electric mobility. That means developing an array of electric cars, while also investing in the infrastructure required to make battery-powered transportation plausible, desirable, and convenient for motorists.
Digital Trends sat down with Hinrich Woebcken, Volkswagen of America’s CEO and the head of the North America Region, and Christian Senger, the head of the brand’s e-mobility division, to gain insight on what we can expect from the upcoming electric car offensive.
Digital Trends: How will Volkswagen make the leap from relying almost solely on the internal combustion engine to all-electric transportation?
Christian Senger: I think we have quite a good story, a very convincing concept of how to make e-mobility a success. Driven by strict CO2 regulations and by our own ambition, we want to be the leader in e-mobility. We want to be the first company that produces more than a million electric cars, and for this to happen we need to offer really convincing solutions.
In our mind, the I.D. concept is the right answer for a volume manufacturer because it solves some of the core issues facing electric cars today. It offers enough range – from about 250 to 380 miles – and we’re shooting for an attractive price point. When it lands, it will cost about the same as a Golf TDI. Also, it will offer more than an electric drivetrain. It will be like a tablet on wheels. You’ll be able to install certain applications from third parties.
We have four core innovations: smart sustainability, automated driving, intuitive interaction, and personalized connectivity. We’ll enter the market in 2020, which is exactly when we predict e-mobility will accelerate and really evolve from a mere niche. The cost of batteries will have gone down, and the charging grid will have improved. Range anxiety won’t exist anymore and the cost issue will be taken care of so we’ll be able to serve new customer demands. This will signal a shift from a market driven by regulations to one driven by customer demand.
How flexible is the MEB platform?
It really is a modular platform. We can use it to build cars the size of the I.D. concept – maybe a little smaller, so about Polo-sized – up to Passat- and Tiguan-sized. Bigger cars might even be possible because electric cars are much simpler.
How do you justify building EVs out of steel when weight is the big problem associated with electric drivetrains?
At Volkswagen, our core ambition is making e-mobility affordable. We need to do this on a global scale so we want to use our existing production facilities, and therefore we are mainly working with traditional material mixes; that means no carbon fiber, just intelligent lightweight construction.
How are you going to handle battery supply?
We’ll have a global source for batteries and we’re working together with suppliers. We will have the main volume in China, so we need to have facilities in China and also suppliers over there.
As you know there is a so-called white list in China, and only battery suppliers whose name shows up on that list are allowed to supply modules used in Chinese cars. Right now none of the big South Korean companies are on that list.
Have you selected the chemistry you’ll use?
For sure it’s lithium-ion. For us it’s the right choice, but we want a pack with more energy density.
What lessons have you learned from the e-Golf?
Electronic features added to cars over the past years and decades were accepted by regulators because they save lives.
The electric Golf has a super-complicated battery that’s integrated into the car. Even the modules, the total system, I’ve never seen anything like it before. On MEB-based cars we will have a simple box reserved for the battery that allows us to integrate any and all cell formats. There’s nothing we couldn’t use; we just have limitations when it comes to the actual modules like how high they are.
In terms of flexibility, simple packaging allows us to differentiate between markets, which gives us the opportunity to reduce costs by building cars that are less complex, and gives us more power when negotiating with our suppliers.
Is it feasible to have battery-swapping stations like Tesla experimented with not too long ago?
Commercially, we don’t think this is the way to go for many reasons. The battery is the heaviest part of a car, it has a huge structural role, so when it comes to crash-worthiness it needs to be fully integrated. Taking it out and putting it back in isn’t as simple as it sounds; we are not a toy company.
We are able to provide fast charging options, so if the battery isn’t fully empty we are coming closer and closer to charging times that rival fueling up a car with gasoline. The minimum time needed to fill your tank is maybe seven minutes – you fill up, you pay, and so on. With an EV, in just 20 minutes you can have enough juice in the battery for normal driving.
We’ll use a 400-volt standard for Volkswagen. It’s specified for up to 150 kilowatts of charging power, and we’re sure that at the very least we’ll be able to charge at 100 kilowatts. I’m sure you’re aware that Porsche is already looking into 800-volt charging stations.
We found that the most comfortable place to charge is at home, but also at work. However, we also found that customers show more interest in electric cars when they have good, accessible public fast-charging options. This represents about 10 percent of our potential customers. They’re motorists who can’t charge at home or at work so they need to have a strong network of public charging stations.
Will other platforms like MQB and MLB use elements from the MEB?
We want to use economies of scale. MEB is definitely a platform for the whole corporation, not just Volkswagen, and there will be MEB-based cars out there built by other brands.
Previously we had a clear differentiation between MQB and MLB, and that was the direction of the engine. With an electric car this makes no difference. Realistically, nobody is going to install a longitudinal electric motor. The question now is, how do we cover the entire portfolio between SEAT and Porsche with minimal effort? We’re looking into it.
MEB cars will come standard with rear-wheel drive, and four-wheel drive will be available. That’s an interesting point; we have a strong front-wheel drive culture, and now we’re returning to rear-wheel drive and people ask “guys, what’s up?”
The battery is the heaviest part of an electric car, as I mentioned earlier, and there’s no better place for it than between the wheels. But now we can’t put 60 percent of the weight on the front axle. We’ll have a weight distribution of 53 percent on the rear axle, we can’t do better than that. And truthfully, there’s no need for four-wheel drive. It’s an additional feature we can offer, and we want to offer it, but there’s no real need for it. It’s an advantage.
How close is the I.D. concept to production?
Hinrich Woebcken: What you see here in Paris is only the first MEB-based car, and its debut is still four years away. From what I see and know within the company in regards to styling it’s pretty much what you’re going to see on the road. Of course we build concepts to get feedback.
The I.D. isn’t going to replace the Golf, right?
When it lands in four years’ time, the production version of the I.D. concept will cost about the same as a Golf TDI
In general, we will have parallels. There will be the new MEB cars, and in parallel we’ll sell cars powered by an internal combustion engine. However, for the time being the e-Golf is planned only until the new MEBs arrive. Whether its career will be extended after that is something we haven’t decided yet.
Where does Volkswagen stand on autonomous driving?
We are going from semi-automated driving to fully-automated, but we’re not currently looking at building an autonomous car without a steering wheel or pedals. In automated driving you’ll always have the chance to interfere by grabbing the wheel, pushing the pedals, or whatever. That will come by 2025.
Are there still regulatory obstacles standing in the path of fully-automated vehicles?
I believe autonomous driving started 30 years ago with ABS. All electronic features added to cars over the past years and decades were accepted by regulators because they save lives.
Technology improves road safety. Automated driving is only the next step of a process that began three decades ago. It’s a big jump, but sensors are getting better and better. This technology is unstoppable; I believe it will arrive, the only question is how fast.
Not long ago many were skeptical about fully-automated driving, including members of the media. It’s fascinating to see what’s happened in the past three years.
We can say the same about electric cars, right?
The adoption of electric vehicles largely depends on the infrastructure. A lot of projects are currently going on. Volkswagen is investing $2 billion in electric mobility, infrastructure, and awareness programs in the United States. It’s a big investment, and I’m sure others will join us soon. I’m confident electric cars are at a tipping point.
We gave premium brands like Porsche and Audi an early start so that they can be on the market in 2018. MEB focuses on volume-oriented segments so we had to separate the two approaches because we needed more time.