On the southern edge of Brussels, where the city turns to suburbs, the future of Germany’s most successful automaker is taking shape inside a peculiar sort of car factory. Here, there are no exhaust pipes, transmissions or fuel tanks. There are no spark plugs, radiators or manifolds. What the Volkswagen Group factory does have, however, are batteries stacked to the rafters
Thirty-six shoebox-sized battery modules, each containing a dozen lithium-ion cells, are packed into seven-foot long electric-battery packs and slung under the floor of each sport utility vehicle produced here. The first electric SUV from Volkswagen’s luxury Audi brand, the e-tron, can go 400 kilometers (nearly 250 miles) on a single battery cycle and be recharged in as little as half an hour. The styling is conventional, the interior is luxurious and the ride is nearly silent.
The e-tron SUV has one job for Volkswagen: Prove that a carmaker that has relied almost exclusively on the internal combustion engine since it was founded 82 years ago can produce electric vehicles people want to buy and policymakers will embrace as they cast around for ways to tackle the climate crisis. Success means that Volkswagen will overtake rivals, including Tesla, in electric car sales and fend off new challengers from China and Silicon Valley; failure could signal the beginning of the end for a company with 665,000 employees and annual revenue of $265 billion.
Volkswagen isn’t alone. Established carmakers around the world are ripping up their business models in the hope of adapting to a new world in which electricity replaces gasoline and diesel. Factories are being overhauled to produce electric cars, and automakers are snapping up every battery they can find. The high cost of developing electric cars is forcing some companies to find partners and turning others into acquisition targets. The need to meet strict emissions standards in China and Europe means that executives are paying far more attention to the policies being put in place in Beijing or Brussels, than what rivals are building in Detroit or Wolfsburg, Volkswagen’s hometown.
The German group, which also owns Porsche, Bugatti, Skoda, Lamborghini and SEAT, is rising to the challenge with a radical transformation that is unparalleled since World War II. The company is spending €30 billion ($34 billion) over the next five years to make an electric or hybrid version of every vehicle in its lineup, and it plans to launch 70 new electric models by 2028. By the end of 2030, it wants four of every 10 cars it sells to be electric, a mass market play that hinges on the success of a new line of vehicles called the “ID.
The overhaul has profound implications for the world’s largest carmaker as it tries to turn the page on its costly diesel emissions scandal. Volkswagen is spending billions of dollars to retrofit factories from Germany to China to produce cars based on its modular electric car production platform, or MEB. The company has also signaled that it will use some of the money it makes from selling fuel-powered cars to produce its own batteries and build charging networks.
The initiatives are expensive. But the level of investment by Volkswagen and its competitors, coupled with the aggressive emissions targets set by regulators, show there’s no turning back. All of this leads to a new question: Can Tesla maintain its lead in the global race to the electric car?
History isn’t the best indicator of who will emerge from this battle victorious. The industry has a poor track record with electric cars. General Motors’ EV1 appeared on American roads in 1996, the same year the auto industry successfully lobbied against a mandate from the California Air Resources Board to make more electric vehicles. The model was canceled in 2003, producing a trail of unhappy customers and the conspiratorial documentary ‘Who Killed The Electric Car?’ Chevrolet pulled the plug on the Volt, which never sold in significant numbers, last year. Nissan’s Leaf remains in production but it has failed to achieved the level of commercial success envisioned by the company’s former chairman, Carlos Ghosn. More broadly, demand has been hampered by fears over the driving range of the cars, a lack of charging infrastructure and high sticker prices.
Until recently, Volkswagen never had much reason to bother with electric cars. Instead, it poured investment dollars into making its diesel engines more fuel efficient and affordable, which helped it to sell huge volumes of cars and overtake Japanese rival Toyota. In 2018, Volkswagen delivered a record 10.8 million cars. It says just 40,000 of those, or 0.4%, were electric vehicles. Another 60,000 were plug-in hybrids. Global sales of electric cars have been only slightly less anemic: 1.3 million of the roughly 95 million cars sold around the world in 2018 were battery electrics, according to the consultancy LMC Automotive.
Disinterest on the part of traditional carmakers cleared the way for the opening laps of the race to be won by Tesla, the company run by indefatigable entrepreneur Elon Musk. Tesla sold over 220,000 electric cars in 2018, according to LMC Automotive, roughly 70,000 more than its nearest competitor, Chinese state-owned BAIC Group. The global alliance of Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors sold roughly 130,000 electrics last year, while Volkswagen’s German rivals BMW and Daimler sold 33,000 and 14,400, respectively. At the bottom of the heap was Toyota, the world’s second largest carmaker, which has chosen to focus on hybrid cars and fuel cell technology. It sold only 1,000 electric vehicles last year, an increase from zero in 2017. LMC, whose data does not include sales in South America, Canada and Mexico, or commercial vans, has Volkswagen selling 26,000 electrics.
Build it and they will come
While the electric car has a checkered past, there is a consensus among auto industry executives and analysts that a tipping point is approaching where mass adoption will become unavoidable because of falling battery costs, pressure from regulators and generous government subsidies. “These factors have come together to force the traditional industry to take electrification seriously — faster than we had previously expected,” said Max Warburton, an analyst at research firm Bernstein. “This is now really happening.”
According to Bernstein, dramatic declines in the price of batteries will allow leading automakers to sell fully electric vehicles for less than cars powered by gasoline and diesel as soon as 2022. Electric cars, they argue, are already gaining traction: As recently as 2010, annual sales were close to zero. “There’s just such an incredible amount of money being poured into electric cars,” said Al Bedwell, the director of global powertrain at LMC Automotive.”I’ve been looking at this industry for 20 years, and my real gut feeling is that it’s kind of unstoppable now.”
Bedwell said that traditional carmakers are being prodded to move more quickly by two additional factors: strict new EU regulations that require auto manufacturers to dramatically reduce the CO2 emissions starting next year. And, in China, already the world’s largest market for electric cars, the government has implemented a system that requires carmakers to make clean vehicles or purchase credits for the CO2 emissions their cars produce.
Volkswagen, which has paid more than $30 billion in penalties since admitting in 2015 to rigging the emissions of millions of diesel cars, has embraced electrics with the enthusiasm of a religious convert. “Volkswagen will change radically,” CEO Herbert Diess told shareholders in March. “Some of you may still be rubbing your eyes in amazement. But, make no mistake — the supertanker is picking up speed.”
While the company has telegraphed its mass market ambitions for electric cars, its luxury brands are taking the lead. The first fully electric Porsche, the Taycan, is scheduled to go on sale later this year. Audi, meanwhile, plans to offer 12 purely electric models by 2025. The brand brought only electrified vehicles to this year’s Geneva Motor Show, including a compact SUV that is expected to enter production by the end of 2020. The success of these early luxury models is vital: Volkswagen produces over 10 million vehicles each year but relies on selling 2 million Audis and Porsches for 65% of its profit.
The challenge for Audi
The man charged with making Audi electric vehicles a success is Stefan Niemand, the brand’s head of electrification. In an interview at Audi headquarters in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, the barrel-chested executive argued that the company is well prepared for its electric future. The next generation of electric vehicles, he says, will be cheaper and packed with technology that customers want. “We learned a lot with the e-tron battery system, the crash system, the cooling system, the connection system and all this stuff. And of course, we now better understand where we can bring costs down, where we can optimize the system, where we can gain range or performance.”
The most important question is whether customers will respond to vehicles like the e-tron. “I think we did all that we can. We made the first car, and I think for the first car, it’s very, very good,” says Niemand.
Pressed on whether consumers are ready to adopt electric vehicles en masse, Niemand thinks back to his first experience with the R8 e-tron, an electric version of the Audi 2-seat sports car that has been tested in various forms since at least 2010. Before driving the car, a professional driver warned the executive that it would be much faster then he expected. Niemand said he thought the driver was joking. “Then I pushed the throttle, and … I knew, forget about everything else.”
His experience left him in no doubt: “This is the future.”