Tesla has a decisive global lead both in EV technology and in production volume. With the announcement of Volkswagen’s plans for its ID.3 series this week, it now seems clear that the world’s largest fossil automaker has no plans to challenge Tesla for the EV leadership.
Although VW’s late entry into the volume EV market, the ID.3 series, is welcome and the vehicles will provide owners with a far better ownership experience than fossil combustion counterparts, they seem to only reaffirm Tesla’s lead in the EV space.
The Volkswagen Group is essentially the world’s largest automaker, vying from year to year with Toyota for the top spot. The auto market is thus Volkswagen’s to lose. With the rapid growth in EVs, you’d expect incumbents like VW to be carefully making plans to take the lead in the new technology, and resist any pretenders to their throne.
But from everything we’ve learnt in the past week, combined with other recent comments and information from VW, it seems they have no ambition, or perhaps simply lack the ability, to catch up with Tesla’s EV lead.
To those who follow the EV market closely, this is not news, and not much of what I say here will come as a great surprise. Maarten made some great related points last week. To pundits, armchair commentators, and EV FUDsters, who are less clued up, there may be something here worth considering. I’m going to review Tesla’s EV lead over VW from 3 main perspectives (there are surely many other valid angles too). First, Tesla’s leadership in overall product offering and value proposition. Second, in manufacturing volume (historical, current and planned), particularly the rate of growth and ramp up. Finally, in vehicle technology and provision of unique and compelling features.
Product Offering: The VW ID.3 is not nearly as compelling as the Tesla Model 3
Let’s get right down to it — Tesla’s Model 3 is miles ahead in basic value proposition compared to what VW is offering with the ID.3 series. Even with import duties and shipping fees raising the relative price of Tesla’s vehicles in Europe (compared to VW’s Europe-manufactured ID.3 vehicles), the Tesla Model 3 is still a far better value.
Tesla plans to build a future European factory to help further improve its value proposition in the European market. Conversely, VW cannot hope to compete on value with the Model 3 in North America, where the pricing bias (due to imports and shipping) would lean in the opposite direction. In short, the factory-gate costs of the Model 3 and ID.3 are not that much different. This should be very worrying for VW.
Depending on how things go with the ID.3 in Europe, VW may bring local production of the ID.3 to the US in the future. Even with this even playing field, no other EV maker can compete with the Tesla Model 3 in the US market. Tesla’s share of the BEV market in the US in Q1 2019 was 78%, even whilst diverting a large proportion of US production to serve customers in overseas markets. Note: the also-ran Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan LEAF are locally made in the US, and are thus on a level playing field in terms of costs, but they see just fractions of the demand of the Model 3.
Coming back to the VW ID.3, let’s look at one of the key functionality metrics of an EV — its ability to comfortably handle long-distance journeys with convenience, just as folks have gotten used to in fossil combustion vehicles. Here’s the classic range and recharging chart comparing the Model 3 and ID.3 (the first graph is in kilometers, the second in miles, otherwise identical — click to zoom):
We use the EPA-calibrated range, since this is a much more useful guide for real-world experience (even for European drivers) than the WLTP ratings. For those interested in the methodology, I’ve scaled the VW ID.3’s WLPT score into expected EPA scores using the ratio from the VW’s other EV, the e-Golf, as the reference. VW has provided a few snippets of information about the DC charging speed of the ID.3 variants, which inform the values in the chart.
What stands out is that, despite having essentially the same usable battery size (kWh), the Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus and the VW ID.3 58 kWh (the mid-tier ID.3) are not in the same ballpark on energy efficiency and charging ability. The Tesla is significantly ahead in these key EV performance parameters. This is despite the Model 3’s basic engineering design making it to market almost 3 years ahead of the ID.3 (summer 2017 vs. H1 2020). Perhaps given another couple of years, the VW might match the Tesla on these metrics. But, by then, Tesla’s offerings will have moved the goal posts forward again.
Worth noting here is that the Tesla Model 3 not only has better efficiency than the ID.3, but also has more power. Although VW have not yet release performance information for the ID.3 series, the mid-tier 58 kWh model won’t match the Model 3 Standard Range Plus’ 0–100 km/h acceleration of 5.6 seconds. It’s also very unlikely to have the handling and driving dynamics of the Tesla, nor a huge touchscreen or other unique functions and characteristics that make a Tesla, well, … a Tesla. More on these aspects later.
Manufacturing Volume: VW has no plans to Match Tesla’s Production Output
Despite some well documented manufacturing snafus along the way, Tesla has consistently been ramping manufacturing scale at a fast and increasing pace for many years already. Whilst VW group is the world’s largest automaker (alongside Toyota), it has never been a match for Tesla on BEV volume. The two companies’ relative performance and future plans are best illustrated visually. Note that VW Group’s corporate communications include in their projected figures the output from its partially owned China joint ventures (more on this below):
Whilst VW Group’s per year figures are inclusive of its joint venture partnerships in China — FAW-Volkswagen and SAIC Volkswagen — these are in fact minority-owned automakers. VW group owns 49% of both of these Chinese joint ventures. Since over 35% of the yearly figures consist of Chinese sales, most of which are made by the joint ventures, it seems a bit dubious for VW Group to claim all of these as “its own” output. It might be more accurate to reduce the VW Group’s numbers by around one sixth (49% of the approximately 35% Chinese contribution) to account for this potential positive spin on the numbers.
Tesla’s gigafactory in Shanghai is entirely owned by Tesla.
The VW Group’s numbers also consist of light commercial vehicle output, from its MAN commercial division, as well as its VW-brand commercial vans. The planned BEV output of other VW group members — Porsche, Audi, SEAT, and Skoda — are also bundled into the group figures of course. That’s just as well, since, as we learned this week, the VW house brand’s ID.3 series is not planned to ramp up volumes particularly rapidly. Mr. Stackmann said that producing 100,000 ID.3 vehicles in a single year is not planned until 2021 (at the earliest).
Tesla plans to produce around 380,000 vehicles in 2019, and likely 630,000+ in 2020 (the Shanghai factory will quickly ramp to 250,000+ annual units, and the Fremont factory is not yet at its full capacity). Tesla CEO Elon Musk has recently said he expects to produce up to 1.5 million vehicles in 2021, and 3 million in 2023.
VW only forecasts making up to a maximum of 3 million vehicles annually in 2025 — two years after Tesla’s planning — and even then, only if there is sufficient demand. On the other hand, VW Group has also announced it is aiming for a cumulative total of 22 million BEVs by the end of the next decade. Yet, this doesn’t match up well with the 3-million-in-2025 figure. If 500,000 are realistically planned for 2020, ramping to 3 million in 2025, then even assuming an improbable slowdown to just 10% annual growth in BEV output from 2025 onwards, that would still amount to over 25 million cumulative BEV output by the end of 2029. Perhaps the 3 million-in-2025 figure is an out-of-bounds maximum that the group does not in fact expect to see?
It sounds very much like VW is playing a game of wait-and-see.
Meanwhile, demand for Tesla’s EVs is insatiable, and the company is driving the global EV market.
Tesla’s Unique Software and Technology: A Computer on Wheels
The VW Group’s Audi e-Tron is already on the road and is a decent BEV, if fairly underwhelming. The Porsche Taycan, on sale from 2020, does promise to be a more exciting vehicle. At elevated price points, neither of these, however, will be mass market. Instead, this is the role of the recently announced VW ID. series. These vehicles are going to be priced from around 30,000€ to somewhere above 40,000€ and be the VW Group’s highest volume BEV offering, at least for the foreseeable future.
The ID. series will no doubt be attractive and innovative relative to fossil combustion alternatives when they arrive in early to mid 2020. But the question we are looking at here is whether they will be compelling and attractive enough to compete effectively with Tesla’s Model 3, and soon-to-arrive Tesla Model Y (from late 2020 onwards). That is, will they provide VW Group with enough momentum in the BEV space to catch up with and overtake Tesla’s irrefutable lead?
Tesla owners often say the vehicles are much more than a car — they are a computer on wheels. Like computers, or perhaps more like smartphones, they are software upgradable, simply via OTA (over-the-air) updates. So far, Tesla OTA updates have added range, greater motor performance, improved charging performance, improved braking performance, improved driver-assist systems and safety, improved cabin comfort and safety, dashcam features, sentry mode, video games, other entertainment features … and much more. These regular improvements, adding significant value, and provided at no cost, are a central part of the Tesla ownership experience.
The VW ID.3 will have some OTA update abilities, but other updates will require dealer visits. It’s highly doubtful that VW will change its culture and transform its vehicles into anything close to resembling the flexible, upgradable, constantly improving platforms that Tesla has created. The option for VW to do this has existed for years already, and yet it is not a path VW has pursued. There’s no evidence that VW will make an about-turn now and comprehensively adopt this approach. VW is aware that Tesla has the advantage here, and Mr. Stackmann was keen to say that the ID.3 vehicles are “future proof,” but did not elaborate. Color me skeptical.
We do know that standard driver-assist features on the ID.3 series certainly won’t match Tesla’s Autopilot ability, which is included with all European Teslas. The ID.3s likely won’t see the substantial automatic overnight improvements that Teslas do. Full Self Driving will not be available as an OTA upgrade option, as it is on a Tesla. VW has confirmed that the ID.3 will be hardware equipped for level 3 autonomy (for when the software is ready in the future, but no timeline on this). All Teslas sold since late 2016 are hardware capable for full self driving (level 4 and, potentially, level 5 autonomy). Tesla is aiming to get the core software functionality of full self driving completed by the end of this year (and continuously improving thereafter).
Tesla believes that the value of full self driving will be considerable, as it will allow the vehicles to generate potentially substantial revenue on the Tesla Network (a robotaxi mobility service). This may even allow Tesla vehicles to become appreciating assets for their owners. This is not something the the ID.3 series will be able to do.
I could go on, but you get the picture. In short, there’s a big gap between the ability, user experience, and value proposition of Tesla’s vehicles and those of other automakers, including the largest and most experienced automaker, Volkswagen Group.
What does it all mean?
Tesla is no doubt a disrupter. But more than this, the lead that the company has in battery electric vehicles is increasingly looking insurmountable by any other established international automaker.
As the world’s largest automaker, it might at one time have seemed reasonable to expect that VW Group would have some fantastic EV offerings up its sleeve, ready to unveil to the world, and to put the young upstart Tesla in its place. But apparently not! There is no crushing blow, no “killer” coming from legacy automakers to derail Tesla’s momentum.
The VW ID.3 series is welcome, and certainly compelling relative to fossil vehicles, but it is no challenge to Tesla’s products, nor its production volumes, nor its technological proposition.
Compared to the international legacy players, the newer Chinese homegrown automakers seem much more likely to be the ones to ramp up BEV production volume at global scales. They won’t need to compete directly with Tesla to get great sales and offer compelling vehicles that consumers prefer to fossil vehicles. In fact, Tesla will be right there in China alongside them.
Meanwhile, the fate of the traditional international automakers is looking increasingly uncertain. They may have waited too long to join the transition to EVs, so long that they now will not be able to catch up, and be destined to fade away to fossil-fuel-era retro brands. Is this the inevitable nature of disruption and innovation? Perhaps.
Please join in the comments with your thoughts and ideas.
Article images via Tesla B-Roll.