Volkswagen’s CEO, Herbert Diess, has reportedly expressed yet again the corporation’s powerful internal struggles regarding the transition to electric vehicles. Before jumping into his latest comments, though, I’d like to go back to what former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne made rather clear a few years ago: legacy automakers have to reinvent themselves in order to be true electric vehicle competitors. Many outsiders consider the shift from making fossil fuel vehicles to making electric vehicles as a simple transition, but it’s actually an existential crisis for large automakers.
As I’ve written before, legacy automakers are walking an extremely thin and difficult tightrope. On the one hand, if they don’t electrify fast enough, they’re dead. On the other hand, they have to invest an enormous amount of money to move from fossil powertrains to electric powertrains to remain at a similar production scale as they exist today, and they will certainly have to swallow stranded assets and sunk costs that will make their financials look a bit shabby for a while.
I think Diess has been making this point in a variety of ways in recent months — and years even — since he has to communicate to both investors and employees the difficulty of this transition and the potential for failure.
According to Reuters (h/t Steve Hamel), Diess today highlighted to reporters, “The big questions is: are we fast enough?” This focuses on my first point above about the tightrope they must walk. “If we continue at our current speed, it is going to be very tough,” Diess added, and he went into what some might term “CleanTechnica Tesla fanboy” territory by also noting that Volkswagen could end up going the route of Nokia if it goes too slowly.
This comes on the heals of an increase in Volkswagen and Volkswagen Group electric vehicle production targets. In the coming few years, Diess wants his expansive corporation to become the world’s #1 electric automaker. Some see the targets as still far too slow. Some see them as overly ambitious. The chance that they are just right is probably not something anyone at Volkswagen wants to think long about, as it’s very challenging to time a transition like this perfectly as a large incumbent. I personally think Volkswagen is moving in a good direction, and today’s comments make me think that even more.
One week ago today, I wrote the article, “The 2 Big Questions Regarding Volkswagen’s Future*.” The first matter discussed therein was autonomy, which is a topic for another day, but the second matter is one that I think Diess must spend a lot of time considering — the Osborne effect. I would sweat profusely if it was my job to transition Volkswagen Group in a way that rode the electrification wave beautifully to the shore. The Osborne effect is like a giant rock in the middle of the breaking wave. The best explanation to date that I’ve seen about this challenge in the automaker context is one written by Maarten Vinkhuyzen, so I highly recommend reading or rereading that essay. No one should assume Volkswagen has an easy solution to this challenge, and I think public acknowledgements of that by Diess himself are useful in bringing this discussion to the public and highlighting the uncertainty of the moment.
Again echoing CleanTechnica commenters who are often seen as radical, unrealistic souls, I’ll end with this line from Volkswagen’s global leader: “The era of the classic carmakers is over.”
I think it is appropriate to use the term “leader” for Diess. I think he is making tough decisions and saying difficult things in order to move his company forward. When the era of class carmakers is over, there is perhaps no greater industry challenge than remaining a major carmaker in the new era. We’ll see how Volkswagen Group does on this growing worldwide wave.
*Perhaps Diess read that one. My understanding is that it wouldn’t be the first CleanTechnica article he consumed with an open mind.
All images courtesy Volkswagen