A spate of news releases from Volkswagen this week show the company is pushing forward with the EV revolution and making significant upgrades to its manufacturing process. Unlike Tesla, which is building brand new factories, Volkswagen is retrofitting existing factories with the latest manufacturing technology, including artificial intelligence, to better manage the production process.
In Hannover, the company took advantage of the traditional summer shutdown to reconfigure the factory where it produces many of its commercial vehicles to get ready for the next generation T6 van. [Note: I rode in one of these when I was in Germany last year for the start of production celebration for the ID.3 and it is an impressive vehicle — smooth, comfortable, and quiet.]
Dr Josef Baumert, VW board member for production and logistics says, “With the current measures we are systematically further implementing our strategy of automating and digitalizing production. We are completely remodelling the production facility in Hannover so that in future, in addition to our successful T 6.1 models, we are able to build two further vehicles here in one factory. As of next year the new Multivan as an internal combustion engine version and a hybrid, and ultimately our all-electric ID. BUZZ. A clear sign of our commitment to the future of this plant.”
The Multivan is due in 2021 and the ID. Buzz will enter production in 2022, Baumert says. Part of the changes include a new paint shop that can apply multiple paint colors to the T6, Multivan, and ID. Buzz, so the yellow and silver paint scheme seen on several concept vehicles should make it into production.
Artificial Intelligence For Manufacturing
You might not think a small group of 9 people could make a difference when it comes to manufacturing cars, but just such a team, headed by Reda Jaber and Nicolas Hummel at the Volkswagen Smart.Production:Lab in Wolfsburg are doing precisely that. Their mission is to let people train artificial intelligence to evaluate optical data and detect errors rapidly and reliably. The system, called Computer Vision, currently checks boxes for completeness but many other production and logistics applications are possible. “The user interface is so simple that anyone can operate it and train the AI independently. You don’t have to be a computer scientist,” says Hummel. Over the next few years, Volkswagen expects Computer Vision applications to save the company tens of millions of euros.
The Wolfsburg Smart.Production:Lab team is working in cooperation with others in the Volkswagen Group. The software for Computer Vision is written in Wolfsburg. The Data Lab in Munich is concerned with improving neural networks, while the Software Development Center in Dresden tests the systems in practice and provides feedback. At the Porsche factory in Leipzig, AI systems check the labels attached to every car during production. AI checks the images in real time and provides feedback as to whether everything is in order.
Beginning next year, the application will be used at other locations using the Industrial Cloud which links all the units of the Volkswagen Group together. “Our preferred solution is an online offering from which each department can download the appropriate applications as if they were in a library,” says Reda Jaber.
Climate Research And Electric Cars
For the past 2 years, Volkswagen has been supporting climate research by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). One of the topics of discussion has been how to motivate people to switch to electric vehicles.
Christan Bauer of PSI says, “We need electric cars for effective climate protection. In science, this answer has been clear for some time. However, it has not been possible to adequately communicate the findings to the public. As a result, there are always contributions to discussions that are largely free of expert knowledge. To put it bluntly: if Europe wants to be climate-neutral by 2050, no internal combustion engine should be on the road by that time – at least for passenger cars. At the same time, we must rid the electricity sector of fossil fuels.”
Here at CleanTechnica, that is the same message we try to convey to our readers. Some believe transitioning from fossil fuels entirely is too ambitious a goal but nations have left things to the last minute and so policies that may seem drastic are the only options left to avoid the worst consequences of a warming planet.
Bauer adds that addressing climate change will require electrifying the transportation sector. “No matter how fuel efficient the engines are, it will never be possible to avoid CO₂ emissions with petrol and diesel vehicles. In contrast, e-cars have the potential to drastically reduce climate damaging emissions. The key is CO₂-free or low CO₂ electricity. In almost all European countries today, e-cars have a clear climate advantage over internal combustion engines. Only Poland and Estonia use an electricity mix that does not give electric vehicles an advantage in terms of climate balance.”
He says, “The climate advantage of electric cars over internal combustion engines has grown significantly in recent years. This is due to advances in battery production, longer battery life and the higher proportion of renewable energies in Europe. Compared to combustion engines, the production of electric cars still requires more energy. However, this is balanced out after a few tens of thousands of kilometers, provided that clean electricity is [used to] charge.”
Asked about hydrogen fuel cells, Bauer has this to say: “I would not play battery and hydrogen cars against each other. Depending on the intended use, one or the other makes more sense. A major advantage of battery cars is that they use electricity more efficiently during operation — by a factor of about 2.5. This is important because renewable electricity is scarce. Also, over the life cycle, including production, battery vehicles use less energy than hydrogen cars. Where their use allows, cars should therefore run on battery power. The advantages of hydrogen, fast refueling and a long range, are particularly evident in truck traffic, where long distances are covered with a heavy load.”
Finally, Bauer addressed the impact of carbon fees that might add to the cost of operating conventional cars. He says the proposed increase in fuel taxes in Germany are a good start. “In the medium term, however, there is great uncertainty about how prices will develop. This is damaging because it delays investments. This is where we should make improvements — preferably with a cross-sectoral European solution. Incidentally, it is by no means the case that a CO₂ price must be socially unfair. On the contrary, a large part of the population can benefit financially if the state returns the revenue according to a fair system.”
Volkswagen has taken some lumps lately. It is suffering from software glitches in its ID. 3 cars and has been rocked by the removal of Herbert Diess from his role as head of the Volkswagen brand. Diess remains the head of Volkswagen Group, however. The ID. 3 may not be quite the equal of the Tesla Model 3. But despite the rumblings and turmoil, it is doing more to move the EV revolution forward than any other global automaker.
We can thank Elon Musk and Tesla for getting the revolution started and we can bemoan the fact that Volkswagen is years behind and struggling to catch up. On my trip to Vermont last weekend, I was struck by how many Subarus are on the road in the Green Mountain State — it seems like every second car is a Subie — and how few of them have any form of electrified drivetrain. There are many companies that are in danger of being left behind by the EV revolution. Volkswagen is not likely to be one of them.