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Volkswagen Trinity
Trinity Concept. Image courtesy of Volkswagen

Cars

German Electric Car Ambitions May Be Software-Limited

Software issues are delaying electric car production by Volkswagen. That in turn is placing the EV revolution at risk.

Tesla has done two things that disrupted the auto industry. First, it proved that a battery-electric car was a viable alternative to a combustion engine car — a tectonic shift in the world of automobiles. But the second innovation pioneered by Tesla — let’s call it the “computer on wheels” concept — may be the biggest disruptor of all.

The Big Three German car companies — Volkswagen, Mercedes, and BMW — have risen nicely to the first challenge and now have stellar electric car models in production. But making those cars “computers on wheels” is proving to be the more difficult challenge.

“From a hardware perspective I would have no doubts that they can make superb cars,” Axel Schmidt, global head of the automotive division at Accenture, tells Automotive News Europe. “But can the complexity and quality needed for the software be mastered by a 120 year old hardware manufacture? I’m not so sure.”

Schmidt’s concern may be prescient. A source tells Reuters that Oliver Blume, Volkswagen Group CEO, is rethinking the plan initiated by former CEO Herbert Diess to build a brand new, state of the art factory to produce the company’s next generation Trinity electric car models.

Volkswagen, the world’s second largest carmaker, had planned to start building the €2 billion factory in 2023 and produce its flagship Trinity electric car there from 2026. Manager Magazine reports that Blume is considering delaying production of the new model until 2030 and abandoning plans to launch it on the Scalable Systems Platform (SSP), which is intended eventually to replace all other platforms. Two sources close to negotiations refuted this to Reuters, saying the carmaker would assemble Trinity on the SSP, but they questioned whether a new factory was necessary.

Electric Car Software Agonistes

Volkswagen has created a separate division called Cariad to develop software for the entire group. The software platform known as E3 2.0 was supposed to be incorporated into the Trinity project, but it has been delayed from 2026 to 2029, Manager Magazin reports. In a letter published on an employee portal, Cariad head Dirk Hilgenberg said the company was giving itself more time on the 2.0 platform but did not provide a new time frame.

In a separate letter to Volkswagen staff members, Blume wrote, “We are taking the opportunity to look at all projects and investments and check their viability,The company, which earlier this month delayed its planning round scheduled for November citing “changing economic realities,” was evaluating its plans for software and platforms and would then determine projects for each brand, he said, adding it was too early for concrete statements.

If confirmed, the changes could improve Volkswagen’s free cash flow but would risk delaying electrification plans and crucial product launches, Bernstein analyst Daniel Roeska said in a research note. He added that Volkswagen will need a capital markets day soon to clear up its plans for investors.

“German automakers have announced bold electrification targets and claim they are leading the transition, but they are not yet delivering,” says Bloomberg’s Michael Dean. “They still have a long way to go. Blume is clearly reevaluating the whole battery electric vehicle and software strategy and therefore 2026 would be the earliest VW could challenge Tesla — with the caveat of further platform and software delays.”

With any Trinity delay, Volkswagen would need to invest more in its MEB platform, which has been riddled with software problems, including sudden braking from a faulty traffic detection system and in-car displays seizing up.

Cariad will now focus on finishing a new software architecture for premium models from Porsche and Audi, and push back a cross-brand platform that was meant to bolster the Trinity project and deliver self driving capabilities. As we reported recently, those software issues have caused Porsche to move the introduction of the battery-electric Macan back to 2024 — at the earliest.

“It certainly looks like the Germans are tripping over themselves a bit recently,” German auto industry analyst Matthias Schmidt tells Automotive News Europe. “The inherent perfectionism could be their own worst enemy and could likely be slowing them down in the fast-paced EV environment.”

The Takeaway

Has the world of automobiles gone crazy chasing the false god of autonomous driving? It’s all well and good that Elon Musk is committed to Full Self Driving, although even Tesla’s mighty efforts have failed to reach the goal so far. Is it possible that trying to out-Tesla Tesla at the “computer on wheels” game may have actually delayed the EV revolution by slowing the roll out of electric cars, especially the affordable models that are needed to really ignite the transition to electric transportation?

Elon may be fixated on the “computer on wheels” and autonomous driving technology, but does that mean the whole rest of the world has to be as well? Consumers love choices. Perhaps some would be happy with an electric car that goes from Point A to Point B with zero emissions reliably and affordably? The first rule of sales is to find out what the customers want and then give it to them. Perhaps what Elon wants and what mainstream car buyers want are two different things.

 
 
 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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