Courtesy of Volkswagen

Volkswagen Pulls Back On Electric Car Plans

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When the Dieselgate scandal broke in late December of 2015, it looked like Volkswagen, which had just passed Toyota as the largest automaker in the world, might actually be heading for bankruptcy. As the details emerged about how extensive the plan was to falsify the emissions of various Volkswagen models powered by diesel engines — it reached all the way to Martin Winterkorn, who was then the CEO of Volkswagen Group — some industry observers thought the fallout might take down the entire company.

But Dieselgate led directly to a total top-to-bottom house cleaning at Volkswagen headquarters. Winterkorn was sent packing, replaced by Herbert Diess. The choice of Diess sent a chill through the entire corporation. He was a former BMW executive, which put a burr under the saddle of many longtime Volkswagen execs who thought they should have been chosen instead. Diess quickly started working on a plan to pull Volkswagen’s chestnuts out of the fire and restore it to its former prominence in the industry by pivoting from diesel engines to electric motors.

Work began immediately on the ID.3 for Europe and the ID.4/ID.5 twins for markets like the US where an SUV was the vehicle of choice for most buyers. Porsche began developing the Mission E, the car that became the Taycan. It also started planning how to convert the rest of its lineup to battery electric car models. Over at Audi, a number of electric models were introduced, with more waiting in the wings. Even the heavy-duty truck divisions of Volkswagen Group — Scania and MAN — began developing full battery-electric Class 8 trucks.

Volkswagen Pivots To Plug-In Hybrids

But now, Diess is gone, having been tossed aside by the Volkswagen Group supervisory board. Taking his place is Oliver Blume, a time-tested, true-blue Volkswagen manager who previously headed the prestigious Porsche division. The Volkswagen brand is now headed by Thomas Schäfer, who told the press on May 15 in London that the brand is pulling back on its electric car initiative to focus more on plug-in hybrids. Customers “want plug-in hybrids now, including in China and the US,” Schäfer said.

VW’s latest hybrid technology is available in some markets on the Passat sedan variant and the Tiguan SUV, both of which are capable of driving up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) on battery power alone. “But now you have to think further,” he said. “How do we make this even more cost-effective? How do we get there? This is happening right now.”

Indeed, it is. Volkswagen announced the same day two new plug-in hybrid models — the Golf GTE and Golf eHybrid. The company says in a press release that the newly developed second generation of the Volkswagen plug-in hybrid drive delivers a system output of 150 kW (201 hp) in the Golf eHybrid with a battery-only range of up to 143 kilometers (89 miles). That is more range than the first-generation Nissan LEAF offered. The Golf GTE produces a system power of 200 kW (268 hp) and has an electric range of up to 131 kilometers (81 miles). The new powertrain features a six-speed direct shift gearbox specially designed for the plug-in hybrid drive systems.

The new plug-in hybrid drive is extremely efficient thanks to the changeover to a new 1.5-liter TSI evo2 turbocharged gasoline engine with variable turbocharger geometry. Both cars have a 19.7 kWh battery — nearly double the output of the 10.6 kWh battery used previously. From a standing start, the Golf GTE outperforms the latest version of the Golf GTI. The Golf eHybrid is focused more on comfort, starting with a driver’s seat with 14 separate adjustments available.

The other big news for the two new hybrids is that both are now able to be charged at home using a wall box that supplies up to 11 kW of power — up from 3.6 kW previously — or on trips using 50 kW DC chargers. In many cases, the significantly increased electric ranges and quick charging mean that both Golf models can be used as purely electric vehicles in everyday life, the company says. Both modes now have a combined range of up to 1000 kilometers (620 miles).

While that is all wonderful news for those who want a sort of electric car but are leery of coping with the challenges of charging one, neither car is exactly priced in bargain basement territory. The Golf eHybrid starts at 44,240 euros while the Golf GTE starts at 46,745 euros.

Volkswagen & Renault Have A Falling Out

Volkswagen has been having the devil’s own time trying to make an electric car that fits the needs of drivers in need of an affordable electric car. According to Reuters, Volkswagen has walked away from talks with Renault to jointly develop an affordable electric version of the Twingo, four sources familiar with the situation said. That represents a setback for the company’s efforts to fend off Chinese rivals.

The collapse of negotiations could mean the German carmaker may have to go it alone in developing its own affordable electric vehicle. Renault will continue designing its electric Twingo, which is scheduled to come to market in 2026. Both companies hoped that sharing the work would cut costs in order to meet the challenge of a slew of cheaper electric car models from China. One source told Reuters the Volkswagen works council played a role in causing the talks to fall apart. According to sources, Renault wanted to build the jointly developed car at one of its factories while the Volkswagen works council insisted on using an existing Volkswagen factory in Europe.

The companies “did not succeed in finding an agreement” after several months of negotiations, said one source.
An agreement had been very close, but then Volkswagen walked away from the talks after it decided to develop its own car. The sources said a decision on the Volkswagen electric car plan is expected within weeks.

The collapse of talks with Volkswagen is unwelcome news for Renault CEO Luca de Meo, who is hoping for greater cooperation between European carmakers to fend off Chinese competitors in much the same way that Airbus has put together a consortium of European stakeholders and suppliers. One advantage of such an arrangement would be the ability to bring new electric car models to market more quickly to meet the challenge from Chinese competitors, who seem able to bring new models to market in a matter of months.

The Takeaway

The stumbling block for electric car manufacturers is how to make electric cars that can compete head to head with conventional cars. Ultimately, it may come down to adjusting the attitudes of consumers while continuing to expand the infrastructure for charging electric cars. That’s a tough job. With the exception of the Tesla Supercharger network, most charging companies get lousy marks f0r reliability and convenience. Manufacturers seem content to treat charging as someone else’s problem when in fact it is a problem they need to address in order to unlock the electric car market. It’s like trying to sell a car but telling people they are responsible for finding and installing their own lug nuts.

They can wiggle and squirm all they want and bemoan the lack of consumer interest in owning an electric car, but building a $10,000 EV — even one built in China — is not going to guarantee sales if it cannot charge reasonably quickly and there are not enough chargers available to meet the needs of its driver. So stop your kvetching, car manufacturers. If you aren’t solving the charging dilemma, you are the problem, not some company on the other side of the world.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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