Volkswagen and their vision for the near future and the challenges that are faced
It’s been a remarkable year, this one. The future seems to be creeping up on us sooner than many of us had thought. And, despite its flaws and constraints, the future seems to be electric. Governments the world over have been tightening the noose around emissions and now, by the look of it, zero is the number that has caught everyone’s attention. Out of the tail-pipe at least, because there are still many questions about how green will this new green world really be and the examples of flawed perception about electrification exist before us.
Volkswagen, one of the biggest car manufacturer groups in the world, has set out to play the unlikely protagonist in this change of scenario. Desperate to put emission scandals behind them, they have figured the best way forward is to do away with the damn ‘E’ word altogether. In accordance with this, they have made what is possibly the most significant commitment from a traditional car manufacturer till date. Matthias Muller, chairman of the VW Group, kicked things off with a promise of investing 20 billion Euros for the e-mobility effort that the VW group has undertaken. There will be eighty new electric cars on offer by 2025 and the entire group’s current product range will have at least one full-electric variant to choose from by 2030 – that is more than 300 cars. There were mentions of battery power requirements that I cannot even pronounce, forget compute. He spoke of a project so large that the continents of Europe, North America and China (yes, I said the continent of China) will need to work together to provide enough supply – and that is just for the VW group. There was talk of tenders worth 50 billion Euros being floated to make this happen. I wonder what the carbon footprint in simply printing and shipping that amount of money will involve. On a serious note, VWs collective laundry will look whiter than Mother Mary’s by 2030.
To better understand what this implies and the ground realities of this sort of a commitment, I was allowed to spend some time with Christian Senger, the man who leads the e-mobility program for Volkswagen. His objective is pretty clear, to make electric cars as affordable as a reasonable hatchback and provide the reliability which would allow it to be a family’s only car. The ID family from VW may have only three cars to show for the moment, but by 2020 these three cars will carve out their own space in the marketplace. The ID will cost as much as a Golf, it will be capable of a range of 600km and because the new electric architecture and battery storage makes for flat floors, the scope for innovations and body styles is endless.
The ID, Crozz and Buzz may be functional prototypes right now, but they are still not at the target range that VW has set itself and there is some way to sort out the cost issues. This is quite clear from existing cars – like the eGolf and along with that, there is also the challenge of changing people’s perceptions about electric cars. There is an even bigger challenge facing them with the question of infrastructure too. While these electric cars can be charged through a wall socket at home, there is the need to have stations along the way that can support 150kW of power to enable quick charge times. Roughly 30 minutes to carry on for 500km. Senger is quick to dismiss the concept of swapping batteries given weight and safety issues that it will entail. Crash protection and weather sealing (yes, they will not be affected by one of our deluges in Mumbai) batteries that weigh in excess of 500 kilograms has, on the other hand, enabled designers to set centre of gravity low and achieve near perfect weight distribution. There is also an active focus on dealing with the end of a batteries lifecycle. Secondary uses and recycle avenues are being looked into with partners to ensure the impact is reduced as far as possible and disposal can be efficient too.
Varying weather conditions also mean the need for effective thermal management with the cells to help them deliver optimum performance (they function best between -10 to +40 degree Celsius) inside these closed storage compartments. There is also the development of solid state batteries which will be able to hold more charge given their higher densities. Range predictions of 1000km is what is being discussed with these, but they are some time away. Better weight distribution and the promise of instant power will help keep the drive entertaining, if Senger is to be believed. These cars can generate grip levels similar to all-wheel-drive cars while remaining rear-wheel-driven with quick acceleration possibilities – all this without the sound of course, but I am sure they will figure a way around that as well. Moreover, given the fact that electric cars have lesser moving parts, wear and tear along with maintenance should be easier.
The question of sound hardly seems like a problem, not with the sort of intelligent interfaces Senger is talking about. Moreover with the amount o connected driving possibilities and autonomous drive integration into the system, the electric car is set to change our lives the way smartphones have. However, let’s acknowledge the fact that there is plenty to be done to make this work in urban situation, even in Europe. When asked about India, Senger had to offer a smile and suggest the systems need to work in an environment like Germany, before more complicated mazes can be tackled. And all of this by 2022, when level 3 autonomous driving is set to debut. This is quite clearly as big a revolution as any the human race has seen. Car manufacturers no longer will make just cars, as Senger puts it, they will make devices and provide an ecosystem with technology and infrastructure to make themselves relevant and appealing to the final consumer. There is likely to be a shift in economies of scale as the electric car gathers, err, steam. Cost of making traditional internal combustion cars will go up, while the cost for manufacture of electric cars will come down. It isn’t just a concentrated effort from Volkswagen, but the entire group as we prepare to be consumed by this change in the world order.