ELECTRIFICATION, THE PEOPLE’S WAY?
If ever we needed reminding that the arc of history turns on the fulcrum of ‘events’, the Volkswagen diesel saga of 2015 was surely as good a reminder as any, as AutoMate’s Harrison Boudakin reports
Almost overnight four years ago this September, the reputation of a global automotive stalwart dissolved in a fizzle of legal and moral controversy as Germany’s biggest car maker admitted to “fixing” diesel emissions in millions of its vehicles across the world.
On this entirely unexpected ‘event’ turned the fortunes of Europe’s 25-year-long ‘Clean Diesel’ project, as a Continent of true believers quickly soured in the face of some hard truths about diesel’s eco-credentials.
Legislators, who once shepherded the fuel to almighty status in Europe, reacted without a hint of repentance or irony, savagely pulling tight the drawstrings of new CO2 and NOx regulations, and designing “real-world” testing regimes that have made it much, much harder for automakers to build diesel cars profitably.
Equally seismic, however, was the psychological impact of diesel’s tarred reputation. Along with China’s weighty embrace of electric vehicles and the very visible success of Tesla as an early electric pioneer, Dieselgate seemed to round out a triad of powerful influences that have done much to elevate public interest and industry chatter about a genuine electric future – and prompt many to wonder why the automotive establishment has apparently dragged their feet on it for so long.
Indeed, it’s now likely that September 2015 will be seen as an exclamation point in the history of mobility, a defining moment when the charge towards making electrified vehicles a viable proposition was injected with a new course of powerful stimulants.
So in the last four years we’ve seen the eternally-cautious automotive industry embrace the prospect of an electric revolution. Top-tier players like Mercedes, Jaguar and Audi have waded into battle against Tesla’s benchmark-setting, if expensive, products while plug-in hybrids have become the de facto solution for all those brands seeking a strong foothold in the Chinese market.
And closer to the grassroots, 48-volt mild hybridisation has become the go-to for automakers looking to meet new CO2 targets in a world where tighter NOx regulations have taken the shine off diesel’s old silver bullet.
The gaping hole in this electric offensive, however, is plain to see. No establishment manufacturer has succeeded in that most difficult task of all: building a full electric vehicle that can truly muck-in at the mass market level – one that isn’t burdened by a high cost of entry, too short a driving range or too radical a design approach.
Tesla has come perhaps closer than anyone with its Model 3, but given the ongoing production bottlenecks, lack of supply in many core markets (including Australia) and a higher-than-expected entry price, the truly mainstream EV remains still an elusive prospect.
It seems appropriate, then, that Volkswagen – whose diesel malpractice jolted an entire industry into action on electric vehicles – has in the background of Tesla’s noisy trend-setting, quietly emerged as another potential front-runner in the race to build an EV for the “aspirational, middle masses.”
Conceived in the immediate aftermath of Dieselgate, Volkswagen’s new ID.3 hatchback is the brainchild of the company’s current Chairman, Herbert Diess, who started in the top job just before the scandal became public. His reputation for decisiveness is well earned – at a meeting of Volkswagen’s most senior officials barely two weeks after Dieselgate, Herbert raised, discussed, formulated and agreed on a plan to develop an all-new, electric-specific VW Group platform called MEB. For the conservative company, gripped by crisis, it now looks like an inspired move.
“We were in a very specific situation,” Herbert said.
“We were strong in China and China is huge in electric cars. It seemed possible for us to be the first major company to create a specific electric architecture and use it across all our marques. Most people were using existing platforms for their electric cars because that needed less investment. It was a chance to overtake others.”
And overtake they have. With European pre-orders already underway, the ID.3 seems in many ways to herald the beginning of a new automotive reality. Priced and sized like a Golf GTI, offering Passat-like interior space and a fresh – albeit uncontroversial – exterior design, the ID.3 speaks a language that many car buyers would be happy to learn and one other automakers are likely to quickly replicate.
Herbert is the first to admit that the bulk of the ID.3’s initial success will come in markets like Norway, Sweden and Germany, where subsidies have already sparked a trend towards EVs. These early-adopter markets will help justify the heavy, continuing investment required to achieve full-electric success on a global scale, while more conservative markets like America and indeed, Australia, take their time coming around to the e-mobility model.
Crucially, however, this staged uptake also gives the company the chance to launch a host of complementary models that all use the MEB platform, reducing development costs dramatically while pushing VW’s EV tech into profitable market sectors like SUVs. Given that VW rose to the status of World Number One car maker on the back of a similar platform sharing strategy in the mid-2000s, there’s every reason to expect them to succeed again.
The challenges will be significant, though. Over the next 10 years, battery production will be a massive constraint for everyone attempting to launch mass-market EVs, including VW. Investing in charging infrastructure in key markets will also be vital if manufacturers want their electric vehicles to succeed, and it will remain difficult to sell EVs in those markets where government support for the electric switch is low.
But with the ID.3, one gets the sense that VW’s effort carries a certain gravity that previous attempts at a mass-market EV have lacked. Volkswagen certainly believes so, describing the ID.3 as the third chapter in a remarkable corporate journey that also includes two of the most significant mass-market vehicles ever made: the Beetle and the Golf.
Will the ID.3 complete an historic hat-trick for Volkswagen, allowing it to rise Lazarus-like from the ashes of its own diesel deception, to lead the market towards a new era in auto-manufacturing?
Only time will tell.
What we do know is this: the arc of automotivity has been long, but if Volkswagen has anything to do with it, it seems it will, in the end, bend towards electrification.
Written by Harrison Boudakin for AutoMate Training, an industry leading provider of online, on-demand digital training.
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