By on May 26, 2009

Volkswagen’s FE. Picture courtesy

Whoever has been on the inside of Volkswagen knows that they are devout skeptics when it comes to alternative energies. Sure, they do some token research into hydrogen and hybrids to give the blue VW logo a greener hue, but deep in their hydrocarbon pumping hearts, they are devoted pistonhardheads. The aggressive incremental improvement of internal combustion has been their true strategy. Under the “BlueMotion” moniker, they tweak existing technology to wring every last drop of gas (or diesel) out of it. So far, the conservative (and conserving) strategy has succeeded: The new BlueMotion Golf VI, fitted with a peppy 1.6L TDI oil-burning engine, gets 61.9 mpg, handily beating the 2010 EPA 51/48/50 mpg numbers of Toyota’s third gen Prius (YMMV, as you well know.) Suddenly, Wolfsburgologists are registering a change in VeeDub’s secretive Forschung und Entwicklungs Abteilung (R&D Dept., see picture above.)

Followers of Volkswagen have noted alliances with battery makers such as Sanyo and Toshiba.

Last week, Wang Chuanfu, Chairman of BYD, China’s battery maker and budding EV manufacturer with Buffett backing, came to visit Wolfsburg. Not for a factory tour. According to Automobilwoche [sub], both parties signed a Memorandum Of Understanding. We understand that VW and BYD want to jointly “explore possibilities of cooperation in the sector of hybrid vehicles using lithium batteries.”

Ulrich Hackenberg, chief of VW’s R&D said: “Volkswagen will continue to improve its successful BlueMotion technologies. Hybrid and pure electric vehicles play an increasingly important role in this.” The first sentence wasn’t surprising. The second is. Does Wolfsburg have a change of heart and mind?

It may only be a nod to the Chinese market, which is extremely important to VW. Wan Gang, a former Audi engineer in Germany who is now China’s minister of science and technology, has ambitious plans to electrify China’s auto industry. In March, Beijing unveiled an auto-industry plan to create capacity to produce 500,000 “new energy” vehicles, by 2011. According to the New York Times, “China vies to be world’s leader in electric cars.” Which should assuage the fears of the formerly developed markets that China will gobble up all the gas when it starts buying cars in earnest.

Of course, VW wants to have their fair share of this. VW doesn’t make a secret of it. “Particularly for the Chinese market, potential partners such as BYD could support us in quickly expanding our activities,” Hackenberg opined. Unsaid, but obvious: Getting in bed with BYD is probably a better move than Daimler buying 10 percent of a zombie known by the name of Tesla.

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21 Comments on “VW Hearts BYD...”

  • avatar

    You might want to switch that Honda to a Toyota regarding the Prius.

    I am a little skeptical about electric cars in general, but especially about how effective hybrids and electric vehicles will be over a large scale roll-out. I seem to recall having read studies that show the environmental impact of producing the batteries outweighs the hydrocarbon emmissions from an effecient gas engine for the first many years of the hybrids life, not to even mention the limited amount of nickel, lithium, and other required elements needed to build all of those batteries.

  • avatar

    NulloModo: Fixed.

  • avatar

    I believe VW are following a flawed strategy.

    1. Why bother spending money on developing a hybrid system, when they could just licence Toyota’s HSD? It would make more sense, that way. Unless, it’s the “wossn’t inwented here” syndrome? Not to mention that VW will spend a lot of money making their own hybrid system, release on the Chinese market and other Chinese makers will just bootleg it. From VW’s point, it’ll make more sense to use Toyota’s HSD system and let the Chinese bootleg that, rather than develop a hybrid system of their own and still let the Chinese bootleg it.

    2. VW are putting too much faith in diesels. Now I’ve driven a few diesels and they are ok, but I don’t think they are a sustainable technology. Simply put, Homogenious Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI) is only 3 – 4 years away. Once that technology hits the market, diesel’s advantages will boil down to only one (lower CO2 than petrol).

  • avatar

    I hope that the USA sees this trend and that Argonne and DARPA are working really hard to develop super/ultra capacitor technologies that will first supplement, then supplant lithium battery technologies.

    We don’t need another country/consortium to corner the market on a key component (element) of transportation technology.

    It doesn’t matter that we can’t maintain ownership of the capacitor tech (as the Chinese would probably steal it anyway), as long as the materials can be obtained domestically, our transportation (and thus national) security is not dependent on exotic materials from third parties.

    In other words, avoid the ‘Unobtainium Syndrome’

  • avatar


    not so sure about chinese boot legging tech…

    ie – that’s what we all expect to happen, given the joint ventures, etc… of the past 20 years,

    BUT, then why can’t chinese cars pass western crash tests?
    I think that true bootlegging (not just looks) of cars is more difficult than we think…

  • avatar


    I would imagine that the reason Chinese cars can’t pass western crash test is because they cut those corners out (i.e airbags, crumple zones, rollover protection, etc) because otherwise it’ll drive the price of their cars higher and any cost advantage Chinese makers have over foreign makers will be effectively wiped out.

    Remember, this scenario is only pertinent to the Chinese market. The Chinese can’t rip someone else’s technology and sell it in a foreign market as copyright issues are normally enforced everywhere else in the world.

  • avatar

    Frau Puckrik:

    The reason why Chinese cars can’t pass western crash test is elsewhere: To make a car crashworthy, you need a supercomputer and some hellish software that crashes the same car again and again, over night, in computer simulation. The inputs of the program are the western crash test standards, and the cars are optimized for just that standard. Woe is the poor driver if the car crashes differently than mandated by ECE-R 12, ECE-R 33, ECE-R 34, FMVSS 201, FMVSS 204, FMVSS 208, FMVSS 212, FMVSS 219, FMVSS 301 et al.

    In the meantime, the Chinese are learning, and the government is helping with the research. A country that can put people in space also should have the spare computing power to make a car survive the 100% offset test.

    What is also happening is a lot of cheating, if not by, then on behalf of western automakers. As documented in TTAC the last Brilliance test was a scandal.

    Furthermore, cars are not protected by copyright, but by patents. There are utility patents that protect technology and design patents that protect design. Design patents are a sticky subject, what is one man’s rip-off is another man’s inspiration. Most importantly, China has a functioning patent office, patents can be and are being enforced in China. Trouble is that few go to the trouble to register a patent in China, in the misguided belief that their American or German patent is protection enough. It’s not in China. You need a Chinese patent. One of the first things I tell someone who wants to do business in China is: “Register your trademark, and if you bring technology, register your patent.”

  • avatar

    Herr Schmitt,

    Well, really, my point remains the same. Because the Chinese need all these new supercomputers and technology to make their cars pass western crash tests. Who is going to have to (ultimately) bear the cost? Answer: the customer. The cost of the cars have to go up.

    As for western makers cheating and rigging the crash tests, well, maybe that makes up for the Chinese bootlegging their technology?

  • avatar

    Comparing 61.9 mpg for a Polo to 50 mpg for a Prius is an unfair comparison. The Polo’s mpg is likely in Imperial gallons, for starters, and even if that conversion was made by the authors the results of the Euro cycle and EPA testing are not directly comparable.

    What is a fair comparison is the Euro cycle g/CO2 per km figures. The 2010 Prius gets 106 g/km (source: edmunds), and the BlueMotion gets 99 to 104 g/km for its trim levels (source).

    Basically they’re equal on this metric. Now consider the difference in sizes and you, and prospective car buyers, may well be whistling a different tune.

  • avatar

    Frau Puckrik:

    Sorry, not true. A VW Golf made in China using the same technology and production methods is just as crashworthy as a Golf made in Wolfsburg. However, it costs considerably less in China.

    Everything (except raw materials and imported parts) is cheaper in China.

  • avatar


    HCCI is still a ways away, at least in terms of cost-effectiveness. Common rail direct injection diesels are already expensive compared to regular gasoline engines, but they’re almost at the point where it’s cost effective. I suspect production HCCIs, with their even finer injectors and the need for precise knock control on a cylinder-to-cylinder basis (which, by the way, requires extremely expensive knock sensors and powerful ECUs) will present an even bigger challenge in terms of pricing and marketing.

    I’d love to see the technology mature, but for now, anyone who ignores diesel (the entire US market… up to just a little while back) might just be left behind in terms of sales…

  • avatar

    Herr Schmitt,

    But that’s precisely my point!

    Chinese automakers will have to invest all this money to make their cars crashworthy, whereas, foreigners have already done this. The drawback being, the foreign makes are higher in price to cover the extra technology and investment, whereas Chinese makers don’t have that premium, hence, they have a cost advantage over foreign makes.

    I know that a VW (for instance) car made in China using the same technology and production methods is just as crashworthy as a Golf made in Wolfsburg (though, I’d hazard a guess that the build quality is better from China than from Germany!) but I’m not comparing cars built in difference countries, but the same marque; I’m comparing cars from different companies.

    @Niky Tamayo,

    I’m not discounting diesels (please re-read my original post), but I’m just saying that don’t think that diesels are the panacea that everyone thinks they are.

  • avatar

    So many hats…

  • avatar

    ‘new’ supercomputers??
    anybody [company] can afford a supercomputer these days…

    BS: very interesting info…
    where i live, the geelys and cherries are 10-20k cheaper than the hyundais and kias… – though the import taxes / fees really distort prices.

  • avatar

    Frau Puckrik, Herr Schmitt

    The financial investment in that hellish software (LS-DYNA, ABAQUS/Explicit, PAM-CRASH) and the supercomputers (as little as 8-16 multi-core Intel processors running linux or XP64 or …) is trivial compared to the cost of acquiring the knowledge to use them and the real world experience that allows you to start somewhere close to optimal based on previous success (or at least lessons learned from less than success). That cost and knowledge walks out the door every night.

  • avatar

    I actually believe that they’re a viable medium-term alternative to gasoline vehicles. It makes economical sense to put money into diesels since the cost-reward ratio(for the automakers) is more realistic than other alternative-fuel technologies (including hybrids).

    In fact, developments that make hybrids and HCCI engines more efficient and cheaper can also be applied to diesels.

    I still don’t see a magic bullet in terms of next-generation systems. HCCI looks so tempting… and the promise of diesel-like economy with gasoline performance and emissions is very tempting, but, like I’ve said, there are some major challenges that manufacturers have to overcome to bring this to production.

  • avatar

    “I seem to recall having read studies that show the environmental impact of producing the batteries outweighs the hydrocarbon emmissions from an effecient gas engine for the first many years of the hybrids life”

    Ah, Hummer Versus Hybrid study, how many times must you be discredited?

    As for VW’s supposed 61.9 mpg Golf TDI, let’s see the link at the EPA. And the size of the car, please.

  • avatar

    Bertel: Didn’t VW have a prototype Diesel/Electric hybrid back in the 1980s? I seem to recall reading about it back then turning in some amazing triple-digit MPG numbers.

    Katie: There is one factor everyone always forgets about, that is a huge benefit of Diesels: Cheap, easy “green” Alternative Fuels. I’m not a chemist, but here I am driving around on stuff I make myself, for about a buck a gallon. Try that with gasoline of electricity.

    Yes, I know I’m an edge case. But if it is possible, it should be available. I’m not suggesting a wholesale conversion. But remember that every unit of alt fuels used is an additional unit of petroleum products available in the market. Or put this way: the less I use, the more you have.


  • avatar

    The 1.6L BlueMotion TDI Golf is not available in the US and I haven’t seen an announcement that it will be. The gallons are U.S. Also, it’s emissions are 99g/km of CO2 ….

    Size of the car? Same as the ubiquitous Golf a.k.a. Rabbit in its latest MK6 variety ….

    Chuck: I don’t recall a diesel-electric VW from the 80s. The Golf was first fitted with a Diesel engine in 1976. I did the launch campaign. I still remember the words of a salty old dog at VW, commenting on the higher price: “You will break even after 80,000 km. And then the engine will fall out of the car.” Times surely have changed.

  • avatar

    There’s an issue with direct injection diesels in conjunction with biofuels. First heard of this issue last year, as one BMW owner meticulously documented oil dilution on his 1-series over time.

    Another internet-savvy owner (VW, not BMW, though), who is also a producer, has noted this dilution, and links it to newer emissions systems use after-combustion injection events to clean the exhaust… but the different characteristics of the biofuels prevent them from vaporizing without a compression combustion event… thus washing into the oil.

    But I think that redesigning these systems with a supplementary injector for the exhaust will eliminate these problems…

    (EDIT: My interest in this is because I am looking at building a waste-vegetable oil system in our backyard… waste not, want not…)

  • avatar

    So we’re talking about European mileage figures, not verified in the US, on a car that’s not just a bit smaller than the Prius (like the Jetta is), but a LOT smaller than the Prius.

    Strike 48.

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