By on April 6, 2020

Like most legacy automakers, Volkswagen is casually walking back promises of electrification. As with self-driving cars, the technology behind new-energy vehicles is taking longer to mature than the industry would like. Meanwhile, the market — skewed as it is toward larger models — has been about as cooperative as a sugared-up child come bedtime.

Despite governments around the world incentivizing the sale of EVs, they’re still but a fraction of whole.

With the pandemic undoubtedly discouraging consumers from purchasing big-ticket items, electric vehicle sales aren’t presumed to make a lot of headway in 2020, either. We recently learned that some of the promises made by Ford and General Motors in regard to electrification were overblown by corporate messaging. In truth, they both plan on remaining heavily dependent upon truck and crossover sales for several more years.

However, Volkswagen seemed to be betting everything it had on battery technology. In the wake of its 2015 diesel emission scandal, VW was one of the first companies to promise widespread electrification by suggesting it would build one million EVs by 2023 — with 70 new green models introduced by 2029. The past year has seen the automaker issue qualifying remarks that leave us feeling dubious about its end goal.  

First of all, there were the mobility claims. Wrapped up in VW’s green initiative were assurances of complete self-driving by 2025. That promise has about as much chance of being kept as you getting that coffee with the friend you bumped into at the gas station last month and gently delegitimizes the firm’s overall timeline.

Then there were executives saying the company’s whole push into electric vehicles was in response to governmental pressures that resulted in fast-advancing environmental regulations. While we could have guessed this on our own, it was interesting to hear to hear staffers saying electrification started out as a chore. Project lead for the Golf R, Jost Capito, was one of the most recent. Last month, he told Autocar he was skeptical when his bosses tasked him with designing an exciting EV for the ID sub-brand.

“I always thought I’d be retired when electric cars became a thing because I’m a petrolhead,” Capito said. “But they’re fun to drive. At first, electric cars were something we had to do [for emissions] but now they’re something we want to do.”

That same outlet has since spoken with Volkswagen’s technical chief, Matthias Rabe, who further clarified the firm’s complicated relationship with electricity. He says there are very real limitations to what present-day battery tech can accomplish, adding there is reason to believe advancements won’t close all the gaps between electric and internal-combustion cars. Weight limitations remain a big one; we’ve heard other industry experts and manufacturing firms suggest that battery tech will not be scalable to a point that would allow EVs to supplant for large, primarily diesel-powered transport vehicles.

Rabe seems to be in agreement, saying that electrification would be offset by the adoption of synthetic fuels made from biomass or other materials.

“We will come to e-fuels,” he explained to Autocar. “If you look at the aviation industry, e-fuels are in high demand because [planes] won’t go electric, otherwise you won’t cross the Atlantic.”

He added, “We take our CO2 targets very seriously and want to be a role model on CO2, but that doesn’t mean we will exclude the combustion engine.”

The term “e-fuel” specifically references VW subsidiary Audi’s attempt to create CO2-neutral fuels since 2014. Unlike normal ethanol, which is made from the microbial fermentation of crops high in sugar, Audi’s plan has microorganisms using solar energy to produce synthetic ethanol and synthetic diesel from carbon dioxide and water. However, most studies on biofuels have shown them to be energy inefficient and potentially worse for the environment — while impacting food supply. In 2017, the European Federation for Transport and Environment released a report saying e-fuels only have merit if the energy used to create them comes from renewable sources, and if the carbon dioxide is captured rather then created. It also worried that it would be too expensive to rationalize for use in passenger vehicles.

Regardless, Rabe said VW will take a balanced approach to its products, so don’t expect its rush on EVs or synthetic fuel to be all-encompassing. Plenty of those new models will be low-volume units aimed at appeasing regulators, with some being genuine attempts at mainstreaming all-electric powertrains. Regular cars will remain in the mix, probably as the default option for years to come.

[Image: nrqemi/Shutterstock]

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16 Comments on “Volkswagen Explains Its Complicated Relationship With Electricity and Fuel...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    TTAC is that VW:

    1. May have recently discovered their EV costs will be too high, either forcing profits down or prices up. Without Tesla-like scale, they won’t make money.

    2. May not be able to scale battery production to build that many cars, and/or to drive costs down. Everybody but Tesla is constrained on battery capacity.

    Other than Tesla, VW seemed like the only mfr willing to go all-in. Now, I’m wondering.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a weird dream last night that I went into a grocery store and came out with two sets of keys for someone else’s vehicles, and someone else inexplicably had my keys, they took off in my H3 and I just rolled with it.
      I had two keys, keys to an orange C6 and keys to a black Tesla Roadster, I knew the C6 would be fun but I was interested in the Roadster, so in I went, I drove for a long while but it kept pssng me off that I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the headlights. I kept trying to scroll through settings on the column stalk and all I get was a bunch of weird knightradier-esque light shows being emitted from the front of the car, such as a huge red hash mark grid.
      Never did figure out how to turn on the headlights…

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      They weren’t willing to go all in (VW). They got caught cheating and appearing to go all in while the judgement was being rendered gave them some cover. Now that dieselgate is basically wound down, it’ll be back to business as usual. They are only “in” so far as European government’s are going to force them.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Perhaps the pandemic will make people question the claims of “experts” who say that CO2 is destroying the planet. If a small city-EV or Tesla works for you, then by all means, have at it. But don’t tell me I need to buy an EV to save the planet. And the government regulators need to be sent home–modern ICE cars are perfectly safe for the environment.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    The problem with VW, GM and all established auto manufacturers, is that history shows that established companies have a very hard time breaking paradigms.

    • 0 avatar
      R Henry

      Worth studying is the history of American Locomotive Company (ALCO). This company dominated design and production of steam powered railroad locomotives until the 1930s. When diesel technology matured, the firm was largely unable to successfully transition to profitable diesel locomotive production. Many lessons are illustrated within that history, but few will be learned…except by the hard way.

      • 0 avatar

        The famous business book titled “The Innovavor’s Dilemma” is full of case studies about companies who went bankrupt by competently serving their customer’s needs.

        The catch is that some inferior upstart undercut their business by introducing an inferior product that met many of their existing customers’ needs more easily. This was what all of the “disruption” talk out of Silicon Valley was about.

        This is not the approach Tesla is taking in introducing EVs. They’re going for flat-out obsolescence, and they started competing at the high end.

  • avatar

    Interesting article

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    Reality is slowly but surely impinging upon VW’s hopes and prayers to get out of Dieselgate with a clean slate. The may be headquartered in the EU, with it’s Draconian laws and restrictions, but it sells cars in nearly every country on the planet – many with no need or want for an EV. Were I to live in the Sahel, for example, I’d have a Hilux instead of a Tesla.

  • avatar

    I’m someone who owned a VW TDI a decade ago, and I still hasn’t gotten over how terrible the ownership experience was.

    The only VW I will ever consider owning is an electric VW. It’s enough of a reboot of their tech stack that I’m willing to give them another chance.

    Plus, I really want a couple of affordable EVs in American-Standard shapes and sizes (commuter car, 3-row family vehicle with toeing capability).

    I’m willing to pay about twice as much for an EV what I would pay for a gas car. I’m willing to pay up to about $20k for a gas car, and up to about $40k for an EV. Sooner or later, what I’m willing to pay will intersect with what’s available on the market.

  • avatar

    Why so much press for VW? Each car it builds has an effective life of 40,000 miles before it is consumed with Gremlins. I’m not sure how this brand persists, but maybe the Gremlins are the ones building and designing and engineering these mediocre products.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    If I have to pick a real car that was built (not a one off flying malaisemobile that killed it’s inventor one flight in) I’d say the BMW 318ti. I mean c’mon…it was the lightest E36 you could get, was a hatch, and as I recall, had the simpler E30 rear suspension. I believe it sold well elsewhere, but it was pretty slim in the US which makes me sad because I’d love a clean one to swap some M power into,

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