Volkswagen Explains Its Complicated Relationship With Electricity and Fuel

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 16 comments
  • Cprescott Cprescott on Apr 07, 2020

    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.

  • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Apr 07, 2020

    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' 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,

  • JOHN One is for sale on an ebay car donation site.
  • Scott So they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars and they are promising us a “Cheaper EV”? I wonder how that will look and feel? They killed the Fiesta because they claimed that they couldn’t make a profit on them and when I bought the first one in late 2010 they couldn’t deliver the accessories I wanted for it! Then I bought a 2016 Fiesta ST and again couldn’t get the accessories for it I wanted. They claimed that the components were going to be available, eventually. So they lost on that one as well! I don’t care about what they say anymore. I’ve moved on to another brand.
  • Michael S6 CX 70 or 90 will not be on my buying list. Drove a rental base CX 90 and it was noisy and the engine noise was not pleasant. Ride was rough for a family SUV. Mazda has to understand that what is good for Miata isn't what we expect in semi luxury SUV. My wife's 2012 Buick Enclave has much better Ride and noise level albeit at worse gas millage. Had difficulty pairing my phone with Apple CarPlay
  • Michael S6 What is the metric conversion between one million barrels and the number of votes he expects to buy.
  • NJRide This could give Infiniti dealers an extra product maybe make it a sub brand