Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Wolfsburg — If Volkswagen (VW) realises its ambition of becoming the global leader in electric cars, it will be thanks to a radical and risky bet born out of the biggest calamity in its history.

The German giant has staked its future, to the tune of €80bn ($91bn), on being able to profitably mass-produce electric vehicles — a feat no car maker has come close to achieving.

So far, mainstream car makers’ electric plans have had one main goal: to protect profits gleaned from high-margin conventional cars by adding enough zero-emission vehicles to their fleet to meet clean-air rules. Customers have, meanwhile, largely shunned electric vehicles because they are too expensive, can be inconvenient to charge and lack range.

The biggest strategy shift in VS’s 80 years has its roots in a weekend crisis meeting at the Rothehof guesthouse in Wolfsburg on October 10 2015, senior executives told Reuters.

At the meeting hosted by then VW brand chief Herbert Diess, nine top managers gathered on a cloudy Saturday afternoon to discuss the way forward after regulators blew the whistle on the company’s emissions cheating, a scandal that cost it more than €27bn in fines and tainted its name.

“It was an intense discussion, so was the realisation that this could be an opportunity, if we jump far enough,” said Jürgen Stackmann, VW brand’s board member for sales. “It was an initial planning session to do more than just play with the idea of electric cars,” he told Reuters. “We asked ourselves: what is our vision for the future of the brand? Everything that you see today is connected to this.”

Now the “villain” of dieselgate is likely to become the largest producer of electric cars in the world in coming years, analysts say, putting it in pole position to flood the market

Just three days after the Rothehof meeting of the VW brand’s management board, VW announced plans to develop an electric-vehicle (EV) platform, code named MEB, paving the way for mass production of an affordable EV.

For months after the VW scandal blew up in 2015, rival car makers treated diesel-cheating as a “VW issue”, according to industry experts. But regulators have since uncovered excessive emissions across the sector and unleashed a clampdown that undermines the business case for combustion engines, forcing a sector-wide rethink.

Now the “villain” of dieselgate is likely to become the largest producer of electric cars in the world in coming years, analysts say, putting it in pole position to flood the market — should the demand materialise.

“Decisions to convert the Emden factory (in Lower Saxony) to build electric cars would never have happened without this Saturday meeting,” said Stackmann, one of five senior VW executives who spoke to Reuters. However, the full scale of VW’s ambitions were only revealed two months ago when it took the industry by surprise by pledging to spend €80bn to develop EVs and buy batteries, dwarfing the investment of rivals.

It plans to raise annual production of electric cars to 3-million by 2025, from 40,000 in 2018.

Strategic perils

It’s a risky bet. With regulators and lawmakers, rather than customers, dictating what kind of vehicles can hit the road, analysts at Deloitte say the industry could produce 14-million electric cars for which there is no consumer demand.

It’s also an all-or-nothing bet in the long run.

VW, whose ID electric car will hit showrooms in 2020, has set a deadline for ending mass production of combustion engines. The final generation of petrol and diesel engines will be developed by 2026.

Arndt Ellinghorst, analyst at Evercore ISI, said betting on EVs  could be risky because customers did not want to own cars dependent on street-charging facilities. “What if people are still not ready to own EVs? Will adoption be the same in the US, Europe and China?” he said.

But he added that EU and Chinese emissions regulations make EV adoption inevitable and that being an early industry mover in that direction offers a “positive risk-reward”.

Old guard

Another by-product of dieselgate that quickened VW’s electric drive, according to the senior executives, was a purge of the company’s old guard, who became the focus of public and political anger. This empowered Diess, a newcomer who had joined as VW brand boss shortly before US regulators exposed the car maker’s emission test cheating.

Diess, who joined from BMW where he helped pioneer a ground-breaking EV, has since been appointed CEO of VW Group, a multi-brand empire that includes Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Seat, Škoda, Lamborghini and Ducati.

Car makers have failed to mass-produce EVs profitably largely because of the prohibitive cost of battery packs that make up between 30% and 50% of the cost of an EV. A 500km-range battery costs about $20,000, compared with a petrol engine that costs about $5,000. Add to that another $2,000 for the electric motor and inverter, and the gap is even wider.

Even electric start-up Tesla’s cheapest car, the Model 3, is on sale in Germany at €55,400, priced just below a base model Porsche Macan, a compact SUV. In the US, Model 3 prices start at $35,950.

VW believes its scale will give it an edge to build an EV costing no more than its current Golf model, about €20,000, using its procurement clout as the world’s largest car and truck maker to drive down the cost. “We are Volkswagen, a brand for the people. For electric cars we need economies of scale. And VW, more than any other car maker, can take advantage of this,” a senior VW executive told Reuters, declining to be named.

The car maker’s EV budget outstrips that of its closest competitor, Germany’s Daimler, which has committed $42bn. General Motors, the number one US car maker, has said it plans to spend a combined $8bn on electric and self-driving vehicles.

Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi said in late 2017 they will spend €10bn by 2022 on developing electric and autonomous cars. “On a 2025 view, we expect VW to be the number one EV producer globally,” UBS analyst Patrick Hummel said. “Tesla is likely to remain a niche player.”

Stricter testing

VW’s test-cheating using engine management software — “defeat devices” — resulted in the introduction of tougher pollution tests that revealed in 2016 and 2017 that emissions readings across the industry were up to 20% higher under real-world driving conditions compared with lab conditions.

This has raised the bar on the automotive sector’s efforts to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, blamed for causing global warming.  In December, EU law makers agreed a cut in carbon dioxide emissions from cars of 37.5% by 2030 compared with 2021 levels. This was after the EU forced a 40% cut in emissions between 2007 and 2021.

“This goal is no longer reachable using combustion engines alone,” Volkmar Denner, CEO of Bosch, the world’s biggest automotive supplier, said about the 2030 proposals. Every gram of excessive carbon dioxide pollution will be penalised with a €95 fine from this year onwards.

Ford, VW and BMW said they would meet emissions their targets because of a push to sell more hybrid and electric cars in 2018

Strategy firm PA Consulting forecasts that VW will face a €1.4bn penalty for overstepping average limits in Europe by 2021, while Ford and Fiat-Chrysler face fines of €430m and €700m, respectively.

Emissions

Daimler, BMW, PSA, Mazda and Hyundai will miss their 2021 average emissions targets, PA Consulting forecasts. Toyota, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Volvo, Honda and Jaguar Land Rover are on track to meet their goals. PA Consulting’s forecasts are extrapolated using 2017 registration data for each powertrain type and consumer buying trends, but do not include more recent sales trends.

Ford, VW and BMW said they would meet emissions their targets because of a push to sell more hybrid and electric cars in 2018. Daimler said it aims to meet the targets, PSA said it would respect the targets while Fiat-Chrysler declined to comment. Mazda had no immediate comment, while Hyundai did not respond to a request for comment.

Car makers have struggled to lower their average fleet emissions because of a shift in customer taste toward heavier, bigger SUVs, which make it harder to maintain the same levels of acceleration and comfort without increasing fuel consumption and pollution.

SUVs are now the most popular vehicle category in Europe, commanding a market share of 34.6%, according to JATO Dynamics. Even Porsche, which makes lightweight sports cars, relies on SUVs for 61% of sales.

As the industry-wide scale of excessive emissions prompted Brussels to push through tougher laws late last year, VW executives concluded that purely electric cars were the most efficient way to meet carbon dioxide goals across its fleet. This was the point of no return, according to executives, when the company made the final electric investment decisions and committed to staying the course it had plotted after dieselgate.

COO Ralf Brandstätter told Reuters about VW’s deliberations in November, “After evaluating alternatives, we opted for electro-mobility.”

Reuters