January 9th, 2020 by Zachary Shahan
Volkswagen is launching into what could be a huge electric decade that reinvents and rejuvenates the large global automotive group. Yes, the Volkswagen ID.3 — which is sort of supposed to be the VW Beetle or Golf of this century — has some delays. Reinvention can be tough. I was not particularly hard on Tesla or concerned about Tesla as it went through “production hell,” and I don’t think a few Volkswagen ID hiccups are anything to freak out about — the long game is what’s important (as long as you can get to the long game).
What’s more important, in my opinion, is that Volkswagen Group is aiming to become the #1 producer of electric vehicles within the next handful of years. That may be a little more hyperbole than is warranted, but I think the intention is clear and solid. Volkswagen Group aims to produce 3 million electric vehicles a year by 2020 (many Tesla bulls expect Tesla to be producing more than that), and the Volkswagen brand alone is aiming for 1.5 million by 2025, and 1 million by 2023. Going from close to zero today, that’s a steep ramp. If it was a startup, it would be rivaling Tesla’s plans to date. (And, to be honest, electric vehicle enthusiasts might be much more excited about it.)
I get excited about Volkswagen’s plans. It is rolling out dozens of fully electric models, and they look attractive and compelling. They aren’t quite as compelling as Tesla vehicles in my book, but they are close enough and many normal consumers will prefer to buy their first electric vehicles from what some people claim is the largest automotive company in the world. Despite hiccups, it’s noteworthy that Volkswagen fully converted an old gasmobile factory to be an electric vehicle factory, is doing so with other factories around the world, and is investing in battery production startups and facilities. I don’t think Volkswagen moved its EV sales targets up by 2 years recently with an intention to miss them and fall on its face.
However, two questions repeatedly come to mind. To be clear, I have an open mind about these — I’m not bullish, but I’m also not too skeptical, as I don’t think I have enough information yet and am in “learning mode.”
The first topic is autonomy. Previously driving a 2015 Tesla Model S with first-generation Autopilot (hardware by Mobileye) and now driving a 2019 Tesla Model 3 with “Full Self Driving,” with a 2015 BMW i3 and plenty of rental cars in between, I have a hard time seeing any other automaker being close to what Tesla is doing. Volkswagen has some investments in this space, and it has a MOIA ride-sharing pilot running in Germany that currently uses human drivers but is supposed to utilize self-driving vehicles someday. (Visit the MOIA website and our MOIA archives for more info.)
Here’s a video from MOIA’s launch in April 2019:
Here’s a December 2016 video featuring the CEO of Volkswagen talking about the future of mobility:
Like all automakers, Volkswagen aims to be “a leader” in autonomy. It is certainly focusing more than ever before on software and appears to be going in the right direction, as a recent presentation from Chairman of the Board and Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess indicates.
That looks like a super smart shift for Volkswagen, and the German automaker should be able to build out a strong software sub-business.
However, its autonomy investments, capabilities, and potential are all rather obscure to me. Volkswagen indicates an investment in ARGO (which it’s cool to see has a solar roof on its headquarters). It’s just difficult to get any sense of how far off Level 4 autonomy is. True — it’s hard to guess how long it will take for any company (Tesla included) to get to Level 4 autonomy that isn’t geofenced, and it’s a highly controversial debate. But this is probably the most fundamental question regarding Volkswagen’s electric vehicle plans and its future. Any insight on this topic from within the walls of Volkswagen Group?
The second big topic or question I consistently have is about how the Osborne Effect will roll out within Volkswagen Group. As a refresher, the Osborne effect is when a company’s or industry’s sales slump (potentially to a fatal level) because consumers are awaiting a notably better product that is expected to be around the corner.
This is how it’s a significant matter with regards to Volkswagen: The company is really pushing electric vehicles now. It’s about to start shipping its first highly compelling and I think cost-competitive electric vehicles, models which I think are objectively superior to any of Volkswagen’s gasoline or diesel models in popular vehicle classes. It will take some time for consumers to become aware of these electric models and their benefits. It will take some time to warm up to the idea of going electric, charging a car instead of gassing it up, etc. However, at some point, a large portion of the public — and especially a large portion of Volkswagen’s target demographics — will understand that electric cars are better, have lower cost of ownership, and are “the future.” As the masses see them as “the near future” and are getting ready to go electric, they will forego new gasoline/diesel vehicle purchases.
Will that happen with a slow enough ramp for Volkswagen to carefully transition to e-mobility in a financially solvent way? Will its projected rise in EV sales and decline in fossil fuel vehicle sales fit the desired curves? Or will something like 25% off Volkswagen buyers go electric with a few years while another 25% or more sit on the sidelines and wait to go electric in the near future (but also not buy a fossil vehicle)?
Even assuming they don’t defect to Tesla or Nio, the transition to electric vehicles could present serious production and financial challenges. Some have argued — perhaps accurately — that there won’t be enough EV battery supply for more than 25% EV sales by 2025. Perhaps there will be a one-year wait for a new Volkswagen ID.3 or ID.4 (ID Crozz). If that’s the case, will consumers simply buy another gasoline car, or will they wait?
My hunch, from how other tech transitions have occurred, is that the S-curve will be steep, so steep that it won’t look like an S. If that’s how it rolls, what’s Volkswagen’s plan if it has demand for 3 million fossil vehicles in 2025 instead of 8 million? How much is it working to have the capability to produce 5 million electric vehicles in 2025 instead of 3 million? How will its finances look under such a scenario?
Any insight or forecasts on these matters is welcome. We will be doing what we can to learn more from Volkswagen execs about these complicated topics. They are the most fascinating of the coming decade, in my humble opinion.
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