Can VW Catch Up With Electric-Car Technology?

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Volkswagen will catch up with electric-drive technology for one reason: if it doesn’t, it'll have nothing. 

VW’s "clean diesel" is dead because the company’s credibility is shot and the technological out is unappealing. The only way diesels can be cleaned up is by using urea tanks to neutralize their nitrous oxide emissions, and this is too cumbersome and expensive for small cars. Meanwhile, gasoline engines are maxing out on cleanliness as emissions standards rise—and, increasingly, are enforced.

That leaves electric drive, either in its pure or hybrid form. Other companies have shown that electric vehicles are practical—with government subsidies--but VW comes late to the party. Hybrid and longer-range plug-in hybrid vehicles will therefore be the short-term solution, as VW implied two days ago, in a statement:

“The focus is on plug-in hybrids with an even greater range, high-volume electric vehicles with a radius of up to 300 kilometers, a 48-volt power supply system (mild hybrid) as well as ever more efficient diesel, petrol and CNG [compressed natural gas] concepts.”

That reference to a 300-km (186 mile) range reiterates the broad promise made a few months ago by VW’s just-departed CEO, Martin Winterkorn. He said the company’s lab in Silicon Valley was working on a super-battery that he called “a quantum leap for the electric car,” one that would allow an electric Volkswagen to travel 300 kilometers (186 miles) on a charge.

Since then, Volkswagen hasn’t let any daylight in on the magic. If it’s there, then it’s a safe bet that it’s about to get an even bigger dollop of R&D funding.

Why did VW resist EV technology for so long? For one thing, the engineers there have been quoted over the years as hating it, arguing that nobody wants the attendant range anxiety. For another, they have publicly questioned the EV’s green credentials on the grounds that it merely shunts emissions from the tailpipe of a car to the smokestack of a generating plant.

But big companies don’t like to leave stones unturned, and VW has in fact been working on EVs. In Europe it sells the e-Golf, which though it compares well with other small electric cars is still a bit slow off the mark, as Lawrence Ulrich noted in Spectrum’s April issue: “The e-Golf does take about 10 seconds to reach 100 km/h, because it’s weighed down by a 318-kilogram, 24.2-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.”

And a super-battery could do more than extend range—it could be light enough to provide more pep. 

If VW’s in-house battery experts can’t make good on the superbattery’s promise, the company can always acquire an existing power in the EV world. Like, say, Tesla.

Do not laugh. Tesla has both the technology and the reputation that VW lacks, and its market capitalization, US $28.2 billion, is four billion less than what VW has in cash. Or had, before much of it was earmarked to cover the recall of dirty diesels and such. But if Volkswagen and its stakeholders really wanted to, they could probably muster the money.


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