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Dreaming e-mobility

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If Volkswagen manages to steer its 2030 green technology vision as planned, it may well give its competitors a serious run on the e-road, writes Preeti Mehra

The distinctive four brown chimneys of the 1930s façade of the Volkswagen AG headquarters dominates the Wolfsburg landscape. Steeped in...


If Volkswagen manages to steer its 2030 green technology vision as planned, it may well give its competitors a serious run on the e-road, writes Preeti Mehra

The distinctive four brown chimneys of the 1930s façade of the Volkswagen AG headquarters dominates the Wolfsburg landscape. Steeped in history, this German town, close to Hannover, is where the story of an automobile company that has seen decades of change begins. With an equal measure of successes and upheavals over the years, it has raced ahead to stay relevant at every turn.

Putting behind the 2015 diesel scamVW, the largest automaker by sales worldwide, is now buzzing with the idea of introducing large-scale e-mobility, whose time, it believes, has come.

Ready to take on Tesla and other carmakers in the electric vehicle space, this September it announced massive investments along with the jaw-dropping news that it is planning to bring into the market place 50 new fully electric cars and 30 plug-in hybrid models by 2025, enabling its customers to seamlessly switch to green technology.

“With changes taking place in the world at such a rapid pace, our dreams are also getting faster,” says Peter Wouda, head of vehicle design. And it is not the next generation of cars that is engaging his mind, but “what is coming beyond 2020 up to 2030.” Having helped put in place Future Centres in the three major markets of Asia (Beijing), Europe (Berlin) and the US (Silicon Valley, San Francisco), he says these are not regular design studios and though those with “classical competencies are also on board”, with these they are building a strong team of user experience and software and hiring people from areas as diverse as the gaming industry and design technology to build up teams, which are inter-disciplinary and “get the best guys on one table”.

The strategy includes using the services of customers who experience the prototypes and comment on user experience. VW has even roped in children for their autonomous vehicle project. “With autonomy children will be able to go to school by themselves in the future” in what he describes as a room space that can be used as one pleases. Wouda basically sees the future electric vehicle, without the need for the engine in the front and the boot at back, as a skate board — a floor space on which a variety of designs can be placed.

Digital thrust

Integrating with his design concept is VWs thrust on executing a digital transformation of the company. It hired the services of Chief Digital Officer Johann Jungwirth two years ago who works along with Wouda in the Future Centres on six core areas including an interface with customer and retail, marketing, user experience, digital products and smart mobility services.

Jungwirth calls it a “software paradigm shift” for the company. He says, “We believe we need to shift from being a hardware company into a vertically integrated hardware and software company, so we have now added software services to the same level as hardware used to be for so many years.” In order to build a “digital environment” and there is even a plan to give iPhones for all employees so that all of them can be on “one platform, one smart phone” and data, services, production can all get linked for best results.

Showcasing the future

The opportunity to take a peek at the digital mindset of the company and its innovative R&D solutions for electric cars amply present themselves at VW’s Transparent Factory in Dresden, Germany. Here, apart from assembling the all-electric new e-Golf, with a range of up to 300 kilometers, the company showcases its future plans for digitalisation and e-mobility. So along with witnessing the production of the e-Golf, which is assembled at two levels on a scaled assembly line served by an electric suspended monorail system, the glass factory sports 30 interactive exhibits and vehicles that provide visitors a glimpse into future logistic solutions and enables delivery of e-vehicles to customers.

The most fascinating prototype here is Sedric, the self-driving car. A vision of future mobility, it has no pedals and no steering wheel with passengers being able to sit facing each other, working or taking phone calls as they do not need to have their eyes on the road. Devised, designed and developed at the Future Centre in Europe, it is a Level 5 autonomous vehicle – currently the highest in development – and requires one push of the VW OneButton to start driving automatically and fully automatedly.

Immediate focus

That of course is for the future. For now, it is the e-Golf that the company is concentrating on. A Golf seventh generation car, it is based on the MQB platform and has its batteries all fitted underneath the floor space. The battery pack has 24 cells, each weighing around 12 kg. The whole pack, however, weighs 350 kg, which include the junction box, the cell controller, the management system and the insulation. VW sources its battery cells from Samsung and assembles the pack at its own facility in Braunschweig.

Of course, if VW has to realise its e-mobility dream it will require 150 gigawatt-hours of annual battery production to electrify all the cars it intends to make in the future. A tall order, but something that the company says it is working towards.

It is also focussing on charging stations, the essential infrastructure required for its e-mobility vision to fructify. The e-Golf on a standard charge cycle takes several hours to charge but it can also be fitted with a fast charger that enables it to charge the battery up to 80 per cent in half an hour. But of course, the key to future electric cars is the ability to increase the range and charge much faster, a challenge that VW is aware of. It’s R&D wing is currently working overtime on these very aspects.

India and e-cars

There is little doubt that in the years to come India will slowly but surely move to electric cars/ vehicles. The Government has said so in as many words.

In a meeting with carmakers, the Road Transport and Highways Minister, Nitin Gadkari was fairly explicit that the Government intends to move from conventional fossil fuel to alternative sources of energy. He also proposed that battery for electric cars be manufactured in India itself so that costs can be contained and promised an appropriate infrastructure of charging stations.

Though it remains to be seen when and how this will happen, with Tesla’s cost factor beyond the common citizen’s reach, the less expensive e-Golf could well make its presence relevant in India.

This would help VW add another iconic product to its Indian portfolio and realise its aim to usher in e-mobility in this part of the world as well.

The writer was in Germany at the invitation of Volkswagen

(This article was published on October 24, 2017)

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