Volkswagen’s Modular Manufacturing Paves Way for Mass-Produced Electric Vehicles
The highlight of my recent trip to Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany was a brief drive of the outrageously cool Volkswagen XL1. The carbon-fiber diesel plug-in hybrid with scissor-doors, and 260-mpg efficiency, is a head-turner. It was easy to get seduced by the XL1—and to get distracted by a desire for VW to produce more than only 250 units for the Europe market. But I discovered a more profound electric car innovation during my time with Volkswagen engineers: the use of modular manufacturing to create a pathway for vast numbers of mainstream VW models to go electric.
The VW brand’s MQB platform, announced early this year, is essentially a flexible assembly kit that will underpin the company's most popular models—from Polo to Golf and up to Passat, including the Audi TT and A3. (The seventh-generation Golf, on sale now, is the first to reside on MQB.) Volkswagen has used similar kits to bring cost efficiencies to other lines of its vehicles. But what’s remarkable about MQB is how it accounts for the likelihood that VW’s most popular cars will use a plug-in hybrid or battery electric powertrain—without costly redesign or compromising driver features.
In other words, MQB means that, going forward, the engine compartment, interior packaging, suspension and trunk of VW's popular models, including Audi cars, will be ready to accept batteries and electric powertrains. Executives, engineers and manufacturing planners are prepared for the transition to electric.
“In very concrete terms, the MQB enables the integration of
drive systems—in an identical mounting location—that range from two
entirely newly developed, modularly constructed engine series (petrol
engines: EA211 / diesel: EA288) and alternative drives such as CNG
(natural gas), hybrid or drive components for electric vehicles without
limitations or compromises.”
This stands in contrast with one-off high-profile electric cars, or after-the-fact adaptations of gas-powered cars into electric models. The former can lead to a big expense and a difficult path to economies of scale—and the latter all too often requires compromises, such as giving up trunk space to make room for battery packs.
In Volkswagen’s press materials created for the launch of the MQB platform in January 2013, the company explicitly stated that the goal of the modular system was to allow for use of renewable energy sources, efficient drive systems, and CO2-neutral mobility concepts, including “the breakthrough of electro-traction.”
During my trip to Wolfsburg and Berlin, Volkswagen showed off its CrossBlue Coupé five-seat plug-in hybrid SUV concept—that was debuted in April in Shanghai. If the concept were put into production and brought to the United States, it would fill a gap in the electric market. It’s a 415-horsepower V6 plug-in hybrid SUV that can travel 21 miles purely on electricity. The CrossBlue Coupé zips from 0 to 62 miles per hour in less than six seconds, and has a top speed of 147 miles per hour. Like many future VW models, it’s based on the MQB toolkit.
Poised to Act, But When?
If the CrossBlue Coupé were produced, the model could be built with natural gas, hybrid, or electric powertrains as well as diesel or gasoline engines—all equipped with five comfortable seats and a spacious trunk. The refueling ports for the gas tank and the battery were integrated into the design. The vehicle’s electrical architecture includes a lithium-ion battery mounted in the center tunnel as well as a pair of electric motors: 54 horsepower at the front and 114 horsepower in back.
Okay, so it’s still a concept—just as the XL1 is a very limited production car. As such, Volkswagen could be accused of dragging its heels on EVs. Some would argue that it’s all talk and little action so far. I suppose that’s fair.
But the bigger point is that Volkswagen wants to be the biggest car company in the world, and sees smart flexible manufacturing at a massive scale as essential to achieving that goal. The effective use of battery packs and electric motors in its most popular models is baked into the vision. VW executives know that efficiency and emissions standards across the globe will become increasingly difficult to meet in the coming years—and that robust electric powertrains are needed.
Based on what I heard Volkswagen executives say in Germany last month, and what they showed, it’s no longer a question of whether or not VW will become a major player in the plug-in market. It’s a matter of when.
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