The Remedy for Volkswagen’s Diesel Scandal: Deliver on EV Promises

By · September 24, 2015

Audi Q6 E-Tron Quattro

VW is promising the Audi Q6 E-Tron Quattro, a 300-mile pure electric SUV, by 2018.

What a difference a few days make. Last week, Volkswagen made a strong appearance at the Frankfurt Motor Show—triumphantly unveiling a new dedicated electric crossover SUV from Audi, its luxury brand. The vehicle, promising more than 300 miles of range, would put VW in the vanguard of the green car market. But over the weekend, word emerged that the carmaker had for years been lying about the emissions of its so-called “clean diesel” cars, which actually contribute smog emissions up to 40 times beyond the legal limit in the United States.

Those revelations seriously undermined any notions of VW as a company that cares about cutting-edge eco-friendly technology. Eleven million vehicles worldwide will be affected by a recall, with fines and lawsuits likely to cost tens of billions of dollars. On Wednesday, Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen’s chief executive, resigned.

VW had promised drivers the ability to drive a sedan offering the superior performance and fuel economy of a turbodiesel—without spewing massive quantities of smog-forming chemicals and without special treatment systems that add cost. That was a lie.

How can Volkswagen reform its reputation as a green carmaker? Maybe the events at Frankfurt last week provide clues. Winterkorn told reporters that VW plans to release 20 different EV and plug-in hybrid models by 2020. For Volkswagen, plug-ins could be a lifeline.

Mapping an Electric Future

In September, Volkswagen’s eGolf was the fifth best selling pure EV in the United States. VW has sold more than 2,500 units to date. It’s more or less a Nissan LEAF for people who prefer Volkswagen styling and handling, and are willing to pay more for the privilege.

VW E-Golf

Sales of the VW E-Golf have so far been modest.

The auto conglomerate’s biggest U.S. release to date will be the Audi A3 E-Tron plug-in hybrid, which hits dealerships in North America this fall. The A3 plug-in has an expected electric range of 31 miles and will start at about $32,000 after federal tax incentives and delivery fee. It will be available in all 50 states, and could be the VW group’s highest profile plug-in car.

But to truly earn a reputation as an electric vehicle maker, Volkswagen AG will need to follow through on concepts like the Audi Q6 E-Tron Quattro. That’s the company’s electric crossover boasting a projected range of about 311 miles. Audi said the Q6 E-Tron is headed to market in 2018, based on a concept outfitted with enough tech-features to earn a look from even the most diehard Tesla enthusiast.

Also at Frankfurt, Volkswagen debuted its own branded crossover plug-in concept, the Tiguan GTE. The Tiguan is a plug-in hybrid that pairs an electric powertrain with a turbocharged gas engine to produce a peak of 215 horsepower. That’s a lot of power for a relatively affordable crossover SUV, especially one shooting for a combined efficiency rating of about 150 MPGe. Volkswagen didn’t say when we might see the Tiguan go into production.

VW also showed off an electric Porsche: the Mission E. It’s not only another 300-mile EV, but allows for 800-volt charging that could potentially charge the car’s huge battery to 80 percent in a mere 15 minutes.

Porsche Mission E

Porsche Mission E

For Volkswagen (and the auto industry), the dream of inexpensive clean diesel might be dead. Even if carmakers could deliver on VW’s false technological claims, the standard by which car companies can claim green status has shifted away from petro-burning cars that use less fossil fuel—to an era of electric propulsion.

While regulators will insist on this transition, Volkswagen—if it is to emerge from the diesel scandal—needs to go well beyond the minimal requirements of the law, and take a true leadership role in the emerging market of zero-emissions vehicles. That means making a prompt decisive shift from talking about its planned EVs, to actually producing and selling them in high quantities.

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