Volkswagen Sales Chief Says Government is Forcing Them to Build Electric Cars

By · November 12, 2010

Volkswagen's new electric car brand, blue-e-motion

Although Volkswagen is getting into the plug-in game relatively late—and they've been toning down the launch schedule for when and where they'll be bringing their EVs to market—after driving a prototype of the electric Golf on the streets of Wolfsburg, Germany, this week it seems that VW is indeed serious about bringing a real electric offering to the U.S. market by 2014.

The company has obviously put some strong thinking into how to best outfit an electric car as evidenced by their innovative implementation of regenerative braking on the E-Golf prototype. In the past Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of the Board of Management of Volkswagen, has also expressed passionate enthusiasm for the future of electric cars—both in general and as a part of VW's strategy.

Which is why it came as a bit of a contradictory shock to hear Volkswagen's Board Member responsible for sales, Christian Klingler, express emotions bordering on outright hostility regarding the future of electric cars in a roundtable discussion during the media launch for the electric Golf in Germany this week. "The electric car is not a request from the customer, the electric car is a request from the government," said Klingler, going on to describe how there is no market demand for electric cars.

According to Klingler, VW has been careful in developing electric cars and is waiting to see what the "willingness" of customers is to buy an electric car before they truly commit. Accordingly, the company's marketing analysis has pegged China as the "highest priority" market. Part way through the roundtable, when pressed a bit further about VW's actual level of commitment to the plug-in platform in light of the fact that he felt they were being forced to build them, Mr. Klingler backpedaled some saying, "There will be a market, we are sure. We are not against the electric car… the electric car is one part of the solution."

Yet when asked what kind of sales targets VW has for electric cars, Klingler sounded rather noncommittal again. "This is one of the most complicated questions to answer," he said citing the wide and varying range of analyst predictions for electric car market penetration rates. But he gave no estimate for how many electric cars VW thinks it might sell in the future or what kinds of goals it has set for itself. Curiously VW has no qualms about setting aggressive and specific goals for the rest of their model lineup, with Klingler saying VW is aiming to sell 10 million vehicles globally in 2018, with 800,000 of those sold in the U.S. alone. Again, this is a rather contradictory stance because, in the past Martin Winterkorn has said that EVs will comprise 3-5% of Volkwagen sales by 2020.

Klingler also said that a major part of why electric vehicles aren't the panacea that some supporters make them out to be is that they still contribute to global warming through the production of electricity from non-renewable sources—in fact, according to Klingler, in some parts of the world EVs are worse than average combustion-powered cars. "We have to find a solution how the electricity is produced because CO2 shouldn't go into the air when electricity is produced," he said. "When you buy an electric car in China, you can be sure you have 118 to 200 grams of CO2 produced per kilometer, which is twice what you have from a normal engine, so why should you do it?"

Many of us know that there are plenty of studies and resources (**see footnote below) that now clearly show this argument to be a fallacy, but when pressed that those numbers depend entirely on which study you look and how any given study defines what "well-to-wheel" means Klingler said, "No, no, there is no study."

It's taken me a few days to process all this and what it means for the future of the electric car at Volkswagen. On the one hand I appreciate the candor that Klingler showed; it's good to know that there are healthily differing viewpoints within the company. But when you fly a bunch of reporters out to an "e-mobility" event to test drive their flagship prototype electric car, is that really the right sales message to be conveying? Essentially I've come away from the roundtable thinking that VW will build an electric car, but they don't really want to and they are using old and, at this point, mostly dismissed, notions to say why potential customers won't want them. It kind of felt like GM and their self-destructive marketing message with the EV1. Ten years ago that might have been acceptable, but in this day and age that's only going to get you laughed out of the plug-in arena while your competitors scream "No soup for you!"

**See the following resources for refutation of the notion that EVs spew more global warming pollutants than an average combustion vehicle (~30 mpg):

  1. Doublecheck My Math: Hybrids Can Be Greener Than Electric Cars
  2. Electric Cars Are Better Even When "Fueled" with Coal

Disclosure: the author's trip was provided by Volkswagen

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