By Gary S. Vasilash

The CES show, which is produced by the Consumer Technology Association, was once an event that when by the non-acronymic moniker: Consumer Electronics Show.

That seemed to be somewhat limiting, so the official name was changed to just the three letters.

One could argue that it worked out fairly well because now CES is what some say the best auto show running.

At the recent 2023 CES there were some 3,200 exhibitors at the Las Vegas Convention Center at nearly 10% of the total were in the Vehicle Technology category, with everything from suppliers of sensors to well-known OEMs like VW to want-to-be-known ones like Sony Honda Mobility.

Clever, color-changing camo for the VW ID.7, a vehicle shown at the 2023 CES. (Image: Volkswagen)

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” Chris Thomas, former chief technology officer at BorgWarner who is now an industry consultant and Paul Eisenstein, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Detroit Bureau, join “Autoline’s” John McElroy and me to talk about what they saw at CES. (The other three were there. I wasn’t.)

The conversation ranges from small radar sensors that could be deployed in vehicle interiors to determine what’s on a given seat and under the hood to determine the level of washer fluid (they are both small and economical) to the BMW concept car that features an exterior material that allows the selection of 32 different colors and combinations thereof—when you want them.

The consensus of the group is that technology is what is driving changes in the auto industry and CES is the correct venue for the exhibition of that technology. (It should also be noted that the CEOs of BMW and Stellantis made keynote addresses; the show also has a conference element to it.)

While there continues to be some doubt about the prospect of traditional auto shows going beyond the function of showing the consumers the latest in vehicles that they can also see at their local dealers, going back to the function of providing a look at what could be, it seems that there is no question about the viability of CES providing the latter function in a very big way.

You can see the show here.

Building the ID. Buzz

By Gary S. Vasilash

The Volkswagen ID. Buzz will not go on sale in the U.S. until 2024. The degree of interest in this vehicle is immense, perhaps, in part, because while there are other OEMs offering (or developing) EV pickups, Volkswagen has this “microbus” category to itself when it comes to fully battery electric vehicles (i.e., Chrysler has long had the Pacifica hybrid and Toyota offers the current-generation Sienna only as a hybrid).

And even were others to get into this space (e.g., GM brings back the Venture, Silhouette and Trans Sport—wait, while the first was a Chevy the other two were, respectively, an Olds and a Pontiac, and they don’t exist anymore—the brands; there are undoubtedly some Silhouettes and Trans Sports still out there, as S&P Mobility says that the average age of a truck on the road is 11.6 years) they would not have the same resonance as the ID. Buzz will.

VW ID. Buzz, Euro model. (Image: VW)

The ID. Buzz is being produced in Hanover, Germany, by the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles (VWCV) operation. One reason why that’s reasonable is there is a commercial variant of the vehicle, the ID. Buzz Cargo.

The vehicles have been in production since May, as they are available in the home market.

(Also in Hanover they’re producing the Multivan with various powertrain options, including a plug-in hybrid.)

Josef Baumert, member of the VWCV Brand Management Board for Production and Logistics, said, “After 203 we will produce 130,000 units of the ID. Buzz and ID. Buzz Cargo at our Hanover plant” annually.

Given that Ford got 200,000 preorders for its F-150 Lightning before it put a pause on taking any more names lest those waiting and waiting become annoyed with Ford, odds are that the 130,000 is going to be an insufficient number for the microbuses to meet demand in Europe and the U.S.

Of course, that’s a good problem for a vehicle manufacturer to have.

Electrify America & VinFast

Electrify America is the largest network of electric vehicle fast-charging facilities in the United States. As of today the company has 750 stations and 81 more in the works. Electrify America is investing billions in building out stations and providing education about zero-emissions vehicles. On the one hand, as this is a growing segment it makes good business sense. But on the other, the $2-billion designated for spending is predicated on a legal finding that goes back to the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal, so it was perhaps a good coincidence in some ways for Volkswagen Group (i.e., as it produces more electric vehicles, it has the means by which they can be charged).

But Electrify America isn’t a VW-only network. Most companies that have an EV offering have established a relationship with it, including: Audi, BMW, Byton, Fisker, Ford, Hyundai, Lucid, Kia, Mercedes, Polestar, Porsche, Volvo, and, yes, VW.

Today Electrify America added another OEM to its list: VinFast, the Vietnam-based OEM that announced late in March that it will build an assembly plant for its electric SUVs in North Carolina.

VinFast operates a plant in Hai Phong, Vietnam, at present. Production in North Carolina is anticipated in Q3 of 2024.

The company says it will have global availability of its VF 8 and VF 9 EVs this year.

A car company operating a charging network. A Vietnamese company building a car plant in North Carolina.

Yes, electric vehicles are changing the world in many ways.

Oliver Schmidt & VW Dieselgate

By Gary S. Vasilash

Diesels have had a popularity in Europe that has never been the case for the U.S. Outside of pickup trucks purchased by contractors rather than by those who simply want a pickup truck because (a) it is a truck or (b) there is that need to buy mulch every now and then, the diesel has had the approximate popularity of manual transmissions in the U.S.

Volkswagen executives in the mid-00s thought that they might be able to gain some market share in the U.S. market were they to develop a “clean diesel”—one that didn’t have the smelly exhaust associated with diesels (it is somewhat inexplicable how Europeans didn’t seem to mind) yet would provide the oft-touted low-end torque seemingly beloved by everyone, as well the kind of fuel efficiency that the compression ignition engine would provide.

So the EA189 engine was developed. But it turns out there was a non-trivial problem with it: It wouldn’t meet the U.S. emissions requirements. VW obviously couldn’t sell a whole lot of Jetta TDIs in the U.S. with that problem.

So the engineers in Wolfsburg came up with what can innocently be described as a “work-around,” or what is now a term of art, “defeat device.”

But it wasn’t a device as in something physical that was stuck in the tailpipe.

Rather, it was software. The software was developed so that it was able to determine whether the vehicle in question was being tested or not. If it was being tested, then it adjusted things so that there wouldn’t be excessive emissions.

Otherwise. . . .

Apparently the engineers who came up with this figured it would be a short-term “fix.”

But as those things happen, short turned into long.

So VW was merrily selling diesel-powered vehicles in the U.S. About 500,000 of them.

In 2014 the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) contracted with researchers at the University of West Virginia. The task was to check the emissions of the VW diesels.

So the researchers drove around in instrumented vehicles. . .and discovered the emissions were on the order of 35 times greater than was permitted.

In September 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency served a “Notice of Violation” to VW telling the vehicle manufacturer that its diesel-powered vehicles were equipped with a defeat-device.

And so “Dieselgate” began.

The questions of “What did they know and when did they know it?” became the order of the day, with questions at all levels, including to the very top, to Dr. Martin Winterkorn, then CEO of the company.

And there were evident coverups galore, changes at the top, and fines that would make anyone gulp.

Oliver Schmidt had been assigned by VW Wolfsburg to move to the U.S. and take charge of the U.S. operation’s emissions office in 2012. This was before the shit hit the fan. But he was there when it did hit. And there were meetings that he’d participated in with various government officials, from the federal EPA as well as the California Resources Board (CARB).

He was transferred back to Germany and in January 2017, when he and his wife were going to be returning to Germany after their annual vacation in Florida, we was arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

In December 2017 a federal judge sentenced Schmidt to seven years.

He managed to get transferred to German prison in September 2020. He was granted parole in January 2021.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” we talk to Schmidt about Dieselgate and his time in prison.

Realize that this is a guy who is as far from being a criminal as you can imagine. A regular engineer in his early 40s.

And due to all manner of what can be described as “political machinations” within Volkswagen AG, he, not the people who were running the place, ended up behind bars.

Schmidt talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Brett Smith director of Technology at the Center for Automotive Research, and me in a conversation that is unlike any you’re likely to watch.

And you can see it here.

On the ID.Buzz

By Gary S. Vasilash

Volkswagen “officially” revealed the electric ID.Buzz van today. The vehicle looks much like the concept vehicle that was revealed at the Detroit Show in 2017, and it even has the same name. Car companies show concepts at shows in order to gauge the interest of potential consumers. Clearly the ID.Buzz scored big points.

Although its heritage goes back to the T1 van introduced in 1950 in Germany, for many Americans there is almost no need to squint so as to see the VW microbus that was (and is) beloved by a whole cadre of free-spirits, from surfers to people who long for the days chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The phrase “No one likes minivans” will certainly go away when the ID.Buzz hits the road. (Image: VW)

The ID.Buzz (which also comes in a cargo variant: probably ideal for those who shape surfboards or do a lot of precision spray painting) will not arrive in the U.S. until 2024.

But between now and then there will undoubtedly be lots of—dare I say?—buzz about this new vehicle. There will be announcements galore about the interest being exhibited by consumers in a way that might even make Elon Musk feel moderately envious.

What’s interesting to note is how one of the things that traditional OEMs are doing to draw interest to their EVs is to borrow from their heritage.

There is the ID.Buzz. Ford’s first serious entrant into the New Era of EVs was the Mustang. GM is going with the HUMMER.

To be sure, VW has the ID.4 available right now in the U.S. market. It is doing reasonably well sales-wise.

But there is absolutely no question that the ID.Buzz is going to do unreasonably well—there will be a sell-out situation—and a large part of that probably has to do with the nostalgic feelings it will provoke in plenty of people.

Sunk Anticipation

By Gary S. Vasilash

One of the things that hasn’t been mentioned about the burning then sinking of the Felicity Ace cargo ship, the vehicle carrier that caught fire on February 17, then sank this week in the Atlantic, is that there are now some 4,000 customers who are not going to be getting their Bentleys, Audis, Porsches, Lamborghinis, and Volkswagens anytime soon.

While there isn’t a specific brand or model delineation, Porsche has acknowledged that about 25% of the vehicles that are now sunk (possibly the charred husks of said vehicles), let’s face it: When it comes to Bentleys and Lambos, there is an inverse relation between their volume and their MSRP, so even if there are but a few, that is undoubtedly a big chunk of the estimated $438-million worth of cargo on board.

Audis, of course, are not inexpensive, but compared to the other three, not nearly as much. And Volkswagens, of course, are the everyman accessible brand among the group.

But those brands (all, incidentally, under the umbrella of the Volkswagen Group) are, like any right now, be it Ford or Toyota or Kia, still facing the chip shortage. Which means the ability to make vehicles is still restricted.

Which means there are some order-holders who will find their wait has just gotten that much longer.

Car Buying in America

By Gary S. Vasilash

In 2019 some 148,000 went to a facility in Wolfsburg, Germany. Not surprisingly, COVID 19 reduced the numbers (97,570 in 2020).

The reason those people went to Autostadt was to pick up their new Volkswagen.

And while there they could visit a museum, walk through vehicle pavilions, eat everything from light fair to fine dining, and even stay at a Ritz-Carlton. They could even attend concerts.

Autostadt is the world’s largest auto delivery center.

Volkswagen has turned getting a vehicle into an amazing experience.

People don’t have to pick up their VWs at the Autostadt. It is a choice.

(While I’ve never personally picked up a car at Autostadt, I’ve been there on more than one visit to Wolfsburg and it is remarkable.)

There is nothing like it in the United States.

One of the towers at Autostadt where vehicles are located before delivery. (Photo: Landmann, Lars)

There are factory-owned dealerships in Germany. Meaning, for example, VW-owned.

There are no factory-owned dealerships in the U.S.

Why? Why isn’t there a Ford Factory Store in Dearborn where you could go pick up an F-150 that has been built for you, a facility that is affiliated with the Henry Ford so that there would be the opportunity to have a complete experience beyond the vehicle delivery alone?

Simply because of dealer franchise laws in all 50 states.

Did you ever wonder why you can’t but a vehicle from Amazon?

The same reason. The franchise laws.

What’s the rationale?

According to the National Auto Dealers Association:

“automobiles are sold through franchised dealers because that business model is a good deal for everyone. Consumers are given extra protection in the marketplace, local communities benefit when local businesses compete to sell and service great products, and manufacturers get to invest their capital into designing, engineering and marketing great products in lieu of low-margin retailing. For these and other reasons, state legislatures have passed laws that promote the buying, selling and servicing of cars through local franchised dealers.”

Tim Jackson, the president and CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, simplifies that as “Win, win, win.” A win for the OEM. A win for the consumer. A win for the community.

And, as anyone who has bought a vehicle within the past several months from a dealer knows, a win for the dealership, as they have racked up record profits.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” Jackson explains why dealers are a good deal for consumers to “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Alexa St. John of Business Insider, and me.

Although there are surveys indicating that people do want to purchase on line and to get vehicles delivered where and when they want them rather than having to go through a dealership, Jackson, not surprisingly, argues that dealerships will continue to play a role in the transaction.

Of course, perhaps trying to emulate Tesla, which doesn’t have franchise dealers, it seems that more and more startup companies (e.g., Lucid, Rivian) are foregoing the franchise model.

Here’s a thought: Aren’t all traditional OEMs doing their damnedest to compete with Tesla on product?

Might they not rethink their model of getting products to consumers?

Well, there are all of those laws that makes that difficult to achieve, to say the least.

But I’m willing to bet that the Germans who have had the Autostadt experience think far more of VW than anyone who has picked up a car from their local dealer, cappuccino machine notwithstanding.

You can see the show here.

Volkswagen Group 2021 EV Numbers

By Gary S. Vasilash

Volkswagen Group—Volkswagen, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, Škoda, SEAT, CUPRA, Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley, Ducati, Porsche—announced its combined electric vehicle sales on a global basis for 2021.

The company delivered 452,900 battery electric vehicles in ’21, a 95.5% increase over ’20 numbers, when it delivered 231,600 units.

The vehicles that are the biggest contributors:

  • Volkswagen ID.4: 119,600 units
  • Volkswagen ID.3: 75,500 units
  • Audi e-tron:  49,200 units
  • ŠKODA Enyaq iV:  44,700 units
  • Volkswagen e-up!: 41,400 units
  • Porsche Taycan:  41,300 units

Of that, the ID.3, Enyaq iV and e-up! are not available in the U.S. market. That represents a total of a non-trivial 161,600 units.

Here’s something to consider about that 452,900 EVs:

The Group delivered a total 8,882,000 vehicles in 2021.

Put the numbers in context.

EVs Made Simple

Why shouldn’t they be simple?

By Gary S. Vasilash

Years ago, before there were plug-in hybrids, I remember having an early Prius to test drive.

My neighbors were sufficiently knowledgeable about cars to know that it was something different.

So I explained to them that at some points during the drive cycle the Prius was capable of driving on electricity alone, that there were both electric motor and generator functions, as well as a good-ol’ internal combustion engine.

And the single question that came: “Where do you plug it in?”

I explained that it didn’t have a plug.

“How does it run on electricity?”

I tried to explain that the generator charged the battery and the battery powered an electric motor that drove the wheels.

And I might as well have been talking in some alien language.

After there were plug-in hybrids out there for a few years, when the then-FCA launched the Pacifica plug-in hybrid, the company didn’t promote it as a “plug-in hybrid,” but simply as a “hybrid.” The marketing folks knew that it would be too confusing for their own good.

One of the problems with people who are deeply involved in the auto industry in some way is that they expect everyone else is as fascinated as they are.

The other people aren’t.

Not by a long shot.

What seems ever-so fascinating to the enthusiast is, well, some irrelevance being described in some alien language.

The Volkswagen ID.4 is an electric vehicle.

Fully electric. (For my neighbor: “No, you can’t fill it with gas.”)

It strikes me that one of the best things about it is that it is sufficiently straightforward and simple. Yes, there are some things to get used to, like getting into the vehicle and not turning a key or hitting a button to activate it. And like turning a knob to put it into gear.

Small things, though.

Otherwise, it is all rather obvious.

Which is a good thing.

Regular people can drive it without feeling like they’re taking part in a science experiment.

So massive credit to the folks at VW for creating a video series, “Electric Like I’m Five,” hosted by Volkswagen Director of E-Mobility Dustin Krause and his daughter, Harper.

I can imagine the EV enthusiasts gasping: “How dare they simplify this exquisite technology!”

But I submit that is exactly the point.

VW realizes that to make EVs mainstream, then it needs to be something that is understood by adults and children alike.

This is not some sort of ultra-advanced technology (brought to us by aliens). It is an advancement in transportation.

Once people understand that it will get them to work in the morning—while providing advantages (like not having to go to a gas station unless snacks are desired)—then there will be more EVs purchased.

Simple as that.

Even a five-year old could understand that.

VW Brings Some “Rugged” Options for the Taos

Clearly, there has got to be a tent coming. . . .

By Gary S. Vasilash

The Volkswagen Taos is absolutely new, but because the company knows that it is always good to offer stuff, it has rolled out with “Basecamp” components for the compact SUV.

The components—thus far, at least—aren’t about, well, camping, base or otherwise.

Rather, they are about making the vehicle have a more-rugged appearance.

Through cladding.

“Our goal is to build on the vehicle’s dynamic exterior design and provide customers with an extensive catalog of accessory options that cater directly to their desires for distinctive styling and functionality,” said Hein Schafer, senior vice president of Product Marketing and Strategy at Volkswagen of America.

Specifically, there are things like front and rear fender flares with integrated splash guards, lower door side plates, and a Basecamp badge for the front grille.

VW Basecamp accessory. A serious mat. (Image: VW)

While those elements are clearly show, not go, what is completely functional and then some are the Rubber MuddyBuddy mats.

Yes, that’s the sort of stuff that gets on one’s boots at a basecamp.