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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
There are jokes. And things that fall flat. And things that have consequences. And something in between. Which isn’t particularly good.
By Gary S. Vasilash
“You’ve got a spider on your head!”
“Taylor Swift is on the phone.”
“There’s a unicorn in the backyard—come see, quick!”
Today in the U.S. people of all ages are saying things like that. It is April Fool’s Day.
For the past several years automotive companies have been participating in pranks. They distribute news releases on April 1 describing things from flying cars to flux capacitors.
The more plausible, the more funny they tend to be.
Earlier this week, on Monday, there was a “leak” that Volkswagen of America was going to change its name to “Voltswagen of America.”
Reporters contacted sources that substantiated that yes, VoA was going to be doing that. The rationale was that it really wanted to emphasize that it is going to be an all-electric brand.
Right now VoA has one electric vehicle, the ID.4.
On Tuesday, the company sent out a news release with the headline:
Voltswagen: A new name for a new era of e-Mobility
The opening sentence: “Today, Volkswagen Group of America, is unveiling the official change of its U.S. brand name from Volkswagen of America to Voltswagen of America.”
There was a link to the company’s media webpage.
(Those of a grammatical bent might have thought there was something awry because of that second comma, which shouldn’t be there.)
The dateline on that release: “Herndon, VA, March 30, 2021.”
Herndon is where VoA is headquartered.
Now the company is claiming that this is all an April Fool’s joke.
–April Fool’s Day: April 1, 2021
–VW press release: March 30
–VW denial: March 31; the press release was scrubbed from the site
If it is a joke, then it wasn’t very well executed.
If you told your significant other, who was going to be leaving for an important meeting, that their car had a flat tire and then said “April Fool’s!” when it was March 30, you probably would be spending that night on the couch.
There are those who say that this isn’t a big deal, that it is simply something along the lines of P.T. Barnum’s “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
But in this case, the name wasn’t being spelled correctly.
The people trying to minimize this say that “regular people,” not those who are obsessed with the auto industry, probably don’t pay much attention to this.
I would suggest that this story had national attention and while it didn’t shake anyone to their core, “regular people” heard “Volkswagen” and words associated with denial and retraction.
Maybe the last time they heard the word “Volkswagen” on their local news “diesel” was linked to it.
VW’s market share in the U.S. is small. The company, which is #1 or #2 in Europe, depending on the month, is way down the list in the U.S. market.
The people in Wolfsburg are probably quite frustrated at this.
VW is going electric in a big way. So far that big way is in Europe and China.
In the U.S., not yet.
But this whole thing has done nothing to improve its reputation in this market.
And that’s the problem. They need to get people into dealerships to buy vehicles to increase their market share. One of the ways they could do this is by selling more EVs.
I’ve driven the ID.4 and I think it is a very good car, something that could make “regular people” go to an EV.
But if those regular people are skeptical about VW and are interested in an EV (and let’s face it: there aren’t a whole lot of them right now), they could conceivably go to their local Ford or Chevy dealer for a Mach-E or Bolt EUV.
Right now I am test driving a 2021 VW Golf GTI 2.0T Autobahn and think that it is the best car that I’ve had the opportunity to be in during the first quarter of 2021: Inside, outside and under the hood, this is what seems to me to be a well-executed machine that is the definition of affordable German engineering. A superb car.
It would be a shame if people stay away from VW vehicles because they think there is something foolish about the company.
P.T. Barnum also allegedly said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
A look at the vehicle and the strategy that Volkswagen has for this important electric vehicle
By Gary S. Vasilash
Even though the Volkswagen ID.4 is only now beginning to roll out on American roads (as well as on German autobahns, which one would have imagined would have happened sooner, as the vehicles are built in a plant in Zwickau), people at Volkswagen were evidently certain of the likely success of the electric vehicle as on November 19, 2019, there was a ground breaking for a $800-million, 564,000-sq. ft. facility at the company’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, complex that will be used, in large part, to build EVs, with the ID.4 being the first.
What’s more, they’re in the process of building a plant for assembling battery packs.
So to say VW has a lot riding on EVs is not a hackneyed phrase.
What’s interesting about Volkswagen in America is that it has made a decided focus on crossovers.
While there were once the Touareg and Tiguan Limited, it wasn’t as though either of them made much of a dent in the ute market. The Touareg was described as being “the people’s premium SUV” and the Tiguan Limited was, well, limited in its appeal. MY 2017 was the final for both of the vehicles in the U.S.
But VW has subsequently come out with a new Tiguan, the Atlas, the Atlas Cross Sport and the soon-to-arrive Taos. And the ID.4 is also positioned in the utility space.
In 2020 VW sold 325,784 vehicles in the U.S. While it is down 10% from 2019, arguably because of the pandemic, even 2019’s 363,322 units was nothing to necessarily celebrate, especially when you consider, for example, that in 2020 Toyota delivered 430,387 RAV4s. In other words, one vehicle sold nearly 105,000 more units than the entire Volkswagen lineup.
Be that as it may, the SUV lineup is fundamental to the success of VW in the U.S. market as it accounted for 58% of all VW sales in the market. The Tiguan is the only model that had 100,000+ sales in the U.S. in 2020.
So on the one hand, VW wants to sell more SUVs. On the other hand, it wants to sell more EVs. And while the ID.4 is an EV SUV, it still presents a bit of an issue for VW in that it is close to the Tiguan in terms of passenger volume, which is a metric that people pay attention to more than, say, slight differences in wheelbase (the ID.4 has a 108.9-inch wheelbase, which is 0.9 inches shorter than the Tiguan).
A man who has to deal with all of these issues is Hein Schafer, Volkswagen of America senior vice president, Product Market and Strategy.
And he explains what the company is doing regarding the ID.4 in the context of the company’s other offerings on this edition of “Autoline After Hours.”
Schafer also gives insights into features of the electric vehicle and why they are the way they are (e.g., when you climb into an ID.4 with the keyfob, you don’t need to push a button to start the vehicle: you engage the gear selector and just go; Schafer says they took that approach to make the vehicle simple to use, recognizing that people unfamiliar with EVs might have a preconceived notion that driving one is akin to an algebra class or science experiment).
Schafer talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, freelance journalist Sebastian Blanco, and me on the show.
Additionally, McElroy, Blanco and I discuss a variety of other subjects, including the focus other OEMs have on luxury EVs rather than something that is more mainstream like the ID.4, whether sales practices are likely to change as a result of the massive increase in on-line shopping for seemingly everything during the past year, and a whole lot more.