The VW Group is looking to show the world that it is moving on from the diesel affair by becoming a world leader in autonomous driving and electromobility.
IHS Markit perspective
- Significance: The VW Group has shown off its advanced autonomous Golf track car that can teach performance drivers on new tracks, autonomous driving technology in the form of the Audi Elaine and Aicon concepts, and outlined its plans to introduce 80 electric vehicles across its brand portfolio by 2025.
- Implications: VW is targeting fully autonomous driving on public roads by 2021 and has warned that Europe is in danger of getting left behind in terms of autonomous driving unless its regulators catch up with technology, even though Germany is the first country to have introduced legislation to allow Level 3 autonomous driving. It is looking to accelerate its EV launch programme from its previous target of 30 EVs by 2025.
- Outlook: VW's Frankfurt display is about showing the world it is moving on from the diesel affair and that it is responding to the technology challenges of future mobility in a positive and proactive way. Given the impressive amount of new models and concepts on show the strategy would have to be classed as a success in PR terms at least.
The Volkswagen (VW) Group has showed off concepts that showcase its position as one of the world leaders in autonomous driving technology, and it has also announced highly ambitious plans to accelerate its electric vehicle (EV) launch programme from its original target of 30 vehicles by 2025 to 80, according to a company statement. Spearheading the Group's autonomous driving projects at the pre-show media presentation were the Elaine Level 4 autonomous concept and Aicon Level 5 concept. The Elaine's styling its closely related to Audi's forthcoming e-tron Quattro, although it has a more coupé-like interpretation of the crossover body with clean and crisp lines. It has also been claimed as the closest interpretation yet of what the production e-tron Quattro will look like when it is shown publicly for the first time next year. It is 4,900mm long and 1,980mm wide, and has a long wheelbase at 2,930mm to ensure maximum cabin space and shorten overhangs.
The concept uses an electric powertrain that will be close to the version used in the e-tron Quattro, with three electric motors, with one mounted within the front axle and two at the rear, delivering a combined output of 320kW, boost function allowing bursts of up 370kW, with power provided by as 95kWh lithium-ion battery which can offer a range of up to 311 miles. This can propel the concept from 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds. The Elaine is fitted with Audi's AI autonomous driving technology, which has been influenced by research into the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. These system is networked with the cloud and with other vehicles (V2V) so they can share information. For highly automated driving at Level 4, the SUV coupé uses a next-generation central driver assistance controller (zFAS). It provides information for the highway pilot which can take over the driving task at speeds up to 130 km/h (80.8 mph) and automatically engage in lane-changing manoeuvres. The Aicon concept offers is an all-new design that could prefigure what a future fully autonomous A8 could look like (unlike pre-show press material that said the concept was D-segment sized). The sleek and futuristic design goes against the grain of what Audi described as the recent "robot taxi" theme employed by some fully autonomous concepts, with a sleek, bold and futuristic shape, which is appropriate for the concept's high technology content. The Aicon is 5,444mm in length, 2,100mm in width and 1,506mm in height and its wheelbase is a considerable 240mm longer than that of the new A8 in order to make full use of its EV powertrain packaging. The concept has a unique interior design with no steering wheel and a continuous screen strip that includes all the car's displays and touch-sensitive switch gear, which offer the most modern digital infotainment and communication solutions currently available. Level 5 autonomous driving represents fully autonomous driving capability in which the driver and occupants can focus on other tasks and no longer have to concentrate on monitoring systems. Audi said it is designed primarily for long journeys and has a range of 700–800 km and has a powertrain to fulfil this remit in terms of range and performance. Power is delivered by four motors, one for each wheel, with a power output of 350 bhp and 299 lb/ft of torque.
VW also announced what it described as the "most comprehensive electrification initiative in the global automotive industry", with the "Roadmap E" initiative at its pre-Frankfurt Show event on 11 September. The goal has been expanded to have 80 fully electric vehicles across the VW Group brands, from the original target of 30. In addition, the company made a bold pledge to have an electric variant of each of its 300 models across all its group brands and markets by 2030. VW said that this makes it the first OEM Group to set a date for the electrification of its entire fleet. As a result of this massive acceleration of its EV plans, the company's demand for battery cell capacity will also rise exponentially, with more than 150 gigawatt-hours of battery capacity being required annually by 2025 to fulfil its own EV manufacturing plans, which is the equivalent of four Tesla-style gigafactories of battery production. This will see VW put out one of the largest procurement orders in the history of the industry with tender for the battery cells required for the expansion worth EUR50 billion (USD59.94 billion). Commenting on the plan, CEO Matthias Mueller said, "We have got the message and we will deliver. This is not some vague declaration of intent. It is a strong self-commitment which, from today, becomes the yardstick by which we measure our performance. The transformation in our industry is unstoppable. And we will lead that transformation".
Outlook and implications
This impressive show of corporate might at its home motor show is aimed at outlining VW's future technology strategy but it is also showing the world, its investors and its customers that it is learning the lessons of the last two years, in which the company has rarely been out of mainstream press headlines in a negative context as a result of the diesel affair. The massive new investment in EVs that will take place over the next eight years appears to show that the company understands the need to accelerate its electromobility programme and bring the technology to a wider audience, which will also help it to achieve targets like the stricter European Union (EU) CO2 emissions targets of a fleet average of 95g/km by 2021.The demand for battery cells that will be brought about by this ambitious target is also likely to back the calls of VW works council leaders for a Tesla-style gigafactory to be built in Germany to mitigate falling investment in conventional powertrain technology. VW was also keen to reiterate that such targets will not be met without the help of improved ICE engine technology and this includes diesel. Mueller said, "For the time being, we will be offering the entire powertrain spectrum – from conventional to fully-electric – to enable sustainable and affordable mass mobility. We are not being arbitrary. We are listening to the voice of reason." In the same release VW was also keen to reiterate the credentials of its latest diesel technology. The message is clear: "We recognise the need to change the technology offering and act with responsibility after the diesel affair, but change will not happen overnight". VW's autonomous driving capability is increasingly impressive, with the new A8 being the first production vehicle to be offered with Level 3 autonomous driving capability, allowing it to operate fully independently on roads with a central reservation up to speeds of 37mph. But here, VW is again wary of another legislative roadblock: the regulatory framework – with technology progressing at a faster rate than legislation, especially in Europe – could become a disadvantage. VW's chief digital officer Johann Jungwirth said, "Already there are countries around the world moving ahead - Europe must act to keep up." Germany is ahead of the game in clearing the way for the Level 3 A8 to deploy its technology on public roads but other European countries are lagging behind, especially as VW feels it could have full Level 5 autonomous driving technology ready to be deployed in production-ready vehicles by 2021.
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