Monday, November 10, 2008

VeeDub China: Scared That Batteries May Run Out

VeeDub traditionally had projected a green image, but in the darkness of their hearts, they are skeptical about alternative energies. Sure, Wolfsburg does research into fuel cells, but doesn’t truly believe in them. Despite occasional announcements, Hybrids are usually being left to the competition.

Ages ago, VeeDub had a “3 Liter Lupo,” a diesel-powered car that got 78.4 mpg. Introduced in 99, it was a rip-roaring failure: It was too expensive. To reduce weight, pricey aluminum and magnesium alloys had to be used. People loved the car and didn’t buy it. VeeDub managers soon realized: When faced with a questionnaire, customers obediently claim they want to save fuel and protect the environment. Back on the Autobahn, they don’t want to be left behind, the ozone hole be damned. If the environmentally friendly car is too expensive, it will rot in the showrooms. This conundrum besets many, if not most, cars powered by alternative energies. "Zero emission!" "1oo MPG!" Sounds good until you see the pricetag. "Gulp." And it's back to internal combustion.

The prevailing notion in Wolfsburg is to develop the Bluemotion line further, to make conventional gasoline and diesel engines more efficient, to lower displacement, and to add pep via wicked blowers. VW will also revisit the Stop/Start anti-idling technology. That’s likewise old hat, they had it in their mid 90’s Ecomatic Golf, which scared the dickens out of its owners by shutting off the engine at the red light. (A car with 200+ mpg is likewise on the drawing boards and being trotted out to green confabs as a concept. Nobody believes it will see the lights of the showrooms: Too lame with of 75MPH at WOT, too expensive to buy.)

That negative tendency towards alternate propulsion may change, at least in China (where, incidentally, VW makes more cars than at home.) On the sidelines of the 6th Annual China Automotive Industry Forum held in Shanghai on Nov. 6-7, China’s National Business Daily picked up a sudden interest in battery makers on VW’s part. We are not talking starter batteries here. The paper cornered Xu Jian, VW China’s VP, and Mr. Xu let it drop that Volkswagen is interested in pure plug-ins. Xu opined that purely electric cars will develop faster than the darned fuel cells. With Chinese battery makers, backed by Buffet, going into the car business, Volkswagen is now concerned that they might not find enough batteries in China. So they are reaching out to manufacturers and dangle joint ventures and other possibilities in front of them to charge-up the supply of batteries.
In the long run, VeeDub stands by its skepticism regarding exotic propulsion: Xu – reflecting popular Wolfsburg wisdom – thinks that by 2020, the good ole internal combustion engine will still putter away, holding an 80 percent market share. The rest will be divvied up amongst plug-ins, fuel cells and whatever other exotica an inventive world will come up with. Volkswagen was usually right with their long term predictions. In the 70’s, fresh on the job, I was introduced to a VW engineer. He said, he was working “on the car for the year 2000.” As an avid consumer of the Jetsons, I eagerly asked: “Oh yeah? What’s it look like?”
“For one thing, it will have four wheels. And the Sheiks will love it.”
Did he lie?

(Picture courtesy Mrdadvisdc @ )