Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker, has announced plans for its biggest ever rollout of electric cars in a bid to overtake U.S. competitor Tesla, the market leader in the field.
On Monday, two days before the Frankfurt Motor Show opened its doors to the public, VW’s sports car unit Porsche presented a prototype of its Mission E electric luxury car. The electric Porsche will be furnished with a 600-horsepower engine delivering a top speed of 250 kilometers (155 miles) per hour. Its battery will have a range of 500 kilometers, said Porsche Chief Executive Matthias Müller.
VW insisted it wasn’t launching an assault on Tesla, but the Mission E is unmistakably targeting the same customers as the U.S. e-car pioneer: high earners who want a high-performance, good-looking electric car for ideological reasons or because it fits the green Zeitgeist.
Audi, Porsche’s sister brand in the VW group, has brought an electric sports utility vehicle to Frankfurt, the world’s largest auto show. “One doesn’t necessarily have to be the first,” said Audi Chief Executive Rupert Stadler. “But when you come you have to be the best.”
Porsche wants to beat the competition on charging speed. It said it can charge its battery in no longer than 15 minutes, after which the car is back up to 80 percent performance.
The Audi E-tron Quattro also throws down the gauntlet to Tesla, which was founded in Silicon Valley in 2003. The E-tron Quattro has three electric engines that together reach 435 horsepower and can drive 500 kilometers on a single charge.
Those specifications rival Tesla’s Model X.
The new Audi and Porsche cars are part of a major e-car offensive by VW, which plans to sell 20 more electric and hybrid cars by 2020: from small cars to the big limousines VW Phaeton and Audi A8.
It’s a bold plan given the weakness of electric car sales in Germany. But maybe the market has simply lacked the commitment of a top manufacturer to get it started.
The German government wants 1 million electric cars on German roads by 2020, but by the end of last year, there were just 19,000 purely electric vehicles and 108,000 hybrid vehicles.
Video: Porsche’s electric Mission E car.
In the first eight months of 2015, 6,456 new e-cars and 21,000 hybrid cars were sold. New registrations of conventional vehicles totalled 2.1 million.
In the seven months to end-July, 828 Tesla Model S cars were sold in Germany. Even though they cost as much as Daimler’s S Class limousines, their sales exceeded sales of VW’s electric Golf small family car by almost 50 vehicles.
Tesla’s advantage to date has been its battery. It’s the only electric car with a range of 400 kilometers, which renders it suitable even as a company car, a market being targeted by VW.
Porsche wants to beat the competition on charging speed. It said it can charge its battery in no longer than 15 minutes, after which the car is back up to 80 percent performance. A quarter of an hour: that’s a toilet break and a coffee.
VW’s managers want to beat Tesla in one other key aspect: they want to earn money with electric cars from day one. “That’s our duty,” said Porsche’s head of production, Oliver Blume
It’s unclear when Audi and Porsche will go into series production with their battery-powered models. The years 2018 or 2019 are realistic, said insiders.
Volkswagen has evidently realized there is no point moaning about a lack of government subsidies for the electric car market. VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn isn’t demanding state support of the kind being offered in Norway or the Netherlands. He’s not even calling for faster tax writedowns on commercial vehicles, which the German Association of the Automotive Industry has been demanding.
“The main thing we need is a decent infrastructure for charging points,” Mr. Winterkorn said. After that, one could think of other incentives such as free parking for e-cars, he added.
Mr. Winterkorn also criticized the car industry’s approach to battery technology. “We were asleep for 30 years on that,” he said.
At present, Asian companies such as LG or Panasonic are the technology leaders and Audi and Porsche are cooperating with them on their prototypes.
“We’re not afraid of the competition,” said Mr. Winterkorn. To be sure, German automakers are brimming with confidence at the world’s largest motor show. Daimler and BMW each have an entire hall at the fair, and VW’s Audi is in a specially built pavilion.
Nevertheless, there is growing concern over the slowdown in Chinese car demand. After the gigantic growth rates German carmakers enjoyed there in recent years, some manufacturers have been reporting declining sales.
“China will continue to grow,” said Mr. Winterkorn. “The third quarter will show that.” The Chinese government planned to boost industrial development in the center of the country, he said. “Anyone who thinks China will stand still is wrong.”
VW and Audi are the undisputed market leaders among foreign car brands in China. Sales growth in China is one of the reasons why VW overtook General Motors and then Toyota in terms of global sales.
On Wednesday, coinciding with the start of the Frankfurt Motor Show, the German government plans to decide on a strategy to boost automated and networked driving. The 19-page plan, seen by Handelsblatt, refers to a “historic mobility revolution” and aims to make driving safer, cleaner and more efficient.
“Germany must become the leading testing ground for automated and networked driving,” Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel told Handelsblatt. The government plans to expand the broadband network and to enable cars to access real-time traffic information via the DAB+ digital radio standard.
Lukas Bay is an editor with Handelsblatt’s companies and markets desk. Christian Schnell is a correspondent with Handelsblatt, writing about the auto industry. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com