The influx of plug-in cars appearing in concept form at recent auto shows has suggested an industry now racing to catch up with startups like Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive, which have shown that plug-in cars can be a lot more exciting than golf carts. But now that the pendulum of EV innovation has swung from low-performance neighborhood electric vehicles to high-performance luxury items (Roadster, Karma), it’s starting to settle into a more pragmatic range — even for concept designs — and here’s the latest example: German “people’s car” makers Volkswagen plans to debut a new electric concept car at the Frankfurt show this fall.
From what the company tells Auto Express, we can expect a model that could be exciting mostly for its low-key approach — unlike the 57 MPG diesel BlueSport roadster concept VW unveiled at this year’s Detroit Auto Show. For electric cars, VW is leaving high-end concepts to the startups (and Chrysler, with its Dodge Circuit), and taking aim at the mass market.
The Germany-based automaker is revealing few details at this point (it has more than one electric concept in the works and has yet to choose which one it will unveil in September), but VW communications chief Peter Thul offered this much, as Auto Express reports:
We will not launch a niche market car just to show our electric technology…We would only launch a car that people could actually buy at a reasonable price. It would need to have a range of 200km, be safe, reliable and able to be used everyday.
Thul described these characteristics as necessary to fit with the VW brand. But they also fit in with the strategies of a growing number of big automakers feeling pressure from government to clean up their fleets. Mainstream is the end goal for new players, too — like Miles EV, BYD Auto, as well as Tesla and Fisker, eventually. GM is shooting for the mainstream with its Chevy Volt; Chrysler is aiming straight for soccer moms toting families with a few of the concepts in its ENVI lineup.
But the recent turmoil in the auto industry leaves that all up in the air — can VW use the opportunity to charge ahead? GM, still mid-bailout and fighting to avoid bankruptcy, expects the Chevy Volt prices to be on the high end for mass market consumers, at least for the first generation. Chrysler’s entire electric vehicle initiative could be dropped now that it has toppled over into bankruptcy. Startups face the inherent challenge of launching mass-scale production and distribution from scratch.
Part of what VW has working in its favor is that, like Nissan (s NSANY), Toyota and Honda, it has solid partners for the battery — the most expensive part of electric car production and one of the biggest hurdles standing between a company with a good idea and mass market success. VW has a year-old joint development agreement with Sanyo for lithium-ion batteries, and it teamed up with Toshiba in February to develop an electric version of its subcompact VW Up concept, as Reuters reports.
Those partnerships with battery giants mean VW probably won’t be shopping around for a battery startup. That is, unless it follows Daimler’s strategy: signing up a startup, in its case Tesla Motors, to supply battery pack technology for its first electric offering as a way to get the plug-in model on the market as soon as possible.