VW Tries Shock-and-Awe to Win the Transformation to an Age of Electric Vehicles

The company promises 12-minute charging everywhere

Boring old batteries have rarely had it so good. A good two centuries after their invention, they are sought-after with the same fraught urgency of the prospectors who hunted oil in the middle-late tailfin decades of the last century. The latest to make this bald determination plain is Volkswagen, which is throwing everything at an electric coming-out party meant to demonstrate its tech-on-wheels bona fides. Yesterday, the German company held an almost two-hour international webcast to tout its quest to master battery parts rarely earning such attention, such as high-manganese cathodes and lithium-metal anodes. Its executives summoned a global press conference at 4 a.m. Eastern today in case the media had follow-up questions. One set of impressed folks was Wall Street, who yesterday bid up VW’s share price by more than 7%, to heights not seen since before Dieselgate, the shameful chapter of smog-device cheating that the company hopes will now finally be consigned to history.

As part of the multiday VW show, Dustin Krause, director of e-mobility for VW North America, passed not far from my home in the Washington, D.C. suburbs on Saturday. He was on an 18-day, cross-country PR journey in an ID.4, the company’s just-released electric crossover SUV. My elder daughter and I went to take a look.

The car is a tight drive around curves, with good acceleration as you would expect, super comfortable seats, and lots of legroom in back. After she took a turn driving, my daughter said she wants one. They cost $40,000, so that will wait. The car honestly has pretty basic looks — VW may have to do more inside to get that kind of money.

But Krause, traveling with a surprisingly large video and social media crew, told me some interesting enticements VW is throwing at buyers, such as three years of unlimited fast charging. “Fast charging” is a tricky word when it comes out of the mouths of people promoting batteries or EVs, but in this case, VW really does mean pretty rapid. That morning, Krause said, he had pushed 200 miles of charge into the battery in just a half hour. He said you can do that every time with no serious degradation to the battery, which comes with an eight-year, 100,000-mile guarantee. “If you decide to do the same trip we are taking,” he told me, “it would cost you nothing.”

As part of its penance for Dieselgate, VW was forced to spend $2 billion on EV charging infrastructure. The result is superlatively advantageous for Volkswagen. It is Electrify America, currently comprised of some 550 fast-charging stations across the United States. VW is adding 3,500 more fast chargers to the network this year, and more still after that, all with the conviction that ordinary motorists won’t buy an EV if they don’t see charging possibilities everywhere and know they can get in and out quickly.

Here is the thing: The wisdom of almost every automobile and battery expert out there revolves around two axioms of the new EV age — that fast charging is largely unnecessary and only of use for the marginal occasion when one is traveling long distance; and that, when public charging is built, it will be almost exclusively at destinations like hotels, stores, and restaurants. With Electrify America, however, VW has declared war on both dubious assertions.

It’s doing the same everywhere. At “Power Day,” a virtual VW event yesterday in which the company described a massive rollout of charging infrastructure, company executives detailed plans to spend $477 million by 2025 on some 18,000 fast chargers in Europe, in addition to about 17,000 in China. “Charging will be as easy as refueling,” VW CEO Herbert Diess told reporters this morning in the webcast from Germany.

Steve Jobs is thought to have created the high-gloss technological rollout. But he didn’t. Just as batteries are pushing aside other big technologies at center stage, it’s worth remembering that, 220 years ago, the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, inventor of the first battery, was thought of pretty much the same as Jobs. When word got around about Volta’s 1799 brainchild, he embarked on a glimmering European tour, invited by astonished luminaries everywhere for glitzy demonstrations of his invention. Jobs paraded his iPhone before entranced rooms of techies. Volta showed off his battery to Napoleon.

Over the last several months, Elon Musk, executives of GM, and the lithium-metal juggernaut QuantumScape have held gauzy events to flaunt their claims to current or future battery supremacy. Tesla has the earliest and largest network of fast chargers, and GM is building one with partner EVgo. But VW now appears to be the most aggressive. In the events yesterday and today, company executives unveiled a shock-and-awe roadmap to electric dominance. The charging network was core, but VW also announced plans to build six battery gigafactories by 2030, for starters placing a $14 billion, 10-year battery order with Northvolt, a European foundry in which VW is a 20% owner. It announced integration with partners in the oil, electric, software, and other industries. Some of the battery and EV promises were deeply aspirational and unproven, such as 12-minute fast-charging; others were naked thefts of the aspirations of other people, like Musk. Yet in depth, scale, and sheer volume of daring bets, VW may be unsurpassed. Combined, the pledges were a message: If you are not Tesla — far ahead of the pack already — this is a roadmap to compete.

A core factor in VW’s electrification roadmap is the creation of what it called a “unified cell,” a single battery format and formulation that by 2030 would be common to about 80% of company EVs. The scale of VW production, brought to bear on that unified design, would have a powerful impact on cost, executives said. The cost of batteries for super-mini automobiles for the Indian, Chinese, and other Asian markets would be reduced by half. The cost of batteries for higher price but still mainstream, mass-market vehicles would drop by around 30%. Since batteries are by far the most expensive component in an EV, that would seriously lower the sticker price of these vehicles, thus bringing them into the buying range of the mass market.

This unified cell will be introduced at the end of 2024, but VW did not spell out what would be inside that battery. For the superminis, it described plans to introduce a relatively low-energy formulation called lithium-iron-phosphate, or LFP. And the end goal would be a battery featuring a lithium-metal anode, for which QuantumScape is VW’s primary partner. Currently, QuantumScape is very early in scaling up, with a four-layer cell, compared with the eventual 100 layers that are ultimately required for the battery. The hope is that it will produce a commercial version for use in high-end VWs by 2024. James Frith, head of energy storage for BloombergNEF, said he expects a slow scale-up for QuantumScape and volume production only in 2030 or after.

So if the unified cell from 2024 through the end of the decade isn’t LFP, and it’s not lithium-metal, what is the thing that is going to start bringing down VW’s costs?

Another formulation that VW executives mentioned is a high-manganese cathode with nickel. Conceptually, experts like such a battery for its extremely low cost. Sam Jaffe, managing director of Cairn Research, a battery consultancy, told me that he expects German company BASF, for instance, to introduce a cathode made of 70% manganese next year. Yet, a BASF spokeswoman said the company is working on the technology but has no set timeline for commercialization. And VW spokesman Stefan Ernst told me, “high manganese is in development, and at this time, we won’t comment on market launch.”

The current situation for the high-manganese battery is instructive regarding VW’s options outside mainstream batteries used by everyone in the industry. Jason Croy is a battery researcher at Argonne National Laboratory. Among Croy’s areas of focus is high-manganese cathodes, and he suggested that they are not yet close to commercialization. Manganese, he told me, is stable in its usual state and serves quite well to hold a cathode together during the punishing regimen of charging and discharging. But its energy and capacity are unacceptably low if you are thinking of using higher amounts of it in an EV, and that’s where the trouble starts. To juice the cathode, one route is to add nickel, “but the trade-off there is less stability for more energy,” he said. In other configurations, the oxygen lattice in the cathode can become unstable, the cathode can crack, and the manganese can dissolve into the electrolyte.

Researchers are working to get around such problems, but no one I spoke with expects a commercial high-manganese cathode any time soon. That means the pre-2030 unified cell is unlikely to include such an electrode.

Which leaves the current workhorse NMC, the chemistry in nearly every EV battery on the planet. VW mentioned using silicon in its anodes, and in fact, it already does in its Porsche Taycan and Audi e-tron. But that won’t deliver the announced cost savings. Therefore, as of now, VW is probably stuck with NMC on one side of the battery, silicon graphite on the other, and no clear immediate roadmap to the kind of cost reduction it is discussing—at least nothing greater than anyone else can produce.

Other features VW disclosed was doing away with battery packs, and incorporating the cells into the frame of the vehicle. Such a move — suggested for the first time commercially by Musk during his own Battery Day — would much-reduce costs and increase density by eliminating the bulky, inactive material built into current batteries for safety reasons. The German company also mentioned adding another feature planned by Musk — “dry coating,” in which a cell-production step involving wet solvent is eliminated, again substantially reducing cost.

All in all, battery scientists familiar with all the public battery events saw striking similarities between what VW announced and Tesla’s Battery Day. Shashank Sripad, a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon, tweeted that Musk was talking about a total 56% drop in battery costs from his various plans; VW is forecasting 50%. From the design of the cell, the cost reduction was 14% and 15%, respectively, from the manufacturing process, 18% versus 10%, and so on. Basically, it looked like VW was taking notes on Battery Day and embraced the Tesla ideas it liked.

Innovation is built on innovation. Musk, for instance, bought his dry coating process by acquiring its developer, Maxwell Technologies, in 2019. Putting everything together and daring to commit the cash, VW is illustrating what conviction and going all out looks like. American carmakers, for instance, have held back from the scale of a fast-charging rollout on VW’s drawing boards. VW looks much more like a company that wants to win.

Of course, it’s not possible for everyone — or almost anyone — to replicate VW’s efforts. Although it is almost the very beginning of the predicted new electric vehicle age, VW, GM, Tesla, Hyundai, and Chinese companies like Nio are already grabbing the commanding heights. After this, unless you have a blockbuster invention or a lot of cash, there may be little more than niches to fill — lots of niches, but niches still.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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