Monday 15 July 2019

All Volkswagen dealers in Ireland will soon be 'e-capable' - VW chief

Interview: Gerrit Heimberg, Brand Director, Volkswagen Ireland

All set: Gerrit outlines Volkswagen route for smooth switch to EVs
All set: Gerrit outlines Volkswagen route for smooth switch to EVs
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

At the height of the 'Dieselgate' scandal, the prospect of Volkswagen so enthusiastically driving the electric-car era would have appeared ridiculously remote.

Dieselgate hastened the electric era which, in turn, has forced Volkswagen to swiftly reinvent itself. The turnaround has been seismic, though all is not yet sorted.

Gerrit Heimberg, brand director for Volkswagen in Ireland, acknowledges as much when we meet to discuss where the company (globally and in Ireland) is on the road to Electric.

"Volkswagen is coming out of a crisis. We have made mistakes. I see it as positive we have taken our responsibility for that. We are still paying for it. But we have defined a clear strategy to bring this brand to the future."

He is "personally very positive" about this new era. There is going to be "fast and significant change". They have a "consistent plan" around electric vehicles, he says.

The ID family of affordable EVs, due from this time next year, marks a major step. There is an SUV due at the end of 2020 and the ID Buzz (Caravelle size) electric model later.

He's hopeful Ireland can become a leading European EV market.

The Volkswagen group globally is now pushing a consistent message they desperately want to do their bit for the environment. Fair enough.

But cynics can point to one reason why: CO2 emissions must average 95g/km by 2021. Manufacturers face crippling fines if they fall short of those targets. It's the sort of threat that engenders practical regard for, and care of, the environment. For Volkswagen the time has come - it is responsible for 2pc of the world's CO2 emissions (cars, trucks).

"We have to think of the energy balance sheet," Gerrit says. "So we are going for it. We are not just making it possible for customers to turn to zero-emission cars, they can also decide if they want to use green energy in them." How? By asking their supplier for as much of it as possible.

It is a way of focusing on the breadth of task involved in reducing those harmful gases.

Critically, it makes totally zero emission-driving a challenge for governments etc as well as the motor industry. They all have big parts to play.

For their part, Volkswagen here intend to offer "green energy" contracts to their EV buyers. "It is already happening in Germany."

The factory making the ID models uses green energy only. By 2050 the brand's car production will be C02 neutral. And the European IONITY charging network (six stations for Ireland by year's end) only uses emissions-free energy. It's a beginning on that new balance sheet. So is the plan for counter-balancing activities (planting trees, protecting green areas, etc) where EV elements are not fully zero emission.

All 34 Volkswagen dealers in Ireland will be 'e-capable' by the end of Q3. They'll be fully equipped and up-to-date with explaining, selling, maintenance, etc, of electric cars.

And Volkswagen have already had a taste of what to expect. They have been "overwhelmed" by the volume of Irish pre-orders for the ID3 (330km/550km range with the First Edition on 420km).

Globally, 20,000 people put down a deposit without seeing the finished car (we still only have disguised images) or being told all the technical bits.

But Irish-based demand was such the distributors looked for a larger quota. Over a 4/5 week period they took more pre-bookings for the ID3 than for all variants of the best-selling Golf.

And yet there are still so many people concerned (understandably) about owning an EV. Gerrit cites five broad reasons (from a Norwegian study) for that.

Price/cost of EV ownership is a major source of worry. Yet when clinically broken down under separate headings (PCP payments, tax, rebates, tolls, etc) there is little difference in the cost of owning a high-spec e-Golf and a 1.6-litre Golf diesel.

Range and charging are problematic for many. Product, choice, knowledge and understanding of driving an EV raise doubts, fears too, the study finds. And behind it all, I suggest, are deep-seated questions about depreciation and battery life.

This is where PCPs can help, Gerrit insists: "Our bank guarantees the future residual value of the car."

So what will a €35,000 ID3 be worth in three years' time? What's its EV battery life?

They haven't definitively worked out the level of ID depreciation yet but Gerrit cites other market experience. "When you look at the residual values of an e-Golf in Norway, it is the same as an ordinary Golf."

Batteries, meantime, are tailored to the lifetime of a car: typically 10 years upwards. They intend giving their EV owners a "battery health check" so they're confident "for a very long time".

He is convinced PCPs or private lease contracts will play a key role in the rollout of EVs. "You will know exactly what your monthly cost will be. You'll get a service and maintenance package too. There is no risk." They will do the same for used EVs.

He suggests buyers should "leave the risk with us" by going PCP (60pc of retail business), or private lease. "We feel the risks are quite low."

But changing our mentality about charging/range is a big challenge.

"We need to teach our customers why they don't need to be worried if they see a remaining range of 100kms. There are real consumers in other markets who handle that very well on a daily basis. So we need to reassure our buyers on how it works."

Here are some stats to put distance and range in perspective: The average Irish commute is 15kms (2016 official data). Only 6pc drive more than 50kms. A European study shows 80pc of charging is done at home. On that basis, Gerrit believes a range of 300kms basically gets you anywhere in an Irish context.

No such short distances in Norway (it keeps cropping up as it's a best-practice model). It is 1,800kms long; 450km at its widest. Population: 5.25m. Ireland is 450kms long and 275km wide; population: 4.78m. So distances here are small by comparison.

The most frequented longer journeys are Dublin to Sligo, Tralee, Cork, Letterkenny and Belfast. Tralee is longest of these at 299km: "The ID3 mid-range model is 420km."

Also remember, he reminds me, that on a high-powered IONITY station you will be able to get an 80pc charge in a couple of minutes. And "on the ID First Edition 100kW DC charger you'll get 260km in 30 minutes." There will also be a nav system to direct and advise on timing your driving break and charging needs on one of those major journeys.

He warms to the theme - and offers another perspective for those with seemingly incurable range anxiety. Many households have two cars: "People covering long distances have a diesel." So why not have an ICE (internal combustion engine) for long, and an EV for shorter distances?

There's the 'D' word (diesel). It had to come up. "Yes, we believe in diesel. We believe in combustion engines for a long time. We believe that to get C02 under control we need diesel. We will not be able to change things overnight."

There will come a time when they won't make new internal combustion engines: "But in the next 20 years we need these cars and we believe they are making an important contribution, especially the diesel."

Charging? Home smart-charger Volkswagen wallboxes will cost around €800. You get a €600 grant but there will be installation costs (they're working on a package for that too).

So a lot of traditional concerns and potential practical impediments are being sorted at the motor industry end.

But all automakers I've spoken with this past year say the same thing as Gerrit: they can only do so much. "We are depending on the government and local authorities to give confidence to people to go to a public charge point and ensure there isn't a diesel car blocking them."

There is also urgent need for more investment in the public charging structure: "Ireland has to catch up." This week's climate action plan suggests we can do so. And there are "best practises" in other countries to make catchup speedier, more effective.

Yes, the state's monetary encouragements for you to buy an electric car is great but "we also need infrastructure". Again, this week's plan promises much on that front.

Government and motor industry have massive financial incentives to get as many emission-free cars on the road as quickly as possible. If they don't, they face mega fines. And, as Volkswagen can attest from Dieselgate, there is nothing like the threat of financial punishment to focus the mind.

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