The big news about the latest developments from Tesla usually come at the company’s Battery Day, such as the announcement of a forthcoming $25,000 car. Now another company has emulated the same strategy: Volkswagen. VW held its first “Power Day” on Monday. The resemblance is uncanny, and it shows how seriously Volkswagen has taken the disruption in the market caused by Tesla.
The Volkswagen Power Day didn’t contain quite such monumental technical announcements as Tesla’s last Battery Day, but it did reveal some promising news. VW announced a plan for six battery “gigafactories” with an eventual production capacity of 240GWh per year, enough for over four million of the Pro Performance version of the ID.3 compact car (which has a 58kWh battery). “Gigafactory” is a term coined by Tesla to refer to its manufacturing plants able to produce GWh of batteries a year. The timeline was vague but implied that VW’s gigafactories would reach their 240GWh total capacity by 2030. Considering that the ID.3 sold 54,495 cars in 2020, that shows commitment to ramping up VW’s EV manufacturing base.
Volkswagen also announced a new “unified cell” technology that will be launched in 2023. By 2030, it is planning to use this new cell to reduce the battery cost in entry-level cars by up to 50% and in the volume segment by 30%. Considering that the batteries are still about a third of the price of an EV, this will have a major impact on the overall cost of the car. The ID.3 is already pushing the price of quality EVs down, although not to the level of the equivalent internal combustion vehicle yet (the VW Golf 8 is still thousands cheaper). But it is giving similarly priced French and Korean EVs a run for their money. Volkswagen is claiming its unified cell will push costs down well below €100 ($119) per kilowatt hour, although some battery manufacturers are approaching that price already.
Alongside the battery announcements, VW has also unveiled partnerships with BP, Iberdrola and Enel charging network providers. The aim is to deliver about 18,000 public fast charging points in Europe by 2025, which is allegedly five times the current number. The rollout will include rapid chargers capable of 150kW. This will be on top of the deal VW has made with IONITY and includes 8,000 charging points with BP plus 4,000 at BP and ARAL service stations in the UK and Germany.
The partnership with Iberdrola will cover Spain and Enel will be the collaborator in Italy. Overall, the European charging expansion will be backed by €400 million ($480 million) in funding to be spent by 2025. In the US, VW is partnering with Electrify America for 3,500 additional charging points, and in China, the company will be working with its CAMS joint venture to add 17,000 charging points by 2025. These moves clearly parallel how Tesla focused on its Supercharger network alongside the cars themselves, realizing that EVs aren’t much use if the infrastructure isn’t there to charge them.
It’s easy to make fun of VW’s copying of Tesla, particularly if you’re a Tesla fanboy stan. Some of the imitation is bordering on comical. Volkswagen Chairman Herbert Diess has even joined Twitter in December 2020. At the time of writing he only had 27,000 followers, a mere speck compared to Elon Musk’s 49.2 million. We can also be confident Diess’s feed won’t have the same level of memes, pictures of spaceships or references to cryptocurrency. But at least he’s trying to engage with disruptive digital culture, although we doubt that we will see him on TikTok or Clubhouse anytime soon.
It’s also worth noting that Diess and Musk have reportedly been friends for a while and seem to respect each other. There was a friendly meeting between the two in September 2020, where Musk was given the opportunity to try out the ID.3 and ID.4. Seeing any company going in big on EVs as an attempt to challenge Tesla is an obvious trope and makes for eye-catching headlines. But Volkswagen is copying Tesla because Tesla has gotten a lot of things right during its first decade of existence. The focus on battery technology is fundamental, and more manufacturers need to follow Tesla’s lead by investing in charging infrastructure. At least Ford, Kia and Hyundai are delivering EVs with charging network memberships in Europe. Toyota’s emphasis on Hydrogen Fuel Cells might have fared better if the company had invested in refueling stations rather than leaving that up to other companies. Volkswagen isn’t making this mistake and is putting serious money into solving the charging infrastructure problem.
Once you get past the obvious imitation of Volkswagen’s Power Day, the event can only be seen as a very positive sign for e-mobility. The Volkswagen Group does have some cars that compete with Teslas – the Porsche Taycan and Audi e-tron GT clearly target the Tesla Model S, and the ID.4 is in the same segment as the Model Y. But the ID.3 is not a direct competitor to any Tesla model so far, at least until Tesla releases its $25,000 “Model 2”, and the ID.3 is going to be the volume car in Europe and probably most other parts of the world outside the USA.
Volkswagen’s emulation of the Tesla Battery Day merely shows the company is learning fast and trying its very best to put the embarrassing travesty that was Dieselgate behind it. If Tesla has been the company that has managed to make EVs desirable for the mainstream, VW has been responsible for making quality automotive transport available to a mass audience over many decades, starting with the Beetle and then the Golf. It clearly aims to do the same thing in the electric era, and rather than seeing this as a threat, I’m sure even Elon Musk will be happy about that.