Less than a year ago, if you’d wanted to buy a plug-in car from Volkswagen, you’d have drawn a complete blank. Yet last week, the German automaker unveiled its fifth plug-in car to enter production at the 2014 Paris Motor Show, demonstrating VW’s determination to catch up with and overtake companies like Nissan, General Motors, Toyota and Tesla in the plug-in car sales race.
At the time of writing, two of the five plug-in cars offered by Volkswagen are fully-electric models: the diminutive e-Up! (Europe only); and the conventionally-styled e-Golf. The other three cars — the oh-so-expensive, limited production XL1 plug-in hybrid, Golf GTE and just-announced Passat GTE — are plug-in hybrids.
This might make you assume that, like some other automakers, Volkswagen’s attention is focused on plug-in hybrids rather than pure electrics,only producing electric cars to keep industry regulators and environmentalists happy. But that’s not so says VW’s head of powertrain development, Dr. Heinz-Jakob Neusser. Instead, he asserts, plug-in hybrid drivetrain technology is purely a stop-gap solution on the road to long-distance, purely electric cars for all.
Talking with Motoring.au, the Volkswagen executive calls plug-in hybrids “completely a bridging technology” between future electric vehicles and current gasoline engine technology.
“At one end there is plug-in hybrid technology and at the other is fuel cells, because both enlarge your operating range of the car when you have no recharging system available,” he said. “When you have a recharging system it’s the easiest way to plug in the car, to recharge the battery and to drive electric.”
That stop-gap — which includes cars like the VW Golf GTE and VW Passat GTE — enables drivers to benefit from the economic and environmental benefits of driving electric some of the time, without subjecting them to some of the problems which come from having a limited-range battery pack. With battery pack technology developing at an astounding rate however, Dr. Neusser says plug-in hybrid technology could be obsolete by the end of the decade.
“We have more energy density in the batteries [than ever before], and in 2015-16 will come the next step which means we come from 25-28 ampere hours density to 36-37 Ah,” he explained. “Now we are actually working on the next step to around 60 Ah…with research will come a completely new electrochemical chemistry inside the batteries and this will come at the beginning of the next decade.”
This increase in energy density — something Volkswagen has talked about before — would mean that Volksagen’s next-generation cars could easily travel the same kind of distances as Tesla’s high-end Model S sedan.
“I expect the next generation [Volkswagen e-Golf] in 2015-2017 will increase to around 300km and the following step will be around 500-600 km,” Dr. Neusser predicted. For those unfamiliar with the metric system, 300 km is around 186 miles, while 500-600km is 310-372 miles.
Like his colleague, Volkswagen Group Japan President Shigeru Shoj, Dr. Neusser is openly pessimistic about the future for hydrogen fuel cell cars due to the high level of costs associated with producing and refuelling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Yet he’s also willing to admit that with larger battery packs, the ease of charging an electric car is lessened.
“You can’t recharge at 3.6 kilowatts,” he said of vehicles with larger capacity battery packs. “You need minimum 50, 80 or perhaps even 90 kilowatts recharging power, and these are water-cooled recharging systems, very high performance recharging systems. But people are working on this, and I expect it will come, but it takes a little bit of time until it’s there.”
Which explains in a very nice way, why Volkswagen is currently producing both plug-in hybrid and all-electric models. Despite working on plug-in cars since the late 1970s — this author used to own a factory-built 1985 Volkswagen CityStromer MkII Golf test vehicle — Volkswagen says it needs just a little longer before electric cars are ready for everyone.
Interestingly however, Volkswagen isn’t blaming battery technology: Dr. Neusser thinks Volkswagen has that one sewn up. Instead, the delay is down to a lack of appropriate charging infrastructure, he implies.
“We are free continue with PHEV technology to bridge [the gap until] each country has time enough to bring their infrastructure this way,” he said.
Is Volkswagen right? Will Plug-in hybrids be considered old technology by the end of the decade? And how much do you think Volkswagen’s 375+ mile EV will cost?
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