A few years ago on a rainy Thursday evening, top executives from Volkswagen gathered at an old castle in Germany. In a dark room lit only by a crackling fire and the blueish glow of a flat-panel TV, they listened as Elon Musk droned on half a world away. He said crazy things like:
- “We could definitely make a flying car—but that’s not the hard part.”
- “We wanted really to have people feel as though they’ve almost got to mind meld with the car.”
- “It is remarkable how many things you can explode. I’m lucky I have all my fingers.”
Exploding fingers? Who is this man, the executives wondered. But then one of their number said something that shocked them all:
“He has a weakness, this Musk. He believes in single battery sizing.”
Chuckling, the men relaxed. They sipped more sherry. They sent for their cars. They downloaded a new game called Angry Birds. And eventually they left, secure in the knowledge that as the eGolf, eUp! And every other electric or plug-in electric Volkswagen evolves over the next few years, Tesla will remain unaware of its central flaw.
What that man had meant was this: Tesla favors cylindrical battery cells made by Panasonic. Most automakers prefer square and flat cells instead, which can be bought from a variety of sources. Volkswagen’s strength has been to take this variety one step further.
As it develops electric vehicles, Volkswagen has created a battery pack that can accept battery cells of any shape or size. It makes no difference to the consumer what shape the cells are in. All they care about is getting X number of miles. But with this new battery pack, VW can launch a lowest-cost bidding process among battery providers to drive its powertrain costs to the absolute bottom.
Suppose, for example, that LG offers the lowest cost for square cells. But then a tsunami reduces LG’s capacity. Samsung can jump in to keep Volkswagen from going straight to Panasonic. Prices remain low, and production continues for VW.
Tesla, on the other hand, is wedded to cylindrical cells only. As it and Volkswagen head toward creating a mass-production electric car that can capture the imagination of the American public, VW will have more flexibility in production.