Have electric cars reached a tipping point? For Euro luxury brands, the answer is yes

June 13, 2016

A tipping point marks the moment in time where an idea steps out of a slim niche, and rockets to widespread acceptance.

A reality for more than a hundred years, electric cars have only come close to mainstream success in the last five.

Much of the credit goes to scions like the GM EV1 and the Nissan Leaf, but the lion's share goes to Tesla. For all its shaky starts, production and quality issues, it delivered the Model S--the first electric car capable of more than 250 miles of range, in an appealing package, minus any of the electric-car baggage of potential rivals.

It wasn't until April of this year, when Tesla took nearly 400,000 deposits on its Model 3, that electric cars reached what may one day be considered their tipping point.

While mass-market brands put a toe in the water with cars like the Chevy Bolt EV and Hyundai Ioniq, the moment is now at the influential high end of the auto market. The ranks have closed at brands from Aston Martin to Audi and even Porsche in the last six months, with an array of high-end marques falling into lockstep with a future largely mapped out by the California-based electric car maker.

In wrenching irony, the biggest European automaker to pivot strongly toward electrics is the automaker that had staked large swaths of its future instead on diesel: Volkswagen.



Electrics to rule Britannia

Count Jaguar Land Rover as an "in," on the future of electric cars. Design director Ian Callum isn't just a frequent Twitter fan of Tesla's Elon Musk, he's convinced electric cars will completely change the shape of tomorrow's cars.

As Callum told Autocar, "electrification will kickstart the biggest change in automotive design in history."

To that end, JLR is planning an entire range of electrified vehicles--hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electrics, possibly including everything from the new F-Pace SUV to sedans to much of the Land Rover SUV lineup.

That's confirmed by Jaguar Land Rover R&D chief Wolfgang Epple, who confirmed the company's recent Concept_e vehicles will point the way toward zero-emissions vehicles on the horizon, as soon as 2020.

Jaguar Land Rover has been shy on hard details, but other British automakers are openly on board with electric cars.

Aston Martin will likely skip the gas-electric hybrid phase altogether, says CEO Andy Palmer, and move straight into plug-in electric cars as soon as 2020.

Palmer ran product development for Nissan during the time it launched the Leaf, the world's best-selling electric car to date.

Aston Martin DBX concept, 2015 Geneva Motor Show

Aston Martin DBX concept, 2015 Geneva Motor Show

Aston's second electric vehicle, and first vehicle designed initially with battery power in mind, will be the DBX crossover SUV, to be built in Wales.

"I haven’t sourced the DBX EV yet," Palmer told The Car Connection. "There’s an awful lot to learn in getting into battery technology, and you need to go through a full cycle with not too many changes."

Its first EV has been more a learning lab within its Q engineering division, Palmer says. An Aston Rapide sedan converted to battery power--the Rapid-E--has shown the company the value of electrics, as well as the value of learning everything about batteries, from the ground up.

"The idea of being able to put electric drive into an existing car, reduce the number of development variables, is a major benefit," Palmer said. "You learn particularly about battery chemistry, and the management of batteries, and the safety of batteries."

Still, Palmer is convinced that bringing battery engineering in-house will pay off for Aston in the long term.

"The risk of sounding arrogant, but the benefit of going through EV development by yourself, without a parent holding your hand, is that you learn quickly," he said. "You learn how to ask the right questions. So even if you choose to source in the future from a partner, you know what questions to ask them."

Though Aston will also offer plug-in hybrids in some models, the future is electric, Palmer said. "In 20 years, I’m sure that everything has an electric motor associated with it. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes."

2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class (E350e plug-in hybrid)

2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class (E350e plug-in hybrid)

Mercedes plugs in, looks beyond gas

Dieter Zetsche has a take, and it's not what you'd expect. His company, Daimler AG, is highly dependent on diesels in its home markets in Europe. Even in the U.S., it sells plenty of diesels in its American-made SUVs and some sedans.

But while Daimler has flirted with all manner of greener power, including a dalliance with hydrogen that continues today, it put down markers early on battery technology, even Tesla. It invested $50 million in Tesla in 2009, with ambitions of taking up to 10 percent of the company and using it as a seed bed for future battery cars.

Daimler made only halting progress with Tesla over five years, contracting it to engineer battery systems for the Smart Fortwo, A-Class, and B-Class. Then it backed away, selling the stake for a reported $780 million gain in 2014.

Daimler's strategy now is to bridge to pure battery-electric cars with plug-in hybrids. It's fielded a range of plug-ins--C-Class, E-Class, S-Class, and GLE-Class--with limited electric-only drive range.

That bridge will be short, by historical standards. After building one plant to assemble battery packs in Germany, it's set to build a second one for $500 million, while planning as many as four battery-powered concept cars for public display this year.

"Legislation drives us to higher percentages of electric and plug-in hybrid cars," Zetsche told The Car Connection at this year's Geneva motor show, outlining the breaking point where plug-ins will give way to pure electrics in his company's portfolio.

"Plug-ins will get more and more range," he said. "When you get more range, up to 100 km (220 miles), for practical purposes in most cases you will talk about pure electric cars."

As to where Daimler's future lies, he left no doubt.

"Ultimately I do believe that it will be all electric, but a long transition," he added. "Certainly plug-in hybrids are a very valid element of it for at least one or two vehicle generations."

With its own battery plants coming up to speed, the question is more whether Daimler will develop its own electric cars, or partner with other companies, whether Renault-Nissan or that alliance's new partner, Mitsubishi Motors.

Zetsche says his company is "strong enough now in resources to do it all alone," but hedges that it "always makes sense to look into the alliances, if there are things we can do together."

He even views the competition as a power source, viewing "potential new players as frenemies. It might make sense from two partners from two camps to join forces in one or two areas."

2017 Bentley Bentayga

2017 Bentley Bentayga

Finally, the Volkswagen empire pivots from diesel to electric

The spring reveal of the Tesla Model 3 sedan set on end an auto-industry off-season wracked by Volkswagen's massive, self-inflicted diesel emissions woes.

Last September, at the Frankfurt show, just before the Dieselgate scandal was brought to light, an entire cadre of VW chieftans and spokesmen were remarkably on message regarding electrics--and noticeably mute on diesels. 

By January, all of them were gone, consumed by the scandal in which VW was found bypassing emissions controls on millions of its diesel-powered cars.

Dieselgate--the public relations and environmental nightmare so large, it coined its own hashtag--will one day be seen as the act that tipped the auto industry completely into the corner of electrics. Only the world's largest automakers have the scale and power to change the composition of the global fleet of cars in a generation or two.

Whether for technological or environmental reasons, or for reputation management--or all of the above--VW is now fully on board with electric cars.

Some of its smaller luxury brands are taking more halting steps. Wolfgang Duerheimer, chief of VW's Bentley and Bugatti brands, is certain his brands need features like a W-12 gas engine to maintain what he calls "a certain level of sexiness."

It's not a position for Bentley to have the longest electric range, or as he said, "to have electric motoring at all."

And yet, Duerheimer is presiding over the development over Bentley's first plug-in hybrid, a version of the Bentayga SUV coming within two years.

"We will have to evolve, yes," he admitted. "We need to become more efficient."

What's more, he doesn't rule out battery cars. "Yes, it will come when battery technology evolves. If the technology is developed far enough, and we have these new batteries (with longer range), of course we will have electric cars."

Audi e-tron Quattro concept, 2015 Frankfurt Auto Show

Audi e-tron Quattro concept, 2015 Frankfurt Auto Show

Audi goes e-tron

Meanwhile, the more attainable Audi brand has led the VW efforts, first with pie-in-the-sky R8 electric cars, and today, with practical but range-limited plug-in hybrids sold under its e-tron brand.

It's in tandem with heavy development work in autonomous cars, which U.S. chief Scott Keogh describes along with electrics as two of the "four massive technologies that will cause more change in the next five to ten years than has happened in the last hundred."

Autonomous or assisted driving, electric cars, connectivity, and car-sharing will one day make the industry "break from this world of car sold to one individual," he said.

The world may still be a decade from widespread battery-electric cars, but in 2018 Audi will launch a long-range battery electric SUV, as well as the infrastructure to charge it.

Plug-ins, he said, are a good lead-in technology to a full battery electric vehicle, in that they give drivers the peace of mind and the ability to drive some distance on battery power alone.

As for the future, Audi says the need is for batteries that power a vehicle more than 250 miles on a single charge, with a charging infrastructure that can meet mass need.

If it sounds a lot like Tesla, it is--but Keogh says his brand has the ability to reach more drivers by its very scale.

"We can mainstream it more than Model S," he said. "[The Model S is typically] the fourth car in the driveway...You don't need a lot of peace of mind for the fourth car in the driveway. It's a little different if this is your [only] car."

Porsche Mission E concept electric car

Porsche Mission E concept electric car

Tipping point reached?

Advanced, expensive, transformative technologies have traditionally come at the higher-priced end of the automotive world. Rarely have they come at the pace at which the future of the electric car has unfurled, in the span of the last nine months.

While Toyota hedges on battery electrics, nearly every other mainstream brand--and almost every luxury automaker--has committed to a future based on electrified vehicles.

By amassing nearly 400,000 deposits for the Model 3, Tesla altered its own trajectory, and just maybe, the trajectory of the industry as a whole. Overnight, it went from a cutting-edge investor sweetheart, to a potential existential threat for the rest of the car world.

Tesla continues to burn through capital, to suffer a slow Model X rollout, and the engineering pains of preparing to build and sell a half-million electric cars a year within two years. But its very existence of Tesla has forced other automakers to commit--or to cede a new frontier.

The signals are clearest from Wolfsburg. While Volkswagen has removed diesels from consumer-facing web sites, and can't sell any in the U.S. until it comes to some Dieselgate resolution with the EPA, it's waving the flag for cars like the Porsche Mission-E concept--a striking battery-powered concept car that's very close in look and in execution to the Tesla Model S.

More telling, VW is now planning to build its own battery factory. After spent billions to build factories in North America with the intent to produce hundreds of thousands of diesel engines and diesel-powered vehicles, it's now targeting sales of 1 million electric cars within 10 years.

The industry has been slowly reshaping itself around electric cars since the Nissan Leaf hit the road. Now, Europe's luxury brands are all in with electrics--and they have an unlikely new champion accelerating the change.

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