Larry P. Vellequette
Larry P. Vellequette
Fiat Chrysler, VW reporter

Hey VW: Share your skateboard and change the world

Why VW should share its skateboard and change the world

VW will launch its first three I.D. electric models starting in 2020. Shown, from left, are the I.D. Buzz minivan, I.D. hatchback and I.D. Crozz crossover.
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Herbert Diess, Volkswagen Group's new CEO, has a lot on his plate -- especially for a guy who's new in the job and has been at VW for less than three years.

But with that caveat, I'd like to suggest to Professor Doctor Diess a potential industry-altering -- maybe world-altering -- strategy that, if implemented, might go a long way toward restoring Volkswagen's good name in the wake of sweeping diesel emissions violations and altering the unfavorable economics that have kept electric vehicles from being more widely adopted. The timing couldn't be better: German officials slapped the automaker with a $1.18 billion fine on Wednesday for the emissions scandal.

It boils down to three words: Share the skateboard.

The "skateboard" is Volkswagen's brilliant MEB platform, the architecture that will underpin the automaker's EVs around the globe, including those beyond the Volkswagen brand.

MEB -- which will debut in the United States in 2020 with a crossover based on the I.D. Crozz -- allows Volkswagen Group designers broad flexibility to design interesting top hats to attach above the four wheels, electric motor (or motors) and battery pack. The German automaker believes its internal commoditization of battery electrics -- building all of its global EVs on the same set of bones -- will allow the vehicles to do something few EVs have done: turn a profit.

Which is exactly why Diess and Volkswagen should share or license MEB openly with other automakers.

I remain skeptical of EVs for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the vehicles' inability to compete on a cost basis with traditional fossil fuel-powered propulsion. Until that changes, there's little motivation for automakers to develop products that few consumers are willing to buy.

But on a truly global scale that includes VW and other large automakers, MEB has the promise to turn that equation on its head, giving full electrics a scale and associated cost structure that no internal combustion-powered vehicle could touch, all while giving automakers the flexibility to design and produce top hats to fit specific customer bases. And broad implementation of the technology would spur development of the charging infrastructure needed to make EVs viable and mainstream.

Volkswagen would likely benefit the most if it shared its MEB skateboard, lowering the per-unit costs of its EVs, while accessing a new revenue stream from licensing agreements with other automakers. But other automakers would also benefit, dramatically reducing development costs to meet EV mandates and saving much-needed r&d dollars for other projects.

In a way, doing so would be the ultimate fulfillment of FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne's 2015 "Confessions of a Capital Junkie" presentation, albeit in a sector with a technology that could have broad ramifications for the world in which we all live.

Which probably means it makes too much sense to happen, unfortunately.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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