An automaker that builds on a unique platform can market the car quite differently from a similar-size combustion-engine model. That will be important given that -- for a few years yet, anyway -- the expense of the battery pack will price the electric car higher. VW is already doing this.
"The Modular Electric Toolkit jettisons all the ballast of the fossil age," VW declared in its marketing, adding that MEB led to "fundamental" changes for everything from body design to interior packaging. We'll know if it has been successful when VW shows the ID3, likely this month at the Frankfurt auto show.
Meanwhile, an electric car on a flexible platform could end any unfavorable comparisons to its cheaper combustion-engine version. Within the VW Group, Audi and Porsche are developing a larger platform for premium cars: PPE, or Premium Platform Electric.
But VW isn't the only one investing in pure electric platforms. Daimler is working on the Electric Vehicle Architecture -- or EVA2 -- expected in 2021. Two sedans and two SUVs are expected to be the first to use it.
Meanwhile, Renault Nissan is developing the CMA -- an electric-only, flat-floor version of its broader Common Module Family architecture -- expected in 2022. And in Japan, Toyota is working with Subaru on an EV platform it announced in June. No timing has been given.
The EV-only platform design with the batteries sandwiched in the floor does present its own problems. In cars where the size of the battery box pushes it toward the edges, the car needs more crash protection.
"In the side impact you have a very limited zone of deformation to the battery -- about half," said Niclas Brannberg, director of computer-aided engineering for the Chinese electric-car brand Nio. That means extra stiffness, meaning more expensive extruded aluminum beams for Nio.
But Brannberg, who has previously worked for Volvo and Saab, estimates that the cost of developing a new electric-only platform is similar to that of a pure combustion-engine platform.
VW is way ahead on cost with MEB, said Sudowe of Gestamp, which builds battery boxes and chassis parts for cars using that platform. "MEB will be the benchmark for everyone," he said. "It's very good on the price perspective."
For example, all MEB models except the minivan will use the same control arms, saving money on dies. Sudowe estimates that MEB is around half the cost of the EV-only platform Jaguar Land Rover developed for the Jaguar I-Pace.
The I-Pace platform, designed as a halo car to beat Jaguar's premium rivals to market, is not expected to be further developed. Instead JLR will migrate models to its new flexible Modular Longitudinal Architecture starting next year. The first model to use it will be an electric version of the XJ large sedan.
Suppliers are being asked to be more flexible with EV-specific parts, just in case the actual numbers needed are lower than quoted -- or higher. "Today, probably none of our customers are absolutely sure how fast the market is going to move to EVs," Gestamp Chairman Francisco Riberas told Automotive News Europe. VW recently doubled its order of battery boxes for MEB cars from Gestamp to 570,000 a year. The order indicates greater confidence that customers will switch to EVs as European laws tighten on carbon dioxide emissions starting in 2020.
VW's confidence is partly because it has the scale -- even more so now that Ford has agreed to use MEB for a range of European electric cars. For those without the brand reach to spread the investment, a flexible platform makes more sense.
"They want to minimize the risk," he said. "Even if maybe a platform is not the best for EVs, they adapt it so they have a bit more flexibility in terms of volumes. It might not be the best solution, but it will probably be the most intelligent."