Automakers Taking Increasingly Divergent Strategies on EVs

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EV fans will lots to celebrate this week at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show. Ford debuts its new Mustang Mach-E battery-SUV. Bollinger brings its new electric pickup and SUV to the annual event, while Mini will reveal its first all-electric model, the Cooper SE. There’ll be the new Toyota RAV4 PHEV and BMW, Hyundai, Mercedes and Porsche reveal their own mix of mild, conventional and plug-in hybrids, as well as pure battery-electric vehicles. Tesla, in typical form, counter-programs the L.A. show, debuting its CyberTruck pickup at a November 21 event at SpaceX headquarters.

The auto industry, reluctant or not, is going all-in on battery power, collective investments expected to reach $225 billion worldwide between 2019 and 2023, according to Mark Wakefield, head of the automotive practice at consultancy AlixPartners. By various estimates, there’ll be over 200 different pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, on the market by mid-decade. Many will target Europe and China, but over 100 BEVs are expected in U.S. showrooms.

Such numbers should give pause. Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst with Navigant Research, points out that all forms of electrified vehicles will account for around 5 percent of the roughly 90 million new vehicles expected to be sold worldwide this year. BEVs alone generate less than 2 percent. The question industry leaders keep asking themselves: is all that money being thrown down a rathole?

In reality, they have little choice. Increasingly stringent fuel economy and emissions regulations, especially in China and Europe, require increasing use of hybrids and, moving forward, more and more BEVs – or fuel-cell vehicles. While the Trump Administration is planning to roll back U.S. requirements, industry leaders see that as, at best, a temporary reprieve.

2019 Toyota Prius Prime Silver Front ViewToyota’s sci-fi-like styling initially helped build interest in its original Prius. But the radical look of the latest-generation hybrid may have backfired. (Photo: Toyota.)

What’s clear is the “shift to electrification will change the face of our model line-up considerably,” Tom Gardner, senior vice president at Honda Motor Europe, said last month. And Honda is not alone. But there is an increasing divergence among manufacturers as to how to go about complying with these regulations – and, in the process, sell consumers on the actual merits of electric vehicles.

About the only thing clear is that range matters. First-generation BEVs, such as the Ford Focus EV and Nissan Leaf, generated only marginal niches among  green-minded motorists. Tesla, with the Model S and subsequent Models X and 3, showed that buyers expect at least 200 miles per charge, and the more the better.

That’s led to a dramatic transformation in vehicle engineering. Early BEVs stuffed batteries anywhere they’d fit. Long-range products require a more conscientious approach, usually with skateboard-like platforms, their batteries and motors mounted below the load floor. That strategy has been copied for the Mustang Mach-E, the Audi e-tron, the Jaguar I-Pace and an array of upcoming Volkswagen products.

That makes particular sense for some manufacturers, like VW or General Motors – the latter declaring itself on a “path…to full electrification.”

With the e-tron, Audi opted for a design in line with conventional SUVs like its Q8. (Photo: Audi)

But there’s a downside if your plans call for products offering a mix of conventional gas, diesel, hybrid and all-electric options. BMW’s original strategy with its i electric brand was to use unique platforms for models like the i3. But the Bavarians are shifting course as they electrify mainstay products like the 3-Series. Now, BMW says, it’s turning to more flexible platforms that can adapt to pretty much any powertrain combination.

For its part, Ford is taking a dual-path approach. It plans to launch some all-electric models using skateboard-like platforms – the Mach-E being its first. But Ford’s $11.5 billion electrification program covers a broad range of product and powertrain alternatives. The F-150 is a dramatic case in point, noted Ted Cannis, Ford’s global director of electrification. In an exclusive interview, he said the next-generation pickup will be offered conventional gas and diesel drivetrains, as well as hybrid and pure battery-electric options. Like BMW, Ford will cope with that by also developing more flexible platforms.

When Ford initially began work on an all-electric SUV it lifted a playbook from the Toyota playbook, its product team initially coming up with a swoopy, futuristic design. That certainly helped the Prius stand out in a crowded market – as much, perhaps, as its great fuel economy. But the lackluster success of the fourth-generation Prius has challenged the assumption that hybrid and BEV styling has to be unmistakably different.

Look, Ma, no grille! This approach, initiated by Tesla on products like the Model 3, improves aerodynamics and could become commonplace on future BEVs. (Photo: Tesla.)

There are, of course, some good reasons for going off in a different direction, as the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace demonstrates. Since skateboard platforms free up space normally devoted to an engine compartment, some of that can be given back to passengers and cargo.

Audi has gone in an entirely different direction with its first all-electric model, the e-tron. If anything, casual observers would be forgiven for confusing it with the similarly sized Q8 SUV. That was intentional, Audi officials explained to me, meant to send the signal that the e-tron can be driven pretty much like any conventionally powered vehicle.

Ford again opted for the middle ground with Mach-E, giving the electric SUV some classic, Mustang-like styling elements, such as the long hood and sweeping roofline. That said, aerodynamics were an essential part of the design process — the more slippery the car the better its range – something readily apparent in Mach-E’s “grille.” It’s really not a grille in the conventional sense, sealed shut — since BEVs need far less air, and only for cooling – to reduce drag.

Tesla has taken the most radical step, effectively eliminating grilles entirely on current models. That approach, said Chris Walters, the exterior design chief on Mach-E, is likely going to be more the norm than the exception, going forward.

The reality of electrification is that this is a brave new world for the auto industry. Product developers are, in many cases, flying blind. It’s likely only over the next five to 10 years – if and when battery-based vehicles gain real market traction — that the best solutions will start to become apparent.

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