I recently attended the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest’s e-Mobility conference. The conference overall was very interesting and featured some great topics, but one thing at the very end of the conference really caught my attention. The panel was discussing international cooperation and featured Roland Matthe, Manager of Volt Battery Development, GM, Dr. Samit Ghosh, CEO of P3 North America, and Dr. Joachim Wolschendorf, CTO of FEV. The final question was: Are BEVs a better opportunity for global cooperation than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles because the vehicles won’t be as branded by their engines?
When one thinks about current cars or trucks, they often have a branded (or pseudo-branded) engines, such as Hemi in Chyrslers, Ecoboost in Fords, Vortec in Chevrolet trucks, VTEC in Hondas, etc. Even those that don’t have a specific brand name for their engines will often have a strong reputation based on their engines. One could make a solid case that BMW would not have the reputation it does without the performance and reliability characteristics of BMW engines (same could be said for most manufacturers), and then there is the reputation built from unusual designs such as the boxer engines in Subarus, Mazda’s rotary engines, or the whopping 16 cylinder Bugatti motor.
With BEVs, these key components are no longer a part of the equation. What becomes that part of the brand in their place?
There are actually three main components that the panelists centered on during the discussion: the electric motors, the battery pack, and the overall driving experience. Obviously, the last one will ultimately be a key brand trait (BMW, the “Ultimate Driving Machine”, is an expression of this). I would also argue that many BEV and PHEV manufacturers are setting the stage to claim that their battery packs are a defining feature:
• GM has developed their Voltec battery to use only about 50% of its total charge, while the Nissan Leaf uses closer to 90%.
• BMW, GM and Tesla believe battery packs have to have liquid temperature control to maintain quality, while Nissan stands behind their air cooled batteries.
These technical differences are what typically end up being marketing messages and part of the brand building (note that GM’s drivetrain even has a name already).
Conversely, there is little talk about the electric motors, probably because they are moving towards commodity status. The motors are already highly efficient (I’ve heard from multiple companies that BEV motors are over 90% efficient regardless of who builds them, and many already outsource their electric motors for traditional hybrids). Additionally, electric motors don’t require routine maintenance, are quiet, and buried within the chassis. So, the ownership experience with regards to the electric motor itself will be largely invisible to the end user.
Following the discussion, I asked Hans Hohenner, Development Drivetrain Product Manager for BMW, what he thought the answer to this branding question is. He said he didn’t have an answer, but then pointed out that BMW currently outsources their transmissions to ZF in their ICE vehicles, and clearly that is a critical component to the drivetrain.
So, coming back to the original question: Do BEVs offer better opportunity for international collaboration? Perhaps the answer isn’t that BEVs offer a better opportunity, but that today’s automotive market offers better opportunities overall.