Though more are available from dealers than ever before, electric cars still account for just a small part of the new-car market. Volkswagen wants to wants to grow EV sales by leaps and bounds, aiming to sell 150,000 electric cars globally in 2020 and a million of them annually by 2025. The key ingredient in that push is an all-new car platform called MEB, called in English the Modular Electric Drive Matrix. I spent a day in Dresden, Germany, to learn from the experts why Volkswagen believes MEB will make its new fleet of electric cars so successful.
Flexible and purpose-built
The modular chassis will have only a few variables in terms of its basic size, with two wheelbases and two different dash-to-axle proportions. The track width can be tweaked slightly, too, by installing different suspension components. Atop that somewhat inflexible base, VW designers will have the freedom to craft a variety of different car bodies: The platform is said to accommodate compact cars, crossovers, sedans and even shooting brakes.
As on most other purpose-built electric cars, MEB puts electric motors at either end of the platform with a flat battery pack in the floor pan. The chassis is rear-wheel-drive by default with all-wheel drive available as an option. With the battery pack giving a low center of gravity and near 50:50 weight distribution, rear drive makes more sense due to "the weight distribution, the traction and the driving agility," says MEB model line project leader Tino Fuhrman. He notes how easy it is to accidentally break the tires loose in today's front-wheel-drive e-Golf, as it carries most of its battery weight rearward.
The good news for enthusiasts is that MEB will be able to offer higher-power models -- but not due to new motors. Instead, higher-performing cars will have a different ratio in the motors' single-speed reduction gearbox and updated software to push more power to the motors. But there are just two motor designs used for all MEB cars: one for the rear wheels and another for the front wheels.
The design of MEB means that Volkswagen was able to increase interior and cargo room compared with equivalent internal-combustion cars. A flat floor, because there's no tunnel for an exhaust or driveshaft, and a smaller "engine compartment" ahead of the firewall make things much roomier. The height of the battery pack in the floor, however, means that occupants sit higher than in, say, an equivalent Golf. VW sees that as an advantage given customer preferences for higher seating positions.
Contrary to expectations, Volkswagen's new platform does not use exotic materials to save weight. Engineers considered carbon fiber but decided it wasn't up to the high-volume, moderate-cost goals the company has for these cars. Even aluminum is used only sparingly, with most of the MEB chassis built from high-strength steel.
As was evident from the concepts, the MEB car family will wear large wheels: 18 to 21 inches depending on model and trim. That's partly because the cars sit higher, due to the in-floor battery, and also because engineers say large-diameter wheels allow for larger contact patches to compensate for using low rolling-resistance tires.
Engineers also tried to future-proof MEB by leaving space for features that aren't yet available. For instance, there's a panel in the floor pan design for an inductive-charging system, as well as a 1.06 cubic-foot cavity in the dash for an augmented-reality head-up display (typical HUD modules, engineers say, take up less than half a cubic foot of space). And the platform's electrical architecture is designed to accommodate autonomous-driving technology at some point down the road.
All-new battery pack
Volkswagen's MEB cars will use rectangular battery packs embedded in the floor of the car. VW will offer two different capacities for the packs, roughly 48 to 62 kilowatt-hours on the low end and about 80 to 82 kilowatt-hours on the top end. Those should give driving ranges of 330 to 550 kilometers (205-342 miles) according to Europe's WLTP efficiency ratings. US EPA figures are still to be determined, but Fuhrman says to expect something like 175 to 300 miles depending on battery size.
Because the battery is in the bottom of the car, it's relatively easy to replace the battery pack if it fails or as it ages; doing so on today's e-Golf is "very expensive," Volkswagen says. The pack itself consists of multiple modules consisting of multiple cells. Volkswagen will source its battery cells from either LG Chem or Samsung; the company says having two options will avoid production slowdowns if there's a supply issue.
Unlike today's e-Golf, the battery pack is liquid-cooled (the motor is cooled, too, on a separate coolant circuit). VW says the cooling system is said to be effective enough that fast-charging the battery won't degrade its life due to overheating. There are sensors in each of the battery modules to keep tabs on temperature, too.
Metal cross-braces between each battery module add stiffness to help keep the pack from damage in a crash. But engineers note that the battery pack is already in a part of the car that engineers work to protect in side-impact collisions: the passenger compartment.
As with any EV, charging is a key consideration. No matter how big the car's battery pack, customers can be turned off it recharging takes too long. Fortunately, VW plans for the MEB platform to accommodate 100-kilowatt charging at launch and 125-kW charging later. The latter should be enough for the car to add 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of driving range per minute of charging.
Moreover, VW hopes that owners will take a new approach to charging their cars. Martin Römheld, the company's head of e-mobility services, likens owning an electric car to your smartphone: You top it up from time to time throughout your day at places like public chargers. Contrast that to a gasoline car that you run until the tank is empty.
"Charging your phone is a standard part of your life now -- you don't think about it," he says. "Charging will take place where you want to go."
Volkswagen is also working to build out charging networks. All 4,000 VW dealers in Europe will have at least three charge points by 2020, the company says. There, theis set to establish 400 fast-charge points along major highways. And in the US, plans to establish charging points no more than 120 miles apart on major Interstate routes.
For home use, VW plans to sell its own Wallbox (the device that converts your household power into a form an electric car can use) from 300 euros. VW engineers also have future-proofed the MEB platform for inductive charging. There's an open, reserved spot in the bottom of the car that's intended to accept an inductive pad when the technology is ready for primentime.
Headed to market soon
One of the biggest remaining questions is how much the new cars will cost, as electrics traditionally cost more than equivalent internal-combustion models. Thomas Ulbrich, Volkswagen board member responsible for e-mobility, says the cars should be affordable to the masses, with the goal of making the new MEB-based cars no more expensive than an equivalent diesel-powered model today.
"Then it is not any longer a price range for only special customers," he says. "We will build electric vehicles for millions and not just millionaires."
Of course, an exact price has yet to be announced.
Production begins in 2019, with the first MEB-based car, the Golf-like, to launch in Europe in 2020. Then the will follow; it'll likely be the first MEB model to be sold in the US. After that, the and the concepts will become production cars. Even more body styles are possible after that, Volkswagen says; including the aforementioned models, Ulbrich promises 27 MEB-model launches globally from 2019 through 2022.
It's going to be a big lift for Volkswagen to sell its planned 1 million electric cars annually by 2025, but there's no denying that with the new MEB strategy, the company is putting all its chips on EVs taking off in a big way.