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Volkswagen's company logo. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Volkswagen's company logo. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

The Green Highway

VW pursues electric car domination Add to ...

I visited Volkswagen's electric-car skunk works in Silicon Valley last week and there to my surprise was the co-Founder and former CEO of Tesla Motors. Mark Eberhard suffered a very public sacking from Tesla a couple of years ago at the hands of the company's major financial backer and current CEO, Elon Musk. Eberhard is now on the VeeDub payroll working on batteries for the future VW electric car.

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Eberhard has been one of Silicon Valley's bright lights since the mid-1980s as a computer engineer with a number of successful startups under his belt and untold millions in the bank. He is brash, outspoken and supremely confident in his opinions. "It is just barely possible to build an electric car today. You can only make a certain type of car and only for a certain type of people." The problem is the batteries, I presume. "It's ALL about the batteries," said Eberhard.

Let's back up and talk about the "skunk works" where Eberhard now spends his days. The official title is the Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) in Palo Alto, Calif. There are more than 100 engineers and scientists toiling away on what VW calls "e-mobility." Head office is taking this research centre seriously.

On the day I was there, a visit combined with the global launch of the new Jetta, all the big shots from Germany had flown in on the corporate jet. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, chairman of the entire Volkswagen conglomerate, was on site to announce that a "top priority of our global research network is electro-mobility." Winterkorn said he expects the Volkswagen Group to be the largest automobile producer in the world by 2018 and that by then at least 3 per cent of its fleet will be all-electric.

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So that takes us again to the question of the batteries that will make this possible. Eberhard favours packaging consumer cells, which everybody knows from their laptops and cellphones, into cars. The most common ones are called 18650s because they're 18 mm in diameter and 65 mm in length.

"Cylindrical cells have the highest energy density. Small cells are safer, too," says Eberhard. "There are two billion 18650s produced each year and the cell count (the number you need for a given amount of energy) keeps going down. We're pushing the battery technology in the direction we want to go - which is performance for cars - not laptops."

Volkswagen is working on batteries with partners including Sanyo, Toshiba, Bosch-Samsung and BYD. "There is a huge amount of money going into battery chemistry," Eberhard said. What has he learned? "I'm not ready to talk about battery chemistry at this point. But we're not wed to lithium."

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Eberhard still drives to work in a Tesla Roadster, not a Volkswagen. I asked him if he's concerned about the fact that he could be recharging his car with dirty coal-generated electricity. "Not a problem. Even if all the electricity comes from a coal plant, the all-in carbon footprint of my electric car is much better than the best (gas-electric) hybrid car today."

Volkswagen is pushing its American connection for all it's worth given that the company must significantly increase U.S. sales if it's dreaming about being the world's largest car company in six or seven years. Learning to talk like California surfer-dudes, it is "Catching the Wave of the Future." Its literature also states, "We're at home in America and at home in Silicon Valley." During his fly-in visit, Winterkorn said, "Volkswagen has been too cautious for too long in North America."

We'll see if adding high-priced Silicon Valley talent can take it over the finish line on the Green Highway.

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