Some executives at major automakers continue to insist that electric cars remain years away from becoming a mainstream reality—and that it’s harder to sell them than traditional vehicles with gas tanks and tailpipes.
Volkswagen of America’s new CEO, Scott Keogh, is most definitely not one of them. In a round-table interview with Green Car Reports and a few other news outlets this past week at the LA Auto Show, Keogh made clear that it will be ready for the millions of mass-market electric vehicles VW intends to produce.
Keogh underscored how dramatically the tides have turned. He’s been in meetings, he recounted, with executives and dealers who’ve said that “this Tesla thing’s a joke.”
“And then lo and behold, it probably will be—because we’re not far away now—the best-selling car in America,” said Keogh, with no dealer network, no advertising, and none of the tools that the industry is used to.
According to Keogh, the reason Tesla is at the top of the sales charts is that, no matter what the price or market segment, the automotive business is driven by what’s new.
“There’s no debate if you climb into one of these vehicles, it feels like you’re driving the future,” he said. “If you want to launch a marketing campaign, you want to target new customers, and it’s ‘come drive the future’—well a lot of people will listen up and tune into that.”
A traditional vehicle with four more horsepower, 1 mpg improvement, and a bigger sunroof is a much harder sell, argued Keogh, who credited VW’s U.S. dealerships with helping get through a particularly tough past several years.
The CEO believes that we’re on the verge of a tipping point. “I’ve seen it with products, and I see it happening here,” he said. “I’m a firm believer, and the reason it’s going to happen is because they’re going to feel they’re driving the future, driving what’s next—and that is a universal truth of consumer goods.”
It’s not just anecdotal. Volkswagen is seeing two pieces of supporting evidence:
1) There’s been a consistent increase in positive responses to a simple question: “Would you consider an electric vehicle?” In just a few years it’s gone from “I don’t know what they are” to “I know what they are but there’s no chance in hell I’m going to buy them” to now, “I probably know someone who has them, I read something, and I’m kind of thinking about it.”
2) Fear of missing out: Shoppers are starting to show signs of concern over missing out on EVs. He says there’s an increasingly common message: “I know I’m hearing about them, I’m interested, and I never want to get left behind.”
Keough, who steered Audi of America through tremendous growth, couldn’t yet discuss how Volkswagen of America will change under his direction. But he did give some insights on how VW electric vehicles will be marketed.
Don’t get left behind
Keogh called the latter point a profound insight—because instead of wondering about things like pricing or miles per gallon, people are concerned at a different level.
“You can just see this creep coming; I’ve been in the business 26 years, I’ve been looking at this a long time and you can just see it’s one of these builds,” said Keogh. “And it’s right there, right now.”
The fear of “someone else has gotten in on something before me. I don’t want to say it’s quite like a nightclub or a restaurant or a community or a neighborhood, but it kind of is,” he said. “There’s something in the air, and it’s cool.”
“The power we want to bring to it is that we come into the market at the price point, at the build quality, at the coolness, and now you’re going to get: ‘I thought those things were all for $85,000 for people in Silicon Valley; I thought they were for doctors in Portland. Wait, you have one? I’m kind of like you.’ And away you go.”
The production-bound versions of the I.D. concepts, like the I.D. Buzz, the revived Microbus, earned reactions he describes as profound and magical. “These are reactions we haven’t gotten from cars in 20, 30 years.” he said. “You all know when you get a reaction from a car; and when you start to see things like that, you’re like, okay, something’s happening here.”
“We’re going to go into a much more active mode in terms of not defending, of proposing things...I think MEB is the start.”
With all the pieces in place, and VW’s diesel woes fading, it sounds like that start can’t come soon enough.