Ralf Brandstätter is a Volkswagen Group lifer. He joined the firm 28 years ago, working his way up the management ranks in relatively low-profile purchasing and procurement roles. So when he was named the new CEO of the Volkswagen brand in June last year, especially with reports that his predecessor Herbert Diess – who remains Volkswagen Group CEO and Volkswagen brand chairman – was shuffled out of the role in an internal power struggle, it seemed Brandstätter’s mission was to maintain the status quo.
After all, even with his appointment coming in the middle of a global pandemic, Brandstätter took on the top job in Wolfsburg in a far better position than his predecessors. Matthias Müller had to steer the brand through the immediate fallout of Dieselgate, before Diess oversaw the development and launch of the MEB EV platform and ID family.
The first ID cars are now on the road, sales and profits are strong and Volkswagen is weathering the Covid-19 storm with remarkable resilience.
So with Diess leading the group’s shift to electrification, it seems that all Brandstätter really needs to do is steer a steady course and keep the proverbial tanker pointed in its current direction. Except he’s actually charting a bold new course – while simultaneously trying to switch the powertrain of the tanker. He’s moving beyond turning Volkswagen from a brand that sells mostly ICE cars to mostly electric ones (which changing laws will soon force all brands to do anyway). Under the new Accelerate strategy, Brandstätter is working to make Volkswagen carbon-neutral, reinvent its production network, fundamentally change its business model and develop a new generation of electric, connected and autonomous cars. He even wants to turn Volkswagen from a car maker into a software development company.
“The real disruption is still coming,” he says. “If you believe with electric cars alone we’ve arrived in the future already, you’re wrong. Digitalisation is the key. The car is now a software-driven product.”
This belief that software will be the dominant differentiator for future cars is why, despite having had major problems with the software in the ID 3 and new Golf, the group is pushing on with plans to develop its own operating system (OS). Think of Apple: its smartphone hardware gets the attention, but its business model is built around its OS and App Store. In the future, Volkswagen will offer largely standardised cars, with additional features then sold as software updates, thus enabling it to earn revenue from cars throughout their lives.