“To be honest, the company we are becoming is a bit closer to my style,” Diess says, before turning apologetically to the PR minder. “To be completely honest, the company could be described as a bit overstated in former years. Now, humility is a word I choose to use. This is not a company of criminals. It is a company of good, honourable people. What happened was morally wrong, but we are prepared to change and prove there is a reason for customers to stick with us. But we have a lot of work to do to restore faith.”
For some, there will be no apology that is strong enough. Nor is it lost on me that Diess is available to talk only now that he has a positive story to tell. But he’s sincere and prepared to look you in the eye as he acknowledges, albeit carefully and as briefly as he realistically can without being accused of trying to brush over the subject, the errors of the past, the tumultuous emotions he went through as the scandal unfolded and the scale of the problems ahead.
“Disbelief, shock – I experienced the same emotions as people watching the story unfold,” he acknowledges. “But when you are responsible for a company that you believe is honourable and trustworthy to its core then you have to regroup, to look forward. It will take time; comparisons with car companies that have experienced big scandals in the past suggest at least two years, but I think three to four. But this is a brand that has a lot to offer. We’ve had a lot of negativity; now I hope we can turn a corner.”
It’s no coincidence that the family of production electric vehicles the ID will spawn will start to come on stream from 2020, when Diess’s ‘four years of pain’ prediction is up. Given the minuscule sales of electric vehicles in the past four years, it seems an unlikely technology on which the world’s largest car maker (on a group level) should be pinning its hopes for the future. Diess and his army of experts, though, see things very differently.
“Time is changing everything,” he shrugs. “It’s evident that VW’s slow start with electro-mobility was the right strategy, but there are strong indications that by 2020 we’ll be at a tipping point, where the costs of manufacturing can be comparable to conventional cars, the infrastructure will be in place and so on. Get it right and the electric car can be very desirable in a few years’ time.
“Combine that with growing market demand – notably in China, where we are strong with a 14% market share and where there is enormous pressure for electric vehicles – and you get the motivation to push. And at that point you must ask if you are there to play or there to do the best you can. If the conditions are right and the demand around the world is good enough for one million electric car sales a year, which is what we are predicting, then there’s a case for making the bespoke platform, which is what we’re doing. We think that if you use a platform designed to take all kinds of powertrains, you are too compromised; eventually you will not be able to compete.”