Disruptive EV manufacturers such as Tesla have it easy. With no legacy market to service, they can go all out producing electric cars and not worry about what might happen to the conventional vehicle sales being replaced by electric ones. But it’s a different story for manufacturers that still have significant sales volume of internal combustion cars. That’s why many are taking a route like the one shown at Skoda’s newly retooled factory at Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Republic. They don’t really have a choice.
EV evangelists tend to criticize electric cars that are built on a shared platform with internal combustion versions (despite Kia’s and Hyundai’s vehicles in this category being excellent). The designs may have some compromises, but that doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. It’s possible to produce designs that cater for both drivetrain types quite well. The battery version will need to have space in the bottom of the chassis for batteries that the internal combustion ones don’t need. But one of the reasons why the Kia/Hyundai cars feel less compromised is because they are front-wheel drive, which means the electric and internal combustion motors are in the same place up front.
Even having a pure-electric design doesn’t mean that these cars need to be built in an entirely different factory to conventional ones. The battery packs, engine control systems and wiring looms will be different, and they have electric motors that are often in an alternative place (VW’s typically have the motor at the rear). But otherwise EVs are still cars, so a lot of the same techniques can be used during manufacturing.
What Skoda is doing at Mladá Boleslav is to fully integrate the manufacture of vehicle types into one line. The big news, announced last week, was that this would be the first plant outside Germany to manufacture battery systems for the MEB platform used in Volkswagen Group pure electric cars, such as the ID.3, ID.4, Audi Q4 e-tron and recently launched Cupra Born. The cells and packs are made elsewhere and imported, so this is the process of constructing them into a system, which currently are 55kWh, 62kWh and 82kWh in capacity. These will then primarily be used to build Skoda’s Enyaq iV and Coupe at a nearby building.
But those won’t be the only vehicles manufactured at the factory. The car production lines are identical at Mladá Boleslav whether it’s Skoda Octavias, Superbs, or all-electric Enyaq iVs being put together. I watched the same workers (often female, which was great to see) move from working on conventional cars to working on the all-electric Enyaq iV and its Coupe variant, depending on what showed up at their station along the line. The fact that the employees can dynamically switch between the two allows Skoda to vary its output with demand (and parts supply, presumably).
It’s all very well sneering at traditional manufacturers for continuing to build internal combustion cars. But they are faced with a difficult situation, balancing one declining market against another growing one. While EV sales are exploding, particularly in Europe, they are unlikely to completely take over the market in the developed world until at least a decade from now. In developing nations, and America, the timeframe could be much longer. During the transition phase, traditional manufacturers need to continue to build non-EVs according to demand.
The question is how to manage the transition, and that’s why having a flexible production line able to switch immediately between different car types is essential. The Skoda strategy at Mladá Boleslav is likely to be a common one. BMW already has a similar plan, with the i4 being made alongside the 3- and 4-series cars, and the iX alongside the 5- and 7-series. Volkswagen has enough factories to dedicate some, such as Zwickau, to EV only. This is where the ID.3, ID.4, ID.5, Audi Q4 e-tron and Cupra Born are made. But smaller, lower volume brands – even if they are part of a larger group like Skoda – need to hedge their bets more.
It’s clear that the transition to EVs will leave some casualties in its wake. Tesla is storming ahead, and Volkswagen appears to be unleashing its EV strategy quite successfully under the leadership of Herbert Diess. BMW had a lead with the i3, lost it, but is now coming back again with the i4 and iX. Hyundai and Kia have released some promising designs, as have Volvo / Polestar. But other manufacturers are further behind the curve. They will need to look at ways to make the move to EV production as smoothly as possible, as Skoda clearly has, so they can continue to receive income from internal combustion powertrains as they ramp up EV production. Otherwise, the future might not be very bright for them.