Volkswagen’s best shot at a comeback now has the automaker right where Elon Musk wants it

This is getting serious.
This is getting serious.
Image: Reuters/Noah Berger
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Volkswagen, reeling in the fallout after being caught lying to emissions regulators and millions of motorists about its supposed “clean diesel” engines, has at least one promising route to recovery from the self-made debacle. And that would be forging the most aggressive path of anyone to the mainstream electric car, to bring the cleanest of clean-car technologies to the masses.

If VW did so, it would find itself in common cause with Apple, which has reportedly made a concrete decision to field an electric car in 2019. Apple’s move is intended to insert itself in a grand competition unfolding at the end of the decade, involving almost every major carmaker on the planet, including GM, BMW, Mercedes, and Jaguar, not to mention Tesla.

In a gigantic electric-car convergence, all these automakers plan to launch cars aimed at both the low end of the market and luxury buyers in the 2017 to 2020 model years.

VW and Apple are on sharply differing trajectories—Apple, with $200 billion in the bank, seemingly has no limits on its potential; and VW, in a potentially existential crisis that has already cost the jobs of the CEO and other senior executives, is likely to owe billions of dollars, and may face criminal charges.

But their paths may unintentionally cross in a way that helps to tip the thus-far uncertain electric car industry into the mass market.

Why Elon Musk would love this conspiracy

Some analysts have misunderstood the coming electric car collision as a zero-sum smashup in which Tesla CEO Elon Musk could end up the loser. It isn’t.

Instead, this is precisely the outcome that Musk has relished—the creation of an ecosystem in which millions of electric cars are sold by numerous automakers every year around the world.

Why would Musk want so many competing models out there? Because his considerable sales ambitions are likeliest to be achieved if he’s not the only game in town. Mainstream consumers want choice; to shovel electrics out of their current niche, there has to be a large field, with perhaps dozens of competing vehicles.

Musk is confident that his Teslas will stand out—and, he hopes, sell more than any other single maker. That’s why he has vowed not to sue anyone using Tesla patents, as long as they are doing so in what he ambiguously calls “good faith.”

Which brings us back to VW

After the disclosure that the German company has misled millions of car buyers around the world, it’s not clear how VW—which in July overtook Toyota to become the biggest carmaker on the planet—can and will recover.

But a definitive pivot to electric cars could help, Venkat Viswanathan, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon, tells Quartz.

Before the current crisis, VW was already positioning itself for the electric convergence: Now-ousted CEO Martin Winterkorn had said that in 2018, the company would launch an inexpensive electric sedan, an SUV, and a hatchback. VW, he said, is also on the cusp of creating a “super battery” that will allow an inexpensive VW to travel 186 miles on a single charge. Meanwhile, VW’s Audi and Porsche units will challenge Tesla in the super-luxury class.

But to escape its current squeeze, VW could get even more serious. John Paul MacDuffie, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Quartz that VW might up its game by cutting the price of its electrics, and subsidizing the reduction with the profits from its gasoline-fueled cars.

Over at Green Car Reports, Tom Moloughney writes that VW could also offer to replace any motorist’s errant VW diesel with a full electric e-Golf. And, putting the cars themselves aside for the moment, VW could volunteer to help resolve the shortage of fast-charging stations, another weakness at the moment for the electrics market. Moloughney suggests that VW spend a few billion dollars building up a network of charging stations around the US.

VW and Apple are precisely the hard-chargers that could force the entire industry—Musk included—to do much better, and do so much faster. A convincing electrics push seems VW’s most logical next course.

More Quartz coverage of the Volkswagen scandal can be found here.