The cellular phone industry was changed forever on June 29, 2007, when the first generation Apple iPhone was released to the public. It was a fresh and new idea that changed how mobile phones would be used and looked at forever. However, it was a wake-up call to Apple’s competitors and past cell phone manufacturers: Adapt or Fall Behind.
In Germany, a man named Herbert Diess, who runs a little car company called Volkswagen, is aware of the parallels between the automotive and cell phone sectors. Change happens. It happens fast, and if you don’t try to adapt to it, you won’t be relevant in a few years. Take Nokia, for example.
“Nokia is probably a good example of how such a change can happen—if you’re not fast enough, you’re not going to survive,” Diess said in an interview with Bloomberg. “I’m always telling our people this example.”
Nokia was arguably the most popular cell phone brand up until 2007. Most children used their Mom’s Nokia phone to play Snake while their parents shopped, giving it the versatility as a handy portable telephone and entertainment machine. However, Apple thought on a more broad scale and saw the cell phone as an opportunity to revolutionize the way people look at them. Instead of a few buttons and a low-resolution, pixelated screen, Apple got rid of most of the buttons and updated the software within a phone to show that it was capable of everything that a computer could do.
Fast forward a few years, and Tesla is doing essentially the same thing with the automotive market. The company took the automobile and changed everything about it: the powertrain, the infotainment, the design, and the performance. Now, Volkswagen is trying to avoid becoming the Nokia of cars, looking to adapt to the global automotive market’s ever-changing look.
Volkswagen is arguably the automaker that supports the change to EVs the most of the companies with an ICE-based history. Interestingly, it is the same company that fended off a major emissions scandal within the last decade. However, it still has been the car company with the most support for Tesla and the transition to electrification.
Volkswagen’s transition begins with updating its currently-operating production plants to support the manufacturing process of EV powertrains. But that is not the biggest challenge the German automaker is facing, according to Diess.
“The bigger transition automotive will face is really as the car is becoming more and more of a software device,” he said, “gathering huge amounts of data, and then building up from the data artificial intelligence, knowledge about the driver, road conditions, safety, and then improving the way this device behaves.”
In regards to Tesla, Diess says that its lead is big, but that the company is helping “pull the industry” along with the guidance of CEO Elon Musk. “He’s a reference for us. If we look into our future and what the car has to become, it has to become electric, and it has to become an internet device.”
In the race to become the premier EV company, Volkswagen has a long way to go. Overtaking Tesla is in the company’s future plans, but Diess realizes that his company is ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
“I think we are the best-prepared company for the EV age. Europe will be one of the main hubs of electrification, and we are well prepared, so I’m happy. The big thing is managing through that transition. In 2024 and 2025, when cars really become Internet devices and start self-driving, I hope that we took the right decisions.”