VW sets sights on Apple-like model updates with speed task force

VW CEO Martin Winterkorn, with the T-Roc concept SUV at the Geneva Motor Show in March, aims to shorten the company's product cycles.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
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BERLIN -- Volkswagen AG plans to mimic the fast-paced rollouts of products made by the likes of Apple Inc. to adapt quicker to changing customer demands for technology in its cars.

To accelerate vehicle development, Volkswagen is forming a task force that will include 40 to 60 top managers in the coming months, according to internal documents from the company that were obtained by Bloomberg News.

The group will identify the steps needed to change from the industry's traditional approach of revamping models every seven years as technology developments including in-car connectivity and electric motors call for speedier reaction times.

"How can we shorten today's model cycles and make them significantly more flexible?," VW CEO Martin Winterkorn said in a transcript of a speech to managers dated July 14. "Consumer electronics with ever-new technologies and products set the pace."

President Barack Obama on Tuesday highlighted U.S. carmakers' research on technology to allow vehicles to communicate with each other to reduce traffic jams and accidents.

VW's task force is part of an effort to cut costs and improve productivity at its namesake brand by 5 billion euros ($6.8 billion) a year by 2017 after efficiency gains failed to keep pace with rising labor costs.

Driverless cars

VW is pushing for savings through lower purchasing expenses, reduced complexity and less factory costs.

The company employs almost 575,000 people, more than any other carmaker. It has sought to offset its heavy wage bill by sharing parts and development costs among its 12 brands.

Automakers intending to bring driverless cars to market need to work as much on software design as mechanical engineering, said Maarten Sierhuis, the researcher leading Nissan Motor Co.'s automated-vehicle program.

With fierce competition in Europe and high costs to roll out fresh models such as the revamped Passat, the Volkswagen brand's margin dropped to 1.8 percent of sales in the first quarter from 2.4 percent a year ago. The company's target for its biggest nameplate is a 6 percent margin. Hyundai Motor Co. had a first-quarter operating margin of 9 percent.

Vehicle target

CEO Winterkorn is focusing on profitability with the group's annual sales on schedule to exceed 10 million vehicles for the first time in 2014, four years earlier than planned.

Volkswagen is set to introduce 100 new or revamped vehicles through next year as part of a strategy to dethrone Toyota Motor Corp. as the global industry leader by 2018.

Boosting profit is vital for VW as far-reaching changes are looming for automakers amid tightening emission regulations, changing mobility trends in urban areas and hefty expenses to develop electric cars.

"To be able to afford this we need to create the economic basis now," Winterkorn said, according to the transcript. "Without the appropriate financial basis any strategy will and must fail."

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