FRANKFURT -- Rene-Christopher Wollmann, head of Mercedes-AMG's Project One supercar program, has moved to a job at Automobili Pininfarina in a sign that innovation in high end electric sports cars is shifting toward small startups.
Wollman's move, which has not been made public, comes at a time when big carmakers, like Volkswagen and Mercedes, have been blindsided by stricter and costly emissions tests, forcing them to focus resources on mainstream electric models and on cleaning up their combustion engines.
Meanwhile advances in virtual engineering allow even small teams of engineers to develop roadworthy vehicles using software to design, engineer and test prototypes. This dynamic has already helped Tesla and China's Nio steal a march on much larger rivals in the premium electric sports car segment.
"Large companies take time to transform. And I am good at hypercars. I just did Project One, and now this opportunity came," 37-year-old Wollmann told Reuters about his reason for joining Automobili Pininfarina, a Munich-based electric carmaker that launched last year.
Project One, which has a modified Formula One engine, was due to go on sale this year but has been delayed by problems getting road worthiness certification following the introduction of WLTP emissions test standards, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Premium or high-performance electric sports cars are equivalent to the Ferraris and Lamborghinis in the conventional auto world. These so-called supercars can cost anything from about $100,000 up into the millions of dollars and include Tesla's upcoming Roadster Founder Series, which will sell for over $200,000 and the Rimac Concept Two, priced in the region of $2 million.
The emerging role of startups in the development of the premium electric market harks back to an era over a century ago when talented engineers like Gottlieb Daimler and Ferdinand Porsche were able to launch sportscar brands on modest budgets.
Players leading the way include the likes of Automobili Pininfarina, Croatia's Rimac, China's Nio and Italian engineering shop Italy's Maniffatura Automobili Torino.
But because of the high initial investment needed, with no guarantee of success in a niche market, boutique supercar manufacturers face significant risks if they try to develop more than one vehicle or shift to becoming mainstream carmakers.
Wollmann was hired because he also helped develop an electric version of the AMG SLS for AMG Mercedes, a skill that will help Automobili Pininfarina, owned by India's Mahindra & Mahindra, develop its own zero-emissions vehicle.
"I did the first electric hypercar for AMG so this was the perfect fit," he said.
Since its 2018 launch, Automobili Pininfarina has hired a raft of top-flight German engineers. Christian Jung, Porsche's chief engineer of E-Mobility systems, and Peter Tutzer, a former technical director at supercar brand Bugatti, are part of the team.
They are designing the "Battista", an electric supercar with a top speed of at least 300 km an hour (186 mph) and acceleration from 0 to 100 in under two seconds. Around 150 will be built, costing 2 million pounds each, the company said.