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Catching Up With: Hinrich J. Woebcken

CEO of Volkswagen Group of America

Hinrich J. Woebcken assumed the role of CEO for the Volkswagen Group’s North American region in 2016. He has worked in the automotive industry for more than 40 years, including a tenure of more than 10 years with BMW Group.

UPDATE: Audi’s Scott Keogh will lead as CEO for VW Group of America on November 1 and Woebcken will become a strategy adviser to VW according to a recent release.

We sat down with Woebcken during this year’s Monterey Car Week to talk about VW’s future in the United States.

Automobile Magazine: Is VW’s mission to create a self-driving car network?

Hinrich J. Woebcken: Volkswagen is strongly investing into this. Software and autonomous driving is absolutely a strong focus of our future product development. This is not a North American issue. It’s a global issue, and because we have huge scales globally, we have the opportunity to be fast on this.

AM: But it’s a different business landscape than the traditional automotive industry …

HW: We also have to realistically see that other software companies coming from another side of the business are challenging the traditional car industry. But on the other hand, they also don’t have the competencies we have. So it’s basically a race. The race is on. Who is faster to acquire the competencies, so to speak, of the other side? But we definitely see a strong trend within Volkswagen for additional investments into software.

AM: American carmakers have lost confidence in sedans. VW just introduced a new Jetta, and the Arteon is coming. What does VW see that Detroit doesn’t?

HW: As a niche player, these strong sedan segments are still within the top four, top five segments in the industry. We want to deliver strong and competitive and exciting sedans. This German-engineered sedan technology is, I believe, very exciting for many American customers as well, even though the segment is under pressure, no question. But I just recalled the number of Jettas we sell; there is even more than we do with the SUVs. So there is no reason for us to leave that segment.

AM: What’s the long view of sedans?

HW: We definitely are also going to invest into sedans in the future. And if you look a little bit further ahead on electric mobility, the split between SUVs and sedans in full electric cars, I believe, will be a little bit different to what you see right now, simply because the sedans have such a higher advantage on range. That’s my prediction, that we are going to see a different split between sedans and SUVs on the electric side in the future.

AM: The political situation in the U.S. is dicey. What steps is VW taking to prepare for problematic policies?

HW: That’s why we have [our] Chattanooga [factory] here in the U.S., of course with also smart supply of parts from outside the U.S., also from Mexico. The complexity of this supply chain being the nature of our industry, not only for Volkswagen, we hope there is the understanding that we need free and open and fair trade. It’s the best basis for everybody. There is no winner in a regulation environment; there will be no winner. We hope this position will be shared by the political bodies involved.

AM: Just to be clear, though: VW and others opened U.S. plants long before today’s climate.

HW: We decided [to manufacture in] Chattanooga more than 10 years ago, so more than two-and-a-half administrations [ago]. We cannot make these kinds of multibillion-dollar investments on governmental administration cycles. This is, by the way, the same around the globe for everybody. A balanced supply and factory base is the rightanswer, and that’s exactly what we had to weigh.

AM: Where does a VW pickup, like the Tanoak concept, stand?

HW: Doing it right in a very patriotic segment is something you really have to carefully do. Right now we are proposing this Tanoak on a unibody platform, which is not typical for that segment. The B pickup segment in America and the C pickup segment is nearly all body-on-frame because of the high instance of commercial use. If you build it on unibody, then you have a great advantage for the driving dynamics; it’s basically the same story as what happened 15, 20 years ago with the SUVs, which also were body-on-frame back then. If you look at the market now, the rest is history.

AM: When might we see such a production vehicle?

HW: The question is, does this copy-paste [approach] also work on the pickup side? This is something we need to study more carefully, so the advantages, again, yeah, better driving dynamics, but also having something differentiating it from the high volume of concepts you see in the market now. We are not through with that study, and there are other strategic and architectural opportunities we are looking into in order to get it feasible.

AM: What is the future of R Performance?

HW: The Golf R, or the R family, is for us a symbol of sportiness, of real dynamic driving, and this fun-to-drive [trait] always has been an important factor for our brand. We are going to continue to deliver on that promise. Going into the electric I.D. family, [R Performance] fits very well into that story. The fun of electric acceleration is phenomenal. This brand needs a lot of driving fun and also a lot of excitement, and R will be in the future.

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