Interview with Prof. Friedrich Prinz
Friedrich Prinz, who hails from Austria, is a professor of engineering at the American elite university Stanford in California. Born in Vienna, he has spent many years working on various aspects of e-mobility. His focus is on micro and nano research in the field of energy, where he researches new materials and methods for efficient energy conversion and storage. He has a clear opinion about the e-mobility transition.
Prof Prinz, the Volkswagen Group is promoting a social focus on e-mobility in Germany and Europe. Not everyone is convinced of this, and some prefer what they call “technological openness.” What is your view?
I think that we urgently need to join forces. And there is no alternative to electric mobility here; it is simply the best way for the mass mobility market. Fuel cells that work with hydrogen are also sensible – but mainly for the segment of large, heavy commercial vehicles with an extensive range. In order for the mobility transition to succeed, everyone must work hand in hand. It is important and right to have a wide-ranging discussion, and it is a good thing that this has now been initiated.
From a Californian point of view, how far on is Germany with the e-mobility transition?
Politically speaking, Germany has made the strategic error of neglecting the research and development of batteries. Perhaps it was thought that batteries would only be needed for smartphones and other portables, which was a mistake. But Germany is catching up – by taking advantage of its location, that it is the home of corporations like Volkswagen AG, which have a great deal of experience and expertise in vehicle manufacture. If Germany pools these resources, it will probably catch up with and in the long term perhaps even overtake other countries. High and consistent quality is essential for cars – and at the moment, only a few other manufacturers outside Europe offer this.
What can Volkswagen AG do in order to accelerate the e-mobility transition?
It is already doing a great deal. Backing e-mobility now is the right thing to do. A mobility corporation as large as Volkswagen AG, with all its brands and around 640,000 employees across the world, can make a big difference – and is doing so. Scaling effects in production enable the Group to help to make e-mobility accessible to the masses. Furthermore, the Volkswagen Group has given impetus to the social debate about the how, what and when of the e-mobility transition, and not a moment too soon. Nevertheless, in order for this to succeed in the foreseeable future, everyone has to pull together.
Which fields do you see as being responsible for this?
Industry, but of course, politics as well. We need to develop the right infrastructure and create the legal conditions necessary for e-mobility to become more attractive to the mass market. We need charging stations, wall boxes, and of course enough clean energy. After all, what is the use of an electric car which produces no CO₂ or other emissions when driving or during its production but is fueled with electricity created by burning coal? In other words, the whole of society has to get involved. The e-mobility transition is also closely linked to the energy transition, and this topic, for example, should play an even greater role in research, education and university policy. There is still a lot to be done. We need research, research, research – all those researchers and engineers who have been dealing with combustion engines up to now should be working on alternative energies and drives.
You yourself are involved in the Californian start-up QuantumScape, in which the Volkswagen Group is a major investor. Why is that important?
QuantumScape researches and develops solid state batteries, and will also bring them onto the market. That is the future. In order for electric mobility to work, e-vehicles must have a range which is comparable to that of vehicles with combustion engines. That is not possible at the moment. Here in California, for example, many families have an e-car for shorter daily trips, and a combustion engine vehicle for longer ones, for example to go skiing in the mountains or to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The current batteries are not yet capable of that. QuantumScape’s solid state batteries will be able to achieve this. I estimate that they will be ready in three to five years.
How sensible do you think it is to produce batteries directly here in Germany rather than buying them from Asia, for example, as has been the case so far?
I think it is very sensible. Around a third of an electric car’s value creation is in its battery. It will be one of the most important products of the next few decades, and not only in the area of mobility. This is not something you should procure, making yourself dependent; you have to be involved in its production. But too often, we talk only about Germany, whereas it is really a topic for Europe. Germany cannot achieve the energy transition on its own.
What do you mean by that?
Germany has a unique pioneering position in the world as regards alternative energies. Many countries are looking to see Germany does. This means that you have to take a certain risk and dare to take the first step. If this is done consistently, the rest of Europe will follow – and then it will also be possible to distribute the various ways of producing regenerative energy sensibly. For example, wind power in the ocean, hydropower in the mountains, solar power in the sunny South. This is also the way to reduce the geopolitical dependence on oil and gas. A change in thinking must happen here in order to bring sustainable energy to the forefront as quickly as possible. In general, the subject must be approached on an international level in order to create the necessary framework conditions.
How realistic do you think this is?
I think it is definitely realistic. Given the global challenge presented by climate change, it is essential to provide emission-free mobility: in transport, in production, in power generation. Of course, the distribution problem must also be solved with supply and transport. But I am confident that we can achieve this.
QuantumScape is a Californian start-up which researches and develops solid state batteries. These solid state batteries are to replace the conventional lithium-ion batteries and, because of their higher energy density, have a potential range of over 700 kilometers for electric vehicles on only one charge. They are also lighter. The Volkswagen Group is the main investor in QuantumScape with 100 million euros, and Prof. Fritz Prinz is also involved with the start-up.