VW’s Iconic Past Meets its Aspirational Future

VW couple - rain commercial

Last night, my wife called me into the family room to watch a Volkswagen commercial. In it, a young couple is driving their VW Microbus through the sunny countryside, as it turns out, to Woodstock. Combine an iconic vehicle with an iconic soundtrack (Joe Cocker’s A Little Help From My Friends), on its way to an iconic event and the effect on me was breathtaking.

Everything was perfect–the hair, the 1969 Ford in the background, the look of joy in the eyes of the long-haired, bell-bottom-jean-wearing flower power enthusiasts. They stop to pick up a couple girls. During the also iconic rainstorm (with the famous standing couple recreated amidst the crowd) our Microbus owners offer sanctuary to several other people from the downpour. When it’s over, and the bus is stuck in the Woodstock mud, a few attendees happily push them free. Power to the people! I’m not sure what could be better than this.

I went upstairs afterwards and watched the commercial a few more times on my iPad with the headphones on. As the tears streamed down my cheeks I thought about how Volkswagen was using one of its greatest historical strengths (and one of my generation’s most powerful images) to try to rebuild trust after the Diesel emissions scandal.

It’s stunning, really, how this giant car manufacturer can hit all of my buttons. The cleverness and creativity of this ad is only equaled, perhaps, by the same cleverness and creativity that brought about the Diesel emissions scandal itself. But in any case, it worked on me.

VW has had great advertising before. Back in the 1960s, VW featured brilliant, self-effacing ads through Doyle Dane Bernbach that were perfect for the time. The little, cheap but efficient and reliable Beetle and its brethren were the perfect vehicle for the later 1960s alternative lifestyle practitioners. In fact, in 1969 they sold more than half a million Beetles.

Volkswagen, with its troubling present, is working to move forward by evoking both the almost sacred relationship many of us had with our basic VWs back in a time of social change and the hope we have for saving our planet with new technology. While they show us Beetles and Microbuses, VW is working to bring us an entire line of electric Volkswagens under the I.D. brand, starting in 2020 (a futuristic-sounding year).

There’s an I.D. Buzz all-electric concept vehicle out now that owes much to the Microbus. It appeared at the famous Pebble Beach auto show this year in Monterey, and also in the December issue of Automobile magazine, which I had just been reading a half hour before I was summoned to the family room. The clever folks at the magazine drove the futuristic yellow Buzz along with a gorgeous 1952 original model in a long, illustrated cover story.

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The commercial, by the way, is touting the company’s new People First six-year bumper-to-bumper limited warranty–another effort at trust building. The message is meant to hit much deeper, though, and it sure did with this baby boomer.  My first two cars were air-cooled Volkswagens, and I’m at the very heart of the target of this remarkable commercial.

The real challenge is whether Volkswagen can build enough business in EVs to make up for the loss of its Diesel cars–and reputation. Meanwhile, they just introduced the huge new Atlas crossover SUV to compete in that successful market segment. Back to the real world, where you have to make a profit selling what people are asking for. The Buzz isn’t due until 2022, which sounds like a long time from now. But 1969 was a long time ago, wasn’t it?

 

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Green Mobility in Portland, Oregon

Electric Avenue

On a three-day trip to Portland, Oregon this week, I had a chance to witness some ways that the Rose City is moving toward a cleaner transportation future.

To start out, my trip into downtown from the airport was on the Trimet electric train system. The Trimet Max Red Line docks steps away from the baggage claim area, and for $2.50, you can sit in a clean, comfortable chair and look out the picture windows at the Oregon scenery. It was clear and beautiful my first day, but, naturally, became gray and rainy later. But that was pretty nice looking (and smelling) too.

Once I stepped off the train onto the street, I walked the several blocks to my company’s Portland office. Along the way, I passed four things that told me that Portland is working hard on going green.

I walked past the Forth Mobility showroom. Forth is set up to give people a chance to learn about and test drive electric vehicles, including the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt. On my way out of town, I dropped in and chatted with Sergio, who showed me the displays, which included a sample of wall-mount charging stations and a screen folks can use to determine which EV would work best for them.

A couple of blocks further, I spotted Electric Avenue (see photo, above). This brightly painted spot at PGE (Portland General Electric) headquarters, sports six charging stations–Level 2 and Level 3. Located near Forth, it’s a good one-two punch for EV awareness and use.

Reach Now Mini

Along the tree-lined streets, which were beginning to display some autumn-colored leaves on the ground, I spotted two ways to drive around without owning your own car. ReachNow is BMW’s car-sharing service. I saw the logo on the sides of Minis and BMWs wherever I went.

Tucked into other spots were the Car2Go vehicles, which feature cars from BMW’s German rival–Mercedes-Benz. I spotted numerous Smart EVs, along with the smaller Mercedes-Benz crossovers and sedans.

In 10 minutes and six short blocks, I got a sample of Portland’s efforts to reduce traffic and greenhouse gases.

On my first night in the city, I rode in a car on the way to my old friend’s home in suburban Gresham, and there was lots of traffic. These efforts in Portland should help congestion, as well.

To top off my trip, on my return to the East Bay, I rode BART’s airport shuttle and the regular BART line most of the way home. The electric vehicle future is now.

Another Hydrogen Station Opens

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Along with plug-in electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell cars have a major part to play in the movement away from the internal combustion engine. The latest fuel cell cars look and perform just like “regular cars,” but the impediment to mass adoption is the still fledgling hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

To help remedy that situation, the State of California is building 100 hydrogen fuel stations. As part of that effort, San Ramon (on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay) now hosts station #29.

I attended the ribbon cutting event a few days ago and besides admiring the station’s scenic, convenient location just off a major freeway intersection, I heard speeches by and met with numerous people who represented agencies and companies who made this achievement possible. They included representatives from Toyota (maker of the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car and owners of the land),  Linde (station builder), various California state agencies, and politicians representing the city of San Ramon and the California Senate and Assembly districts.

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Please read the complete story at Clean Fleet Report. I’ll be testing a Toyota Mirai for a week later this month and will share that here as well.