Volkswagen's first Innovation Hub in North America expected to aid electric vehicle production in Chattanooga

Staff file photo / Volkswagen and state and local officials pose for a photo during the groundbreaking event for a planned $800 million electric vehicle facility in Chattanooga late last year.

A multimillion-dollar partnership that will enable Volkswagen to gain key research into electric vehicles and lighter automotive components will be unveiled Friday in Knoxville.

VW, the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are joining to create the automaker's first "Innovation Hub" in North America.

"This hub, along with other research institutions here, is an integral part of Volkswagen's global research and development efforts and can also directly contribute to vehicles in North America," said Wolfgang Demmelbauer-Ebner, executive vice president and chief engineering officer for VW's North American Region.

UT Interim President Randy Boyd said the Innovation Hub will bring more research and development jobs to Tennessee.

"This is a beach head for that," said Boyd. "We need to bring some of that great talent here for Tennessee."

The partnership will involve research opportunities for doctoral students and be housed in the Innovation North building at the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm in Knoxville.

Initial work will focus on developing lighter vehicle components made from composite materials and the electrification of vehicles, officials said.

Congressman Chuck Fleischmann (TN-03) said in a Friday statement he was "elated" to report on the expansion and said the partnership "will bring together the greatest talent from Volkswagen, UT-Knoxville, and the Oak Ridge National Lab to develop cutting edge technologies necessary for the electrification of Volkswagen vehicles, and support countless jobs across the Oak Ridge Corridor."

"I look forward to hearing of the technological successes of the new Innovation Hub, and I would like to thank Volkswagen for being a strong force in the prosperity found across East Tennessee," Fleischmann said.

VW's Chattanooga assembly plant is undertaking an $800 million expansion to produce electric vehicles by 2022 with plans to add 1,000 jobs. Chattanooga will become the German automaker's manufacturing center for battery-powered vehicles in North America, VW officials said.

UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman said that innovations stemming from an earlier research partnership including Volkswagen and UT have "a direct and immediate impact on vehicle design and manufacturing right here in Tennessee."

"These collaborative discoveries demonstrate the real-world potential of public-private partnerships," she said, citing the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation.

Plowman said the Innovation Hub will help attract world-class research to the state and community.

"Ultimately, that helps every consumer. That helps the economy of the state," she said.

ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said there's power in aligning industry, academia and a national laboratory.

"By identifying difficult challenges and pursuing creative solutions with immediate industrial application, we can accelerate fields such as materials science, energy storage and advanced manufacturing while making vehicles better, safer and more fuel efficient," he said.

Stacey Patterson, UT's vice president for research, outreach and economic development, said that earlier component research by the institute has led to a prototype that has been tested on a Chattanooga-made Atlas SUV in the field.

A compression-molded composite liftgate resulted in 35% reduced weight as well as less cost for the body panel, according to the institute.

Patterson added that a VW research center in California started with just three people in the 1990s has now grown to more than 200.

Volkswagen late last year broke ground on the expansion that's to lead to assembly of a new all-electric SUV. The expansion includes a 564,000-square-foot addition to the body shop where Volkswagen will build both internal combustion engine vehicles as well as EVs on the same assembly line.

Also, the company intends to build a 198,000–square-foot plant for the assembly of battery packs for electric vehicles.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.