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The Modular Electric Toolkit (MEB), a modular system for manufacturing electric vehicles, has its battery system as its backbone. VW officials call the battery system, shown in brown, 'the chocolate bar.' / Contributed rendering by Volkswagen
We're planning on selling a lot of cars in North America. It helps to have boots on the ground to understand issues and advancements as they come up.

Volkswagen is crafting a road map to build electric vehicles in America with plans to offer what it calls "the backbone of the technology" at its new Chattanooga EV production facility.

VW's battery system is "the chocolate bar" that's located beneath the car and is the key part of the power train and the so-called Modular Electric Toolkit (MEB) platform on which all of the automaker's electric cars will sit, an official says.

"Everything is built on top of that" battery system, said Matthew Renna, vice president of the E-mobility product line in North America for Volkswagen.

VW plans to break ground this spring on its $800 million electric vehicle facility that will be attached to the automaker's existing Chattanooga assembly plant. The company plans to hire 1,000 more employees to the 3,800 existing VW workers in the city. The first EV, an SUV, is to come off the assembly line in 2022, according to VW.

Renna said the battery system is designed and engineered by the German automaker and he termed it "the key performance differentiator" among car companies.

"It's the highest contributor to the cost of the EV," said Renna in an interview with a small group of journalists at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week.

The battery system will have "a simple installation" from a production and service standpoint, which is why VW has chosen to put it underneath the rest of the car, he said.

Renna said the system is scaleable across different wheel types, such as for two- and four-wheel drive vehicles.

"It's safe," he added. "That's a huge discussion around EVs."

Renna said VW's expertise in auto production is an advantage.

"We know how to put cars through the paces," he said, noting that plans aren't to rush vehicles to the market. "We want people to rely on these cars."

In North America, all the battery systems will be liquid cooled because of the fast-charging network VW is using to supply energy, Renna said.

But, he added, the system is complicated with 2,500 parts, though none of those are moving parts.

The majority of VW's electric vehicle research and development work is done at a so-called "center of excellence" at Salzgitter, Germany, Renna said.

In the future, there will be battery system experts in North America, though it's uncertain where they'll be located, he said.

"We're planning on selling a lot of cars in North America," Renna said. "It helps to have boots on the ground to understand issues and advancements as they come up."

VW spokesman Christian Buhlmann said the automaker plans to have several EV assembly plants worldwide. The Salzgitter site is currently handling the process steps, he said.

"They are the pilot plant," Buhlmann said.

In terms of sourcing components for the EVs, Renna said a number of the high-tech parts will be shared on the global MEB platform.

Otherwise, localizing components in Chattanooga "will happen over coming years," he said.

Volkswagen has said it's investing about $50 billion globally to bring EVs to the market. In the early phases with its upfront costs to build early cars, the numbers on paper don't "look so good," Renna said.

"There's a long-term road map that as we build more EVs this amortization gets better," he said, adding that there is achievable scale on the supply chain.

Concerning sales, Renna said, there are a lot of customers interested a sustainable technology such as is used in electric vehicles.

He said that in terms of end-of-life use of the batteries, recycling has costs and revenues associated with it.

"A battery no longer useful for a car can do a lot of other things for the grid," Renna said.

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

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