In his years overseeing the development of Porsche’s Cayman and Boxster two-seaters, Stefan Weckbach never faced a hurdle like the one he encountered when shepherding the company’s first all-electric car to market: acoustics. Electric vehicles, it seems, may be too quiet to be considered Porsches. “Our customers are very emotional about sound,” says Weckbach, the chief of the brand’s push to introduce an electric sedan in 2019. “They told us, ‘We like the growl of your engines, and we expect something similar for an electric.’ ”
For the past two years, Weckbach has led a team of about 30 developing the Mission E, a four-door sedan that looks something like a scaled-down Panamera. That team—each member with a specialization such as design, logistics, or finance—can dip into Porsche’s pool of thousands of experts who deal with challenges ranging from the arcane (the strength of the door hinges) to the fundamental (will a model be a roadster or sport-utility vehicle?).
Porsche’s effort comes as the industry starts to pay more attention to electrics and the European Union prepares rules to go into effect in 2020 that dramatically tighten limits on carbon dioxide emissions. Mercedes-Benz has created a new brand, EQ, for its zero-emission cars. Audi, Porsche’s sister brand at Volkswagen, is planning a battery-powered SUV in 2018 and at least two more electrics by 2020. BMW, which launched its electric i3 city car in 2013, is preparing an electric SUV and a Mini. And Tesla has seen strong sales of its $65,000-plus Model S and plans to start selling the $35,000 Model 3 next year.
By 2020 global sales of battery-powered vehicles will quadruple to more than 1.2 million, according to researcher LMC Automotive. “The whole industry is turning toward electric mobility, and Porsche has to be there, too,” says Stefan Bratzel, an auto industry researcher at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.
Porsche has budgeted about €1 billion ($1.1 billion) for the Mission E, including a new paint shop and assembly hall under construction near the factory in Stuttgart where it makes the 911 and Boxster. The company says it will hire 1,400 people to design, market, and build the car, with most of those coming on board in 2018 as production tests gear up. The next model in the lineup hasn’t been determined, but it will likely be announced well before the Mission E hits the market. “We want to epitomize the sports car of the future,” says Porsche Chief Executive Officer Oliver Blume.
While Porsche has been building electric prototypes for the better part of a decade—and founder Ferdinand Porsche developed an electric in 1898 that looked like a horseless carriage—the current effort began in earnest in 2014. Toward the end of that year, Weckbach started assembling his team, which had been given an almost impossible task: prepare a drivable prototype for the Frankfurt International Auto Show in September 2015. Porsche’s designers had been sketching ideas for several months, and Matthias Müller—Porsche’s CEO at the time and now head of Volkswagen Group—had decreed that the first car would be a sedan. “The traditionalists wouldn’t be ready for a real electric sports car,” says Jürgen Pieper, an analyst at Bankhaus Metzler in Frankfurt.
The designers had to be coaxed back to reality in terms of what was achievable, Weckbach says. With no engine up front (electrics typically use motors attached directly to the wheels or axles), the car could have a very low front end—just not as low as the designers wanted, because various components needed to sit in front of the passenger compartment. “At times, we were literally fighting over millimeters,” Weckbach recalls.