Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath: Innovation Is The Key Driver

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With gas prices at record highs it would seem the perfect atmosphere for electric cars to finally make their leap from environmental, tech-oriented car buyers to mainstream consumers. But many of the same supply chain issues driving up the cost of gasoline, and the price of traditional cars that use it, are driving up the price of electric cars even faster. Russia and Ukraine are two key suppliers of critical electric-vehicle elements like lithium, neon, nickel and palladium, causing a drastic increase in the cost of those materials as the conflict continues.

Over the past few months we’ve seen EV prices rise in an effort to maintain their profitability, even as production has lagged due to supply chain challenges. In this atmosphere Polestar Cars is introducing its first SUV, the Polestar 3, while ramping up U.S.-based production at a plant in Ridgeville, North Carolina. The Polestar 3 introduction will be followed by the Polestar 4, an electric SUV coupe, and the Polestar 5, a premium electric sedan based on the Precept concept car.

Despite the headwinds mentioned above, Polestar is planning on a 10X increase in annual sales between 2021 and 2025. Part of that volume will come from a new agreement between Polestar and Hertz, with the electric car maker providing 65,000 vehicles to the rental giant over the next 5 years. There’s also a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) vote expected to close this week, infusing the company with additional cash while making it available for public trading.

With so much happening at Polestar it seemed like a fitting moment to speak with the company’s CEO, Thomas Ingenlath. With his background in design, including more than 10 years at the Volkswagen group and 5 at Volvo (Polestar’s parent company) before taking the CEO role, Thomas has a strong perspective on the automotive industry. We spoke with him about Polestar’s current and future position within the EV movement, as well as the undeniable challenges in producing electric car in today’s world.

Forbes: How does Polestar set itself apart within the larger electric car transition we’re seeing?

Thomas Ingenlath: There are two extremes playing in this movement. One of them is the EV startup and one being quite established brands like Tesla. And on the other end are the OEMs who have definitely worked up by now and are pushing into this game. Polestar is in a position where we are totally unambiguous — we are dedicated to electrification. We don’t have internal combustion drivetrains in our line-up — we definitely embrace and commit fully to that future. We also have connected cars with the great Google Infotainment system inside. That’s where we definitely have our clear, 100% conviction about the electric future.

Now when it comes to the EV startup scene and companies that came into the market, there are a couple of them that are trying to get their foot in. We are amongst them but I think with the 25 markets that we have up and running, and the product portfolio in the next 3 years bringing 3 new cars into our range, I think we have an incredible position here to really be the one that accelerates the fastest and at the same time be a brand that actually has meaning and substance and premium traits to it. That’s what we get as feedback when we see that over 30 percent of our customers buying a Polestar 2 actually have driven a Tesla Model 3 before and are interested that we bring something else to the table beyond just having a good electric car and really knowing how to make the driving experience a premium experience.

Forbes: The growth numbers for EV production and sales are quite aggressive, and at least a portion of it is being driven by government mandates. Ultimately consumer demand has to match this level of growth. Are you confident the consumer market is ready to support the growth rate of EVs over the next 3-6 years?

Thomas Ingenlath: Look at the situation today where customers face fuel prices they’ve never faced before. Driving an EV has a long-term perspective where even just the day-to-day use is much more economical and beneficial. For that reason, yeah, right, government incentive might play a role, but I don’t think that is the major part of the purchase decision in the future.

We definitely saw 2 years ago that the whole momentum was shifting, and it may not be mainstream yet but it’s very much on the edge of it and you see how more and more people who were fully on the internal combustion side having the appetite to try electric cars. And once you’re in it, once you’re experiencing what the day-to-day situation of driving an EV means, and that basically range anxiety in not something you experience everyday, but instead you experience that you get a fully-charged car every morning and don’t have to go to the gas station anymore — that is actually a super-positive experience. and people who have that once are convinced about EVs.

Now how can we encourage that and will we be able to grow EV production according to that? There will be struggles along the way and supply is certainly something the car industry has to build up now for this new technology. But that was always the key driver for innovation and progress. Innovation is the key driver for our economy to be alive, so I don’t see that as a threat at all. I think we will of course invest and build a the needed battery production capacity as the demand for EVs grows rapidly over the next few years.

Forbes: We’ve seen recent spikes in raw materials that have driven up the costs for all vehicles, particularly electric vehicles. How has this impacted the long-term profitability of electric vehicles? Are there concerns it’s going to be hard to make them accessible to mainstream consumers?

Thomas Ingenlath: I will not say that isn’t a challenge, especially when you go to the mainstream market that is much more price sensitive. We are operating and building a brand that is in the luxury/premium segment. I will not say that it doesn’t play a role there at all, but of course the part that goes into the battery plays a smaller role in total cost compared to cheaper cars.

Hopefully some of it is now at it’s peak in the crisis situation we’re in with the war and heavy supply chain issues. This will obviously relax a bit over the course of the next 2 years. And we will, as an industry, have to research and find battery chemicals and ingredients and technologies that depend less on these expensive materials and find other mixtures. And as a customer I think the race to have the biggest energy density and the biggest battery in a car, It think we’ll see a different approach happening where you start to cater much more to the size and energy density of the battery according to what is your realistic need and daily usage. And the charging infrastructure and improving the number of charging stations will help you not feel the need to have as long of range.

Forbes: How is Polestar tackling the challenge of self-driving technology?

Thomas Ingenlath: We are shamelessly abusing the fact that we can tap into group technology. Volvo is obviously quite interested in the safety aspect of self driving. The company that is bringing this technology into our cars, including the Polestar 3 to start with, is doing so through a combination of using Nvidia-powered computing and having the LIDAR from Luminar for an additional eye on the car, and software that really brings both elements into good harmony. The incredible advancement in what you can achieve with safety through that tech includes hands-free highway piloting to let the driver get out of the loop and have to really, for the first time, a truly autonomous vehicle.

That’s what we will introduce — this tech will be packaged into the Polestar 3.

Forbes: Beyond Polestar, what are some vehicles, past or present, that have impacted you as an industry leader and designer?

Thomas Ingenlath: Obviously the cars that surround you when you are growing up leave an incredible, iconic impression. I clearly have these cars from the ‘70s in mind. BMW, Alfa Romeos, the European scene that definitely is very strong. Let’s face it, the Polestar 2 proportions make it a very compact type of modern sedan interpretation. I definitely feel that there’s some kind of romance on my side for that category of car that reflects that childhood experience.

What is always connected is memories of you and the context in that car. Being in a Citreon DS at the beach on the student exchange — this car was collecting us on sailing days and we were pulling the boats out with the car. Totally simple, iconic architecture and there are these moments that are still very present. Me repairing my first VW Polo, welding the floor together myself, and really learning about technology. Changing the clutch on that car and lying below it. All these learning about how design and technology works together in a car. That is, for me, what is fascinating about Polestar and this product. It’s the tight combinations of technology and design going hand-in-hand. You can not just do a fancy design, it’s always connected to hundreds of engineering questions that you have to answer when you do that. This is something that I really like.

The P1800, Porsche 911, Bertone GT, Alfa Romeo — these are of course great icons of car beauty that really impressed me a lot. And still the idea of great proportions are much more important than any fancy styling that you bring into a car. That’s definitely driving me to achieve the beauty in our cars.

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