VW chief Thomas Schäfer: ‘Ireland is becoming strongly electrified’

Now based in Co Wicklow, Schäfer says Irish customers can expect to see more affordable electric models from the brand

Tomas Schäfer CEO of the Volkswagen Passenger Cars Brand, Member of the Volkswagen AG Board of Management in charge of the Brand Group Volume

Henry Ford never lived in Ireland. In the popular imagination, the man who created the once biggest car maker in the world, and who triggered a second industrial revolution, emigrated in ragged trousers and bare feet from Ballinascarthy in Co Cork.

It didn’t happen like that. It was actually Henry Ford’s father, William Ford, who left Ballinascarthy in 1847, in the midst of the Famine, and built a new life in the United States. In 1861, William married Mary Litogot Ahern, who was of Belgian descent, and two years later their second child Henry was born. But he was born in Springwells, Michigan, not Cork. Our national claim to Ford’s heritage is slightly tangential (the more so when you realise that William Ford’s family all came from Somerset, but that’s another day’s argument).

Making a list of chief executives of major global car makers who have made their home in Ireland usually requires both a very small postage stamp and a fine-nibbed pen, but at last we have found one – Thomas Schäfer.

Schäfer is the chief executive of the Volkswagen brand and so is responsible for one of the most significant car makers in the world, which has just posted profits of €2.6 billion and sales of more than 2.2 million cars – more if you count cars made in joint ventures in China.


I was very positively surprised when I moved here last year. How many EVs on the road? Everywhere, you know

You’ll be expecting Schäfer to commute to work from a penthouse in Berlin, Frankfurt or Stuttgart, but no, he’s made his “forever home” in the Wicklow countryside. Much of that is down to Schäfer’s wife who’s South African by birth but who has Irish ancestry and convinced him to set up home here. During the week, Schäfer criss-crosses Europe, running not only Volkswagen but also overseeing Seat, Cupra, and Škoda – all part of the VW Group’s “volume brands” unit, of which he is also chief executive. At weekends, he’s at home and meeting his new neighbours in the local pub.

With the boss of one of the world’s most important car brands now living within shouting distance of Dublin, has that given him any special insight into the notoriously iconoclastic Irish car market?

“Obviously, Volkswagen is part of the Irish family and it’s very well represented in Ireland,” says Schäfer, on the fringes of the launch of the new ID.2all concept electric car. “Ireland is becoming strongly electrified. I was very positively surprised when I moved here last year. How many EVs on the road? Everywhere, you know. Charging points? Everywhere? It obviously has arrived to the mainstream.”

On that subject, Schäfer thinks it was a mistake for the European Union to slap down Ireland’s proposed 2030 ban on combustion engines, even as the wider Volkswagen Group – especially through Porsche – makes investments in so-called e-fuels, potentially carbon-neutral synthetic petrol. “The earlier you get out of it – combustion – the better,” Schäfer says. “Ireland is pushing ahead, and it’s necessary. We’ll see soon how combustion engines are going to go up in price, not only because of the EU 7 emissions regulations but also because of simple scales of production. And we see the internal combustion numbers dropping off in the second half of the decade, tremendously so. And when battery electric vehicle sales go up, there’s no turning back. The quicker you are – at leaving combustion behind – the better.”

What you see at the moment, in terms of pricing, is an effect of the scarcity of materials

And the e-fuels debate? “This is just a distraction,” says Schäfer. “The future is electric. For us, totally electric. The line-up of cars we’re bringing in now, there is no turning around. E-fuels have a role to play, but as an addition. They’re for ships, for aircraft, for existing vehicles, for old-timers, for race cars. In those applications, e-fuels are great and they help to decarbonise, but they’re no alternative to electric driving.”

A key part of that electric transformation is bringing electric cars to the mass market. Volkswagen was formed – it’s right there in the name – as a maker of “people’s cars” but its prices of late have been anything but for all people. The recently introduced ID.Buzz electric car, which looks like a classic 1960s Type 2 VW van, has a starting price of €66,000 – comparable with high-end Mercedes and BMWs. This, says Schäfer, is changing and Irish customers can now start to expect to see more affordable electric models from VW.

“What you see at the moment, in terms of pricing, is an effect of the scarcity of materials,” says Schäfer. “When you don’t have computer chips, and other parts, then you try and use the few you have to sell the cars you can make at the best price possible to secure your bottom line.” Volkswagen has indeed done just that, with chief financial officer Patrik Andreas Mayer confirming that rising production costs in 2022 were more than outweighed by rising vehicle prices and by selling higher-spec models.

According to Schäfer, though, that’s not the future for VW. The car sitting on a plinth behind him as we chatted, the ID.2all, is a concept of a 2025 hatchback electric model that will offer a 450km range for a price of about €25,000 (depending on local taxes and specification). “If we don’t earn money then we can’t invest in the future, so that’s why, at the moment, we’re trying to sell cars as well equipped as they possibly can be,” says Schäfer. “As soon as that stabilises, and you can see the market coming down, in the chip market and so on, then we can also offer entry-level models.”

He points to the ID.2all: “I think this car is going to be great. It’s going to be well priced. It’s going to be a car for Ireland.”

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring