Skoda CEO, Klaus Zellmer, on touchscreens, cheap EVs and Skoda’s bright future

Skoda is on the up and a clutch of new models due in the coming years will drive its switch to electric, including a sub-20,000 Euro EV. The CEO talks exclusively to Auto Express.

Skoda is currently breaking new sales records across Europe, moving up to the seventh biggest car make in the region last year, while sales in the UK jumped over 40 per cent in 2023 giving the brand a record market share. There’s much more to come, with new Superb and Kodiaq models recently unveiled, the new Octavia, the Elroq EV due later this year and a bigger electric car, based on the 7S Concept, due in 2026, plus more small Skodas on the horizon.

So when Skoda CEO Klaus Zellmer asked if we wanted to go for a drive and talk all things Skoda, we jumped at the chance. With us piloting Zellmer in the very latest Enyaq we talked about everything from more affordable EV to how Skoda will deal with tech in its new models. Zellmer and his team also showed us how the brand will be taking tech into the showroom, with the use of touchscreens and video walls, and into your pocket with the latest iteration of Skoda’s app.

Q&A: Klaus Zellmer, Skoda CEO

What makes Skoda different?

“Skoda is all about functions; it has to work, it has to be intuitive, with huge space for luggage and for passengers. You should feel comfortable – it's more family oriented. It's your companion and it's not your buddy for racing. You can go fast as well, look at this car with 300 horsepower and all-wheel drive, but you don't have to and if you don't want to, it's a casual ride that provides everything you need.”

If Skoda is about function, how should a Skoda touchscreen integrate in the car?

“Skoda has never gone flat out on digitising everything. We've always stuck to certain buttons that you want to press and something happens immediately without taking your eyes off the road. If you now look at the new Superb and Kodiaq, we combined the two worlds because you have the smart dials, which are super intuitive. They're more clever than conventional buttons, but they're not over-engineered, easy to understand. This has always been our philosophy and we're going to stick to that.”

Will owners of future Skoda EVs get a different experience in their cars?

“I'm convinced it's a combination because some buttons that you press and something happens immediately just make more sense than a menu or some artificial intelligence that realises you have a certain preference for a certain temperature at a certain time of day – I think that's taking it too far.

“Let's take our 7S that we will be launching in ‘26. We were looking into the dials and we are actually taking a little different principle. We're going to have buttons again, but it will be buttons that something happens immediately if you want something to happen like changing the temperature. These are physical levers that you can adjust the temperature with – it’s a modern interpretation. We tried the dials in that car and it just made the car look old fashioned.”

You have Chat GPT in your cars now, what about voice control?

“I think it's an option, but some people will never use voice. My daughter, she's 16, when she types in her messages she doesn't use voice control – young people don't really like that they want to type. So I think there are certain preferences that will stay, but if we offer voice control, it has to work perfectly and we're coming close to that. The voice control in this car now with the 4.0 software version is much better. And our virtual assistant, Laura, she can answer everything that is closely related to the car and anything beyond that, this is where we introduced Chat GPT. But Chat GPT will never control the car’s functions for safety reasons.”

When it comes to software, how different can Skoda be from Volkswagen?

“The limits of that autonomy are clearly budget and cost driven – if we use it, the more cost efficient it is. However, we are also saying that these brands have to have an identity and we want to have a personality with the claim ‘simply clever’ with intuitive ways of using the car. This is where we then step in and as long as it's justifiable in terms of a budget deviating from the general solution, we will do it – if it is more towards the identity of Skoda. If you take the window release buttons, they're different.

“We’re in a partnership – like a marriage it's not always sunny days, but overall it's a happy marriage. I think we're always adding a little bit of Skoda identity, ‘simply clever’ features to the cars. And as long as we have got that freedom and at the end of the day we make money with it and Skoda is very profitable, I think it's a good marriage.”

You talk about Software-Defined Vehicles. What does that mean?

“In former times you developed the hardware, the car, but mainly also from the outside in: you defined the design, you made the one-on-one model proportion model, you made a couple of changes. Yeah, that's us. And then you started to look at the underwear of the car and develop that and go further, further, further. And with the software defined vehicle, it's exactly the opposite. You start with your computing power in the middle and then you work with what the car has to be able to do from a software point of view –  that's the core. This is where everything starts and then the end result is then a car that might look like this or like that. But the software is what you put all your emphasis on.”

SEAT’s UK boss recently said that SEAT could be the entry point to the VW Group. Won’t that be Skoda’s job with affordable electric cars?

“There's a lot of in the making when we talk about entry electric cars, and as you know, our entry electric car will be the A0 BEV, which is 25,000 Euro. And obviously we're all looking into possibilities to be way below 25,000. That could be within the group for Volkswagen, SEAT and Skoda - it has not been finally decided on who's doing it.”

Who’s leading the project for the most affordable EV at around 20,000 Euros?

“We're leading a potential project that potentially makes it to be that entry model, but VW is leading one, and of course SEAT has also got plans for entry mobility. But for the time being, we're all working on it because this is obviously a missing piece in a bigger picture.”

How can you make electric cars cheaper?

“It’s battery. 40 per cent of the cost of the car is battery with electric cars. So if you cut that by 50%, which some companies announced, it's doable. This is where the biggest lever is in order to cut costs for battery electric vehicles. It’s the chemistry, too. So far we are very much focused on NMC [nickel manganese cobalt] because the NMC battery chemistry is in terms of energy density, the best you can have for relatively low cost. But now LFP [lithium iron phosphate] of course comes in, which is more cost effective, there's less energy density.”

Will the need for bigger but cheaper batteries mean no more small cars?

“The challenge really is that you need a bigger footprint because you need a bigger battery to have more energy with the LFP. So hence you need a bigger footprint. But there are ways now you can have battery cells that are a little higher, you stack them. So this is where the secret sauce is, it's the battery.”

Does Skoda need a small, affordable car in its line-up?

“Absolutely. We need that. If you now look at the transformation [to electric] in Europe, and we're still hovering at about 20% in average in Europe. I foresee even though our tipping point will be 2028, the Fabia playing the role of the entry model for the Skoda brand for the next couple of years.”

Could building the car outside of Europe keep costs down?

“We’re already building cars in India. We are now looking at the battery electric vehicle segment for India. In order to be competitive in India with a battery electric vehicle, you have to have a very price attractive and low cost option. Now that could be something that we could also see in Europe, part of that or the car itself, we don't know yet. 

“This brings us back to the 20,000 Euro car, when I said it's all about the battery. It's also about other factors, so let's see. This is a core project for us this year to see how we will manage the transformation from ICE to electric in India. And I would say India plays a part; it’s the most price competitive market for us.”

Would the buyer care if a 20,000 Euro Skoda was made in India?

“I don't think so. If it's our quality, and even if they do know, you would always be able to learn about it. I think it's okay as long as the car fulfils our safety standards.”

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Editor-in-chief

Steve Fowler has been editor-in-chief of Auto Express since 2011 and is responsible for all editorial content across the website and magazine. He has previously edited What Car?, Autocar and What Hi-Fi? and has been writing about cars for the best part of 30 years. 

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