electric, yes, autonomous, not so much

‘We’ve Got the Formula:’ Bentley’s CEO Talks the Future of the Luxury Brand


August 23, 2019 Cars By

Adrian Hallmark looks pretty much exactly like you’d expect the CEO of Bentley Motors to look. Middle-aged, square-jawed and broad-faced, he’s the sort of generically good-looking British fellow who you’d see playing M in a Bond film before Dame Judi Dench owned the role.

He’s also holding the reins of the company at a pivotal moment in time. Bentley isn’t just celebrating its 100th birthday this year; the brand is celebrating its centenary with what Hallmark himself described to Bloomberg as “probably the worst year in our history” squarely in its rearview mirror.  And the road ahead is a twisty one; parent company Volkswagen AG is pushing full steam ahead into electrification, with plans to invest $91 billion in electric cars and tech in the near future in order to crank out three million EVs a year by 2025.

For a brand based around the idea of grand tourers designed to drive for days on end at high speeds, pushing into electric cars — which, for all their rapidly-gaining capabilities, still can’t come close to the range of their internal-combustion equivalents, let alone the “recharging” time of a $500 hooptie — seem like a honker of a pill to swallow. Hallmark, for his part, isn’t in denial about the challenges. In order to work for Bentley, the CEO says, batteries need to reach parity with the range and performance of the carmaker’s current gas-powered cars.

“We don’t see anything until the mid-2020s that’s big and strong enough for our needs,” Hallmark says. “We would need probably a 150-kilowatt-hour battery to propel something the size of a Flying Spur or a Bentayga.” (The largest electric car battery currently used, for the record, is the 100-kWh unit in top-trim Tesla Model S sedans and Model X crossovers.) A slightly smaller battery could be practical, he hedges — “We can maybe get 130-135 kWh” to work, he says — but that would have to be in part due to better battery management technology as well as bigger electron tanks, so to speak. 

 

Adrian Hallmark. Photo by Bentley.

Also — new types of electron tanks. The current type of battery technology commonly used — lithium-ion, which use a liquid electrolyte to carry charge around — just doesn’t have what it takes, at least for the Flying B. “Lithium-ion is not the long-term solution. Full stop,” Hallmark says. “We’re looking forward to solid-state.”

Solid-state batteries, unlike lithium-ion, don’t have a liquid component, instead using solid materials such as ceramics as conductors for electricity; this can make them both safer and more power-dense than other, more traditional batteries, but the technology is still in its infancy compared to the power packs found in iPhones and TeslasTo that end, the VW Group has invested in a solid-state battery startup called QuantumScape, whose work should be ready for production car integration by 2023-2025, according to Hallmark. (Hence, presumably, why Bentley has locked onto a target date of 2025 for launching its first pure electric car.)

It’ll still be more expensive than li-ion, as the common battery type is abbreviated, but Bentley’s positioning near the top of the market means it can lead the way for the whole VW Group on the new tech. “In a $250–$300,000 car, people can afford to carry that premium,” Hallmark says. 

And in spite of what you might assume, while Hallmark claims Bentley’s customers aren’t particularly jazzed about self-driving cars — “I wanna be the last customer in an autonomous car” is the sort of remark they often drop in research clinics and casual conversations alike, he says — they are enthusiastic about the idea of EVs. Every two years, Hallmark says, the company does a survey of 1,500–2,000 current and potential customers; over the last four years, interest in electric cars jumped from just 8 percent to a whopping 40.

Hence, in part, why the EXP 100 GT concept car — unveiled last month and shown off to the public at Monterey Car Week — is powered by electrons, not fossil fuels. But the choice of powertrain is hardly the only thing differentiating that idea of Bentley-circa-2035 from the new Continental GT coupe parked next to it at The Quail. Sustainable materials make up a far greater chunk of the car than current models: the interior uses 83 percent less leather than a modern car would, subbing in upholstery made from winemaking-sourced grape skins that would otherwise be discarded; cotton from a farm in the north of England makes up much of the rest of the insides.  It’s all part of a broader vision for the super-luxury brand’s future, one that holds sustainability as a watchword as much as elegance and craftsmanship.

“It’s not tokenism,” Hallmark says. The brand already uses sustainably-sourced wood appropriated from trees that fell on their own, but going forward, the CEO says the company might even invest in buying entire forests — partly to guarantee a supply of hardwood, yes, but also to help offset the company’s own carbon emissions. The goal, he says, is to make the company carbon-neutral by 2023, balancing out emissions on every continent from both the vehicles they sell and the facilities that build them. (The Bentley factory in Crewe, he says, will be the second one in the entire VW Group to negate its CO2 footprint.)

“We have to reinvent Bentley,” he says.“If that appeals to vegetarians, carnivores, velociraptors, I don’t care. As long as they’ve got a driver’s license.”

“The potential is huge,” he adds. “The next 100 years, although we have to redefine everything, we’ve got the formula.”

In the short term, however, that means hybrids. The Bentayga is first; the 3.0-liter-turbocharged-V6-and-17.3-kWh-battery plug-in hybrid goes on sale towards the end of the year. Every model in the portfolio is ripe for partial electrification, however — though Hallmark admits the Mulsanne won’t be able to integrate a battery and electric motor until a new version replaces the current one, which has gone largely unchanged since its 2010 debut. (“Where the petrol tank is probably the worst place for electrification,” he says.)

It isn’t just hybrid tech that’ll be coming to the existing lineup. Hallmark says the company’s current four models have room to develop further; “there’s a lot more innovation we can do with each of those models” than with new ones, he says. Faster versions and longer wheelbases could both be in the cards, he says — the latter, presumably, reserved for the likes of the new Flying Spur and future Mulsannes. 

One addition you shouldn’t expect to see: a Bentley hypercar. While Hallmark admits it’s the sole high-end automotive segment that’s been growing in the last decade and a half that the brand doesn’t play in, the brand’s VW Group cohorts Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche already own the space well enough.

“As a group, we don’t need a fourth member of the family sharing the same chicken,” he says. 

One pool where Bentley still sees a place to dip its toe, however: one-offs and limited-run models. They’ve been both a sales success and a media boon for other brands in the group (and elsewhere), yet so far, the crew from Crewe hasn’t done much in the way of those high-margin specials. That seems likely to change.

“We’ve got some ideas,” Hallmark says. “You can expect some positive news,” he adds, before mentioning that we won’t need to hold our breath too long. “It’s months, rather than years.”

Will Sabel Courtney is Gear Patrol’s Motoring Editor, formerly of The Drive and RIDES Magazine. You can often find him test-driving new cars in New York City, cursing the slow-moving traffic surrounding him.

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