BNR Nieuwsradio (news radio) in the Netherlands interviewed Frank Smit on January 31st in 2014. He was Vehicle Program Manager at National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) at the time of the interview and his current job title is Director Program Management. Mr. Smit is originally from the Netherlands and has worked for Saab since 2011. Before that time, he worked for GM Powertrain Europe since 2002. His impressive experience can be found on LinkedIn here.
The radio broadcast starts with talking about what happened with SAAB in the recent past. It is nice to hear some positive words about Victor Muller and the respect he earned within Saab and in Trollhattan. It is also good to hear from a NEVS insider and what the near future holds for NEVS, the customers and their ambitions for the next few years. Especially because there is so little news coming from Trollhattan in the last couple of years.
BNR: Our guest is Frank Smit from National Electric Vehicle Sweden. NEVS is the owner of Saab. Mr. Smit, you are Vehicle Progam Manager. What does that mean?
Smit: My mission was to get the Saab 9-3 production started as soon as possible. My responsibilities range from Buyer to After Sales so pretty much everything.
BNR: Also after-sales warranty and parts?
Smit: The parts distribution is handled by another company. Orio.
BNR: To start up production is just cleaning the equipment on the assembly line and pushing a big button on the wall, right? Or is it more complicated?
Smit: It is a very complicated process. There are 400 suppliers involved with this car. These suppliers have 100s or 1000s of sub-suppliers so it is not just production within our own company.
BNR: Was it difficult to get all the suppliers to make parts for Saab again? A few years ago, many didn’t want to work with Saab anymore.
Smit: We have a lot of respect for the suppliers. Since we are building the same car, it was sometimes difficult to contact the same suppliers to have them manufacture the same parts again. And the first response always was if we would pay for the debt that Saab Automobile AB left behind. First, that’s not allowed by law because of the bankruptcy and second, the bankruptcy is not NEVS’ problem.
BNR: Of those 400 suppliers, were any of them difficult to convince?
Smit: Absolutely. Some of the former suppliers also went through bankruptcy because of our bankruptcy. And many others said they found other companies to supply to and they don’t have the extra capacity to supply NEVS.
BNR: So you had to find other suppliers for certain parts?
Smit: Exactly. And that’s a process that is very time consuming and costs a lot of money.
BNR: How new is the 9-3? Or is it the same 9-3 as before?
Smit: We choose to convince all the original suppliers to manufacture parts again and we can only do that when we make the exact same car that Saab built before. That was model year 2012. The 9-3 we are manufacturing right now is model year 2014. It has more than 100 new parts and more than 600 new parts from suppliers.
BNR: Are customers really waiting for this car? It has been in production for a long time.
Smit: Saab always has been a quirky brand. There are customers that always have owned a Saab and will always buy one. And that was our main target customer. The Netherlands is also a very important market. Saab has sold cars there for more than 40 years. And there is a lot of interest from the Dutch dealers and, when ready, Saabs will return to The Netherlands.
BNR: What are the planned production numbers for this year and next year?
Smit: I mentioned before SAAB (Spyker) choose to be quick with news and created somewhat of a media circus. NEVS deliberately chooses to remain silent until there is something to show. We are not making any promises for production numbers and we let the customer decide how many Saabs we will manufacture. Our factory was idle for 2 ½ years and the same is true for some of our suppliers. That is an important consideration so you start slowly. You can’t immediately make 1000 cars a day.
BNR: So it is going to be a slow start. Are there any dealers in The Netherlands that offer this new Saab for sale?
BNR: So small production numbers. Why is it important this 9-3 rolls off the assembly line again? Why didn’t you start with a new model?
Smit: We are very busy with an electric car, based on the current 9-3. And we are also very busy with its successor based on the Phoenix platform. We took a step back because we really want to develop this as an all-electric car like the Tesla and BMW i3.
BNR: But the BMW i3 has a moped engine so you can drive a little bit further. Is the new model going to be electric-only?
Smit: It is not completely ruled out it will also be available as a hybrid.
BNR: When you say ‘it is not ruled out”, I hear “it is going to happen”
BNR: Mitsubishi and Volvo were very successful with their plug-in hybrids in the Netherlands last year and the year before. So I assume you will make the Saab dealers happy when you offer something like that.
Smit: When you look at the statistics for Europe, the Netherlands is a very important market for plug-in hybrids. If I remember correctly, the market share for electric cars and plug-in hybrids is 0.2% in Europe and 0.8% in the Netherlands. Only Norway has a higher market share.
BNR: This depends on support from the government. As we know, the Dutch government can’t seem to make up its mind. So this can change at any time.
Smit: As we see in Norway, if there is enough support from the government, the infrastructure is important as well as savings for the consumer.
BNR: And you should have a good driving range for these cars. Tesla and BMW are ahead of the competition with this. What can we expect for the electric Saab 9-3? Is it going to be like Tesla or more like all the others? How many batteries are in the new Saab?
Smit: As I mentioned before, it is difficult to transform a car originally developed for an internal combustion engine to an all-electric car because there is not much space for batteries. Battery technology improves rapidly every year and we intent to be one of the best in this area.
BNR: So better than Tesla?
Smit: Better than Tesla. Not in the beginning but later.
BNR: One of the most important questions is “When will the all-electric Saab be available?”
Smit: It will be introduced later this year.
BNR: At the Geneva Auto Show?
Smit: No, we decided not to attend the Geneva Show. It just costs too much money.
BNR: That’s something you have in common with Victor Muller (Spyker). He isn’t going this year either.
BNR: What is the reason you started with a 9-3 with a regular engine instead of an electric 9-3?
Smit: This really was the soonest we could start with production again.
BNR: And this was important for the brand? To show the customer that Saab is still alive?
Smit: The company is called National Electric Vehicle Sweden. And the owner has high regard for sustainable mobility. So we want to offer a 9-3 that is electric and the current 9-3 is not designed for that. We have access to battery technology that is ahead of the competition. But it is not ready yet so we decided to first offer a 9-3 with a petrol engine to get all the suppliers on board.
BNR: And to get the confidence of the suppliers and customers. What’s your ambition in a few years?
Smit: Our goal for the next few years is to offer an electric vehicle that will have the same range with a fully charged battery as a regular car with a full tank of petrol.
BNR: For market share, do you think you will be a very serious player? Or the player?
Smit: The most important player. That’s the ambition.
BNR: But is there enough money to make those ambitions come true? That used to be a problem for SAAB in the past.
Smit: Our owner has high ambitions as well as very deep pockets. And we have a few partners who believe in us. One of our partners is the Chinese city Qingdao. The infrastructure (for electric cars) is much more prevalentin China than in Europe.
BNR: China doesn’t seem to be a country where the environment is very important. You’ll have to subsidize electric cars in the Netherlands so does China have a market for electric cars?
Smit: We mentioned before it is important the government is behind the idea. The Chinese government recognizes this becomes a very important topic with the large increase of mobility. And something has to change. And they have very ambitious plans. They already started with things we have to wait for in Europe for a few more years.
BNR: Well.. the Netherlands spent 1 billion Euros to get 20.000 electric cars on the road. Is that a good start for Saab to become a large manufacturer again?
Smit: The ambition and business plan aims for a healthy company. For the number of vehicles we plan to make in the next few years. When you compare us to Volkswagen, BMW of General Motors, our volume will be negligible. If you want to earn enough money per car, 80, 100, or 120.000 cars per year should be sufficient.
BNR: And how many years do you think it will take to reach those numbers?
Smit: About 3 to 4 years.
BNR: You can’t blame them for not having enough ambition. Especially for electric cars and to be the best in what they do.
Source with links to the radio broadcast in Dutch: http://www.bnr.nl/radio/bnr-nationale-autoshow/982737-1401/elektrische-saab-komt-dit-jaar-nog-op-de-markt
Translation copyright SaabWorld, picture by NEVS