Meet the woman behind Porsche’s digital and electric car revolution

9 Aug 2019

Anja Hendel, director of Porsche Digital Lab Berlin. Image: Porsche

Attempting to transform the iconic Porsche sports car brand into a leader in EVs is a monumental challenge, but Anja Hendel aims to do just that.

Once the butt of jokes in the auto industry, electric vehicles (EVs) have shown themselves to be no laughing matter. With the climate crisis only worsening, the hold that traditional cars and the internal combustion engine (ICE) have over car manufacturers is fading rapidly.

Countries such as Ireland have made promises to stop the sale of ICE cars completely within a little over a decade, and for sports cars, where power and tradition are everything, the EV might seem like a threat to their very existence.

However, these assumptions don’t pan out, with many companies already pivoting to hybrid systems or, in the case of Porsche, a total EV. Next month, the iconic German carmaker is set to launch its first EV, the Taycan, 70 years after the launch of its first car.

While certainly not the first company to pivot this way, the Taycan isn’t just a one-time experiment, according to the director of the Porsche Digital Lab Berlin, Anja Hendel. In late 2017 she became one of Europe’s leading women in autotech, holding a prominent role in an otherwise male-dominated industry.

Now, she is helping the sports car maker to tap into the technologies that, just a few years ago, would have seemed totally unrelated to driving, such as blockchain and quantum computing. Speaking with after her talk at the Smart Nation Summit in Singapore last June, Hendel discussed blockchain as something that will help make connected car technology more secure in the years ahead.

“For us, it’s super important that Porsche drivers are in a secure space. We have some prototypes and right now in our cars we are trying to play around and see what are good use cases that add value,” she said.

“Technology is nice and good fun for tech girls like me and tech boys, but in the end they need to solve a problem.”

One thing that works in Porsche’s favour is being a part of the Volkswagen Group, giving it access to a host of EV technologies as well as the quantum computing technology that remains out of reach for most car companies.

Despite the leg-up such an arrangement can have, the biggest obstacle for Hendel and Porsche as a whole is that trying to develop an EV business isn’t like anything that has come before it.

Starting from scratch

“You produce an EV in a totally different way than the classic cars, so we had to build everything from scratch,” she said.

“But it’s not only about the car, it’s about making the whole organisation ready for whatever this means.”

This, Hendel said, includes conversations around infrastructure and charging, which plays into the minds of Porsche customers who might be slightly wary of making the jump to EVs.

“When you build such a car you have to look at all aspects and have the full customer journey in place and in focus,” she added. “As a tech person, the biggest challenge is how do we take the fear of people who think there isn’t enough battery power in the cars and things like this.”

For Porsche, this brave new world might be a global effort, but there is no denying that she and the rest of the company see China as the defining EV market for years to come.

The country has shifted from ICE cars to EVs unlike any other nation, with figures showing that half of all EV sales globally now originate in China. In 2018, EV sales in the country totalled 1.2m. This was significantly higher than the next largest market, the US, which saw around 360,000 in sales.

“For us it’s the biggest market and we really want to grow [in China],” Hendel said. “We’re building our own digital Porsche team there at the moment and we’ve just started with many local Chinese to help us bring innovations into our cars and solutions.”

Diversity: an important balance

Certainly, this idea of a new era in auto manufacturing can be seen in the very untraditional auto workforce of the Porsche Digital Lab, with Hendel passionate about creating diverse teams – something she reiterated during our conversation in Singapore.

“I think it’s really important to have diverse teams,” she said. “If everybody has the same view on a topic, we only have one view. Everyone can see the same thing and you all agree, but no one is seeing something else and you might be missing a big step ahead.”

In a blog post to mark International Women’s Day, Hendel expanded more on her leadership style.

“The diversity in our team helps us to cope with our ever-changing working environment – it helps us remain in balance: one brick breaking away doesn’t mean the whole house collapses,” she wrote.

“The balance of different perspectives thus becomes the basis for mental strength, teamwork and the ability to face new challenges with a positive attitude.”

Disclosure: The journalist’s trip to Singapore was provided by the Infocomm Media Development Authority

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic