Polestar has clear ambitions. This relatively new Swedish brand by Volvo makes niche performance electric cars with a high dose of cutting-edge technology and a focus on exploring sustainability in all its meanings. Everything the marque commits to is in-line with this defined purpose and this includes aiming to be a carbon neutral company. The Polestar 1 and 2, as well as the upcoming Polestar 3, are all battery-electric powered. Meanwhile, the Polestar Chengdu factory recently became the first car plant in China to earn the Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) status for its environmental performance.
The building runs on renewable energy with 65% of the electricity hydroelectric, while the rest comes from solar, wind and other sustainable sources. The factory has no industrial water discharge and is implementing a circular approach to waste handling, such as recycling waste carbon fiber material and reduction of landfill waste. The Polestar sustainability pledge takes on the concept’s wider meaning to be responsible employers and safeguarding the environment around the factory from pollution.
This is pretty impressive from a brand that is barely three years old. I caught up with Thomas Ingenlath, Polestar’s CEO and an experienced car designer who has been largely responsible for shaping the marque’s direction. We spoke via a video call from his Gothenburg studio in Sweden.
Nargess Banks: When we spoke three years ago, just as Polestar was formed, you told me: “We need to make brave decisions and stand by them”. So far you seem to have observed that promise by creating a fully functioning car company. Has your approach evolved since the start of this adventure?
Thomas Ingenlath: Our approach has matured. The first big shift was to change from being a racing company — a spirit alive when I joined Polestar — to becoming an electric car brand. The first product, Polestar 1, was about celebrating electric technology. We never intended to build a Ferrari-style company to produce just sports cars. The battery-electric technology was ready, so we made the decision to build a company that brings performance electric cars to the market. We knew we needed to make a strong statement around zero-emissions, to broaden the scope and make sustainability visual so the public can physically see how things can change. We then looked into the production process and sourced suppliers to build the cars. So, yes it has been an evolution and a learning curb.
How do you see Polestar’s place in the story of electric transport now?
We are not a political party making an idealistic movement. We didn’t invent electrification; we just saw it as the right direction. We wanted to be part of it and try to help steer it forward. It is a bit like when you introduce a new design concept and have to then slowly get the public on to that direction.
Talking of introducing new design concepts, speaking with one of your car design colleagues, Chris Bangle, he noted how the electric car age has created the possibility to truly rethink vehicle design, not only in its form language but also conceptually. It strikes me that as a new brand anchored on sustainability and technology, Polestar is in the perfect position to push the envelope.
Looking back, Polestar has developed really fast. Let’s face it, the Polestar 1 is very much a Volvo and has a classic automotive appearance. Going forward, our aim is to move into a more radical expression. Nevertheless, what holds the Polestar 1 and 2 together is a certain design spirit. We didn’t look to marketing to see if the car will work on this group or that region. These cars are truly authentic.
Does this mean yours is a more subtle approach, one of pushing progressive concepts of form and materials rather than making radical statements?
Our job isn’t about making a bold provocation. Max [head of design Maximilian Missoni] and myself push borders to an extent, but we are not here to break down walls. Instead, we want to take our customers on the journey with us and to get feedback from them. As much as the Polestar 2 is still an ordinary car to an extent, it is a rather radical statement. It has a Polestar stance, it doesn’t have chrome and has our unique graphics. We are pushing design forward and we have seen colleagues in other companies following our example.
I particularly admire the Precept concept which takes some bold steps towards exploring design and innovation — and in particular ecological material use — beyond the conventional motor car scenario. With the Polestar 3 coming out this year, how much of this inventive thinking has been put into production?
What’s great about our company is that it isn’t just the design team who believes in the value of investing in these technologies. Our whole research and development is focused on this. Thank God I no longer have to go to presentations and preach to the guys who represents markets and regions about the values of investing in new design and technology. Only a few years ago we would hear answers such as: “We understand what you are saying, but our markets still want leather”. Thankfully that argument is over. With Polestar and Volvo there is now a united push to move forward. The discussions are more about how we can put all this innovation into production.
I think many people from outside the industry may not realise the challenging of applying new and inventive ideas and materials in the automotive setting.
Yes, the biggest hurdle is how all these great materials survive in cars that are different in their requirement to a sports shoe. You don’t throw your car away after three years. It has to survive a long time. Automotive requirements are tough and these exciting materials need to prove their standards before we can apply them to our products.
You seem to be taking a broad approach to sustainability – embracing the concept’s wider meaning of thoughtful ecological design solutions and encouraging inclusivity and collaboration. Last year saw you work with fashion house Balenciaga on its first virtual catwalk. You have also worked with inventive young brands such as Bcomp for the Precept seat design. How important is this idea of collaboration and inclusivity in your brand ethos?
Being a start-up car company helps us be open to these collaborations and we try to push that door as wide open as possible. Even from an intellectual basis to have these talks is amazing. Just hearing how colleagues in different disciplines are working is incredible for us. It was intense working with Bcomp on the natural fiber for the Precept seats which is now going into production. They need our help as much as we need theirs.
Needless to say, the world has changed drastically since 2018. The current pandemic won’t be with us forever, but what it has highlighted is the urgency of addressing the climate crisis. It has also shown that change is possible almost overnight and that it is conceivable to imagine new and better futures. How has it impacted on you?
I feel strongly that it has helped people understand that drastic change isn’t as threatening as we had imagined. When we were in the full swing of things, we thought how difficult it would be to change or risk our normal lives. The world, however, as we knew it has changed and we don’t know what the future looks like. But in reality, we are getting on with life and our industry hasn’t collapsed. The pandemic has changed our perception of what change means. It has also shown us that being static is certainly not a solution.
This sounds like a very optimistic outlook. I’m guessing it means the public will be more ready to adapt to new forms of transport, new energy sources, than they would have pre-pandemic. In a sense this episode has shown that it isn’t going to be that difficult changing our lifestyles to support a sustainable future.
Yes, absolutely. And the pandemic has impacted on me, such as the great sensation I experience by not having to jet around the world anymore to attend meetings. I’ve had the opportunity to cycle to work. What I worry about is that the second we can, we will fall back to that same routine. I am so afraid that this silly phrase “back to normal” will become reality. I will be very sad if we don’t learn from this and return to the old ways.
In this period of relative quiet, have you imagined new scenarios for Polestar, of what that brand can become?
We are a performance car brand. At the same time we fully embrace sustainability and are committed to reach zero emission and zero carbon footprint. There is no contradiction in this. This is a luxury premium performance company which at the same time can be on the sustainability journey. I feel that this is our biggest contribution: showing that the two can go hand-in-hand.
See how other brands and individuals are championing progressive and ecological initiatives: Chris Bangle and his radical rethink of the motor car, the anti-poaching Cake Kalk AP, Komma taking a fresh look at urban transport, Arksen injecting meaning to yachting, Pix Moving reinventing cities as mobile flexible units.