Big Auto is begging governments to let them go bankrupt as Chinese EVs loom

Automakers are fiercely lobbying governments to water down already-compromised emissions rules, but doing so will only lead to their doom as market entrants that are serious about EVs will continue ramping them anyway.

The auto industry is electrifying, and all new cars will be electric in the relatively near future. This is not in dispute by any serious person – and any alternative scenario, where humans continue to pollute as much as we do today, will result in worse and worse results for humanity the longer we pollute as climate change becomes progressively worse.

It is necessary that we stop burning fossil fuels, and fast. This is not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of physics, and physics does not care about your arguments to the contrary.

And yet, the auto industry – which is responsible for more pollution than any other sector, at least in rich countries – still lobbies to worsen emissions reduction targets, even when those targets were already pushed back to begin with.

Automakers beg governments to let them emit more poison

We saw it this week in both Europe and the US. BMW, VW and Renault asked European regulators to push back the 2035 gas car phase-out, despite that this timeline has already been loosened. And in the US, the EPA finalized rules, but softened them due to auto industry lobbying – and the president of the main auto industry lobbyist characterized the final rules as a “stretch goal,” suggesting that he thinks there should be further softening of the already-softened rule.

Even these softened EPA rules will upend the industry, as current automaker commitments are not enough to meet the targets. Either automakers need to up their game, or someone is going to have to fill the millions-vehicle gap between commitments and requirements. And if traditional automakers don’t fill that gap, then new entrants will.

The lobbying is reminiscent of what the industry did from 2017-2021, when it lobbied an ignorant reality TV host to torpedo well-reasoned regulations which would have resulted in significantly more regulatory certainty for the industry. It eventually recognized its error, but Pandora’s box was already opened.

Today, the exact same automaker lobby which originally lobbied to fracture US and CA regulations – the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, previously known as Global Automakers, led by John Bozzella both then and now – still routinely complains about the two regulatory regimes being different, despite being personally responsible for the current state of affairs.

The compulsion against regulation is pathological. Even in situations where it doesn’t make sense to lobby against regulation, businesses will often still do so.

But wait, maybe it’s not a compulsion against all regulation. Because at the same time that automakers are begging for the ability to continue the global-scale mass murder that they continually enable (via pollution that kills millions worldwide per year), they’re also begging governments to slow down other parts of the industry that are taking the EV transition seriously.

Namely: China.

Chinese EVs will grow, whether you like it or not

China is actually a little late to the EV party. Until a few years ago, EV market share in China lagged other leading regions, but uptake in recent years has been quite rapid. NEV (EV+PHEV) market share should crest 50% in China next quarter, ahead of basically everywhere except the Nordic countries.

But as often happens, China may not always be the first entrant into a market, but once it truly commits its effort to something, those efforts tend to bear fruit rapidly.

Chinese EV sales have started taking off overseas, particularly in Europe. While they still make up a relatively small percentage of the market – around 10% – that share has risen rapidly from less than 1% in 2019 (and it might be higher if Chinese automakers could find more ships, but they’re working on that).

In response to this rise in Chinese EV sales, instead of recognizing that they need to pick up their game, European automakers are… begging the EU to investigate the “flood” of Chinese EVs, even to the point of proposing retroactive tariffs. They contend that the Chinese government unfairly subsidizes its auto sector, making prices uncompetitively low. Nevermind that European governments also subsidize their auto sector, and that low prices are good for consumers (in fact, if EU consumers are benefitting from Chinese subsidies, that represents a transfer of wealth from China to the EU).

Sure, begging governments for help isn’t the only thing they’re doing, they’re also finally picking their pants up off the floor and considering building cheaper EVs, but both of these actions are in direct conflict to lobbying efforts to loosen emissions regulations. If you’re worried about competition undercutting you and taking control of the EV transition, the answer is not to cut production and pretend that EV sales are going down when they aren’t, it’s to move faster.

In the US, the anti-China lobbying has been more pre-emptive. There aren’t significant amounts of Chinese-built EVs in the US, and the country already has a number of protectionist tariffs against China.

The recent Inflation Reduction Act, which created hundreds of billions of dollars of incentives for EVs and green energy, does include provisions intended to advantage automakers who avoid using China as any part of their supply chain. And scaremongering about China is abundant throughout US political and economic discussions.

So it’s clear that Western automakers aren’t looking to compete on price or volume, they’re looking to change the rules of the game instead – in a way that ensures more pollution and more expensive vehicles for consumers. They don’t want to win the game, they want the ref to hand it to them. It’s gamesmanship – which the industry is well acquainted with.

Rising EV penetration isn’t due to regulation, it’s due to demand

But do we really think that will work? EV penetration has broadly exceeded the minimums set by emissions rules. The driver so far has not been the rules, it has been consumer demand – and consumer recognition that gas vehicles will soon become an albatross around the neck of anyone who makes the silly decision to buy a new one. We’ve seen it happen in Norway with well above 90% plug-in car sales in advance of its world’s-most-aggressive 2025 target, with China’s rapid rise in EV penetration which caught foreign automakers by surprise, and with California hitting ZEV goals years ahead of schedule.

So loosening the rules doesn’t seem likely to slow down consumer demand – and the public wants stronger rules anyway. Instead, it will just annoy customers who are frustrated that there aren’t enough options available (as has been the case for years – look at the excitement over the R3 and EX30 when so few other small EVs exist), and mollify laggard manufacturers into thinking they can take longer to join the party.

But if automakers (and countries with prominent auto industries, like Japan) want to survive the transition, they cannot be the last to the party. The longer they wait, the more trouble they’ll be in, and the more advantage they cede to their competition.

How do we know this? Because it’s already happened, in this very industry, just over the course of the trailing decade.

Big Auto let Tesla win

Over the course of the last ten years, we’ve seen plenty of efforts to regulate away Tesla’s sales model for example, and few for automakers to actually effectively compete against Tesla’s vehicle programs. We’ve also seen industry push, state by state, for abusive EV fees and other silly regulations in a desperate attempt to punish EVs for daring to be a superior choice.

All of this happened while Tesla gradually entered more segments, and gradually took over those segments. The first indication was around 2014-2015, when sales of large luxury vehicles fell for every manufacturer except Tesla. This happened again with the Model 3. And the Model Y is now the best-selling vehicle in the world. (As for trucks, well, maybe that’ll be a different story)

And yet, despite a decade of warning, it’s only recently that we’ve started seeing serious EV programs from other automakers start to spin up. But most automakers still only have a few EVs, and many of them still share platforms with gas cars. And due to Tesla’s head start, they’re the one company that has gotten scale and costs to the level that they can arbitrarily cut prices, starting an EV price war that they’re best positioned to deal with.

In refusing to act faster to accept the future that’s already here, automakers have already ceded ground. On top of the aforementioned points of market share ceded to Tesla, the industry also gave Tesla the whole concept of fueling stations.

Over the last decade, every automaker said that charging wasn’t their problem and that someone else would come along to solve it, while simultaneously saying that they can’t ramp EVs because there isn’t enough charging out there.

Tesla also said that there wasn’t enough charging out there… so it built chargers (without having to be forced into doing so). And now, as a result of automakers’ intransigence – and also thanks to President Biden’s infrastructure law, which influenced Tesla to finally open up its Supercharger network – every vehicle manufacturer is now using Tesla’s NACS plug, which means all of them will use its Supercharger network, and Tesla will be able to extract profits on fueling from basically every car on the road. “Tesla, you’re welcome”; signed – the auto industry.

The path forward is action, not whining

Describing this recent history is not an attempt to brag by those of us who loudly said time and time again that this was coming, it’s intended as a very recent object lesson in how the automakers’ decisions were the wrong ones, and how they could learn from those decisions and make better ones going forward.

It is clear that business as usual was not the right choice over the last decade, and it’s not going to be the right choice in the next decade either. Relying on the age-old gamesmanship of trying to block new entrants to the market, delay change, and refuse to respond to consumer demand is not going to work for the automakers, especially in a globalized auto market where if you don’t make it, someone else will.

This isn’t to say that everyone in the auto industry is bad. There are plenty of people and even companies who “get it.” While BMW, VW and Renault just complained about EU regulations, the EU automakers’ association ACEA said “we are not contesting 2035… now we must get down to it.” And several automakers have stepped up to defend California’s regulations (including, oddly, both BMW and VW, two who are complaining about EU regulations now).

Frankly, I’ve long said that I don’t care who makes EVs, and that whoever makes them deserves the win. I’d prefer if my country got it together and did something that would benefit its competitiveness long term, but as a living creature on this Earth, my primary interest (and yours as well) is in solving the climate crisis. If we refuse to offer more efficient choices and China does, then China will have demonstrated that it deserves the win. If you don’t like that, then don’t hand it to them.

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