Plenty of roadblocks for automakers seeking EV success

BUILT-IN DEMAND

Automakers are on notice that “they are going to have to figure out how to put cars on the market”, said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for the automotive research firm Edmunds.

“We used to say that the challenges for electric vehicles would be consumer acceptance and price,” she added.

With car buyers increasingly attuned to the environment and the woes of climate change, selling the concept of electric vehicles is no longer an issue.

In the United States, General Motors says it has more than 150,000 pre-orders for the electric version of its Silverado pickup truck, which will be available next year. The wait time for a Tesla these days is several months.

For Caldwell, the bigger issue now is whether automakers “can get the raw materials” they need to make the cars.

SCARCE RAW MATERIALS

Karl Brauer, an executive analyst for used car search engine iseecars.com, agrees, saying that no matter what government incentives are offered for would-be buyers of electric vehicles, the rare elements needed may simply be unavailable.

“Right now, we have a lack of palladium, and nickel, and lithium. Everything you need to build an electric car is harder to get than it was six or 12 months ago,” he told AFP.

The supply issue is linked partly to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine six months ago.

But Brauer said that “nobody, a year ago, would have predicted the kind of price escalation for those raw materials, and the difficulty of getting them”.

The situation “can change drastically” at any given moment, he added.

Automakers are determined to leave as little as possible to chance.

They are building their own factories to produce car batteries, setting up joint ventures with specialised parts makers and sealing partnerships with mining firms.

German auto manufacturers Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz on Monday signed memorandums of understanding with the Canadian government to ensure their access to rare metals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt.

But, as with oil, the market for these raw materials is a global one, and the normal rules of economics apply, noted Brauer.

“If there is a certain amount of global demand for raw materials, if there is a certain amount of global supply for them, someone will always pay the price,” he said.

For Brauer, shifting production lines to accommodate electric vehicle components is, by comparison, quite easy, as the automakers “have control over that.”

HELP, BUT WITH CONDITIONS

Local regulations could make things more complicated for automakers.

In the United States, new legislation championed by the administration of President Joe Biden allots up to US$7,500 in tax credits to every American who buys an electric vehicle.

But there are conditions: for example, final assembly of those cars must take place within US borders.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a US lobbying group, estimates that about 70 per cent of the 72 electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-powered cars now on the market would not qualify for the tax credit.

For Garrett Nelson, an analyst for the CFRA research firm, the new law will clearly give Tesla, GM and Ford an advantage in the United States over their European and Asian rivals.

Following California’s announcement, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said it would be “extremely challenging” to meet the sales requirements due to external factors such as inflation, supply chains and charging infrastructure.

The ongoing semiconductor shortage will also play a role, it said in a statement.

“These are complex, intertwined and global issues well beyond the control of authorities in California or the auto industry,” it warned.

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