A year of chaos and change for automakers that won’t be ending anytime soon

According to a series of in-depth reports by NPR’s Marketplace, three factors are shaping the future of the economy: new technology, globalization, and corporate profit. While auto sales are coming close to a record high in the U.S. (which surprised market analysts), that may be a temporary blip. Foreign automakers have 19 assembly plants in the U.S., but General Motors is closing four American plants and Ford is going through a major reorganization. Even so, U.S. auto plants have the capacity to make three million more cars that they can sell. Analysts think that this year’s strong sales come from higher fleet sales, lower unemployment, and Tesla’s rapid production ramp up. Shareholders are putting a great deal of pressure on automakers to lead the way in new products, advanced vehicle technology, and strong profit margins. Automakers have been taking big steps to change over their product lineups (less cars, more trucks and SUVs) and prepare for launching mobility services and a higher volume of electric vehicles. Here’s a look at some of the major events that have been shaping market dynamics in the U.S. and global automotive landscape — and its impact on green vehicle sales and adoption of new technology and mobility………….

Trade war with China:  The Center for Automotive Research released a report warning that auto sales could plunge up to two million vehicles a year over the huge tariff increase launched by President Donald Trump. That could mean a loss of about 715,000 American jobs and a $62 billion hit on U.S. GDP. In September, Ford CEO James Hackett said at a Bloomberg conference in New York that steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the Trump administration had cost the company about $1 billion. On Nov. 27, Trump publicly chastised GM CEO Mary Barra over her decision to close four plants in the US because of sagging demand for sedans (that includes ending production of the Chevrolet Volt). That came from his emphasis on keeping U.S. manufacturing alive and well, and keeping Americans working in the plants. The reality is that GM and other automakers have been investing heavily in global production and sales while staying as profitable as possible. The trade war with China hurts those strategies as China remains the largest auto market by far, including EV sales. On the bright side, a move three days ago by China to ease auto import tariffs are helping prices go down on imported models such as the Tesla Model 3.

Nissan loses its chief:  Nissan Motor Co.’s former chairman Carlos Ghosn was arrested again by Japanese prosecutors under allegations of financial misconduct — adding 10 more days to his month-long stay in jail. The original arrest and Dec. 10 indictment came from allegations of Ghosn understating his income from Nissan by 4.8 billion yen ($43 million) over five years through March 2015; he was then re-arrested at that time for understating earnings through March 2018. Ghosn had been credited for leading the Nissan Renault alliance and championing the all-electric Nissan Leaf and its first-ever leadership in EV sales. The next generation Leaf is expected to be revealed next month at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with a battery pack at around 60-kilowatt hours. The company will also be revealing its vision for an all-electric Infiniti crossover at the Detroit Auto Show. For now, the Nissan e-NV200 electric van is making its way to fleets, with its 40kWh battery that can go between 124-187 fully charged, depending on the payload being carried.

Musk forges through Tesla’s toughest year:  Tesla CEO Elon Musk exercised his typical blunt and brutal style during a recent interview on “60 Minutes” — clarifying his jabs at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “I want to be clear: I do not respect the SEC,” he said to interviewer Lesley Stahl. Musk made a stock fraud settlement with the SEC in October that took away his chairman title (telecommunications exec Robyn Denholm was made Tesla chairwoman on Nov. 8). The SEC playing babysitter is “not realistic” because “I’m the largest shareholder in the company and I could call for a shareholder vote and get anything done that I want,” Musk said. The Tesla CEO had made a Twitter post about taking the company private to address financial turmoil coming from the cost of ramping up production of the Model 3. While the company’s stock and the chief’s reputation have gone up and down during 2018, its EV sales haven’t. The Model 3 had U.S. sales of 18,650 in November, a ten-fold increase over January’s sales of 1,875 units. It’s now listed in U.S. Top 10 sales for its sedan class. The Model S and Model X have also done well this year, competing with the Chevy Bolt and Volt in the top 5. The company has been invited by Ohio Governor John Kasich to consider buying a GM factory in the state the company will be shutting down next years. Musk is considering doing it to have the needed capacity to build its cars — and not have to use a tent to meet demand, as was the case this year at its Fremont, Calif., assembly plant.

A strong year for natural gas:  Natural gas is taking off as a transportation fuel and as an energy source for power stations, with liquefied natural gas (LNG) playing a big role in it. Trump would like to see the U.S. be a major exporter of LNG, and competes with several other countries to take the lead. Renewable natural gas (RNG) is having a very good year as well and more compressed natural gas (CNG) stations have been built and opened this year. In its annual sustainability report, Waste Management said that growing its CNG truck fleet played a big role in reducing corporate emissions. Waste Management is playing a big role in making gains in recycling, renewable energy generation and carbon sequestration; it’s also part of the company producing its own RNG from waste materials.

SoftBank believes in mobility:  SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate that started out as a PC software company and now owns Sprint and a large Japanese mobile phone carrier, is making investments from its $100 billion tech investment pool, Vision Fund. Companies receiving financial backing from Vision Fund include Uber, WeWork, food delivery startup DoorDash, ParkJockey, Cambridge Mobile Telematics, and robot-pizza maker Zume. SoftBank’s focuses on autonomous driving, ride-hailing, on-demand delivery, and real estate.

Here’s a quick look at other significant events of the year:

  • Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo division launched the first-ever commercial autonomous vehicle ride service in early December. That’s taking place in the Phoenix area with plans to spread out.
  • Propane autogas had a strong year with school bus fleets embracing the clean fuel and bringing in more propane-powered buses and fueling stations. The west coast and northeast have been particularly strong markets. Overall, more than 13,000 propane-powered vehicles were sold in 2017 with this year looking good.
  • At the LA Auto Show, a few competitors displayed concept cars that they hoped would light up affluent buyers who had been leaning toward Tesla. They included Audi, BMW, Volkswagen, and start-ups Rivian and Byton. Jaguar just put its I-Pace electric SUV on sale, and German automakers started ramping up production of Tesla-competitive models for distribution to dealerships starting next year.
  • The bitcoin cryptocurrency, a form of electronic cash that became extremely important last year, has seen its price go from $16,960 in January to $4,078 on Dec. 20. Like EVs, and autonomous vehicles, it will take a few years for it to reach mass adoption.
  • Tesla and GM are facing the end of federal tax credit incentives, and it looks like continuation won’t be supported in Washington. State rebates will become more important, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to support clean vehicle incentives when he takes office next month. Volkswagen’s Electrify America program is continuing to add EV chargers throughout the state, with the company announcing its second wave of projects in October.

EVs make top news story of the year, What soft oil prices mean for the U.S.

Newsworthy stories:  What made Automotive News’ No. 1 news story of the year for 2017? “Virtually every automaker becomes an EV evangelist,” is the lead story, even though EVs didn’t even make the the top 10 for the previous year. More than 100 battery-electric models will be sent to dealerships globally within five years. Its become easier to list which automakers don’t have big plans for EVs in the near future. Cheaper batteries will drive it, along with several countries saying they’ll ban gasoline-powered vehicles within a few decades…………… LeEco CEO Jia Yueting had been ordered by Chinese regulators to return to China before the end of 2017, but did not make that appearance. Jia had said he’d stayed in the U.S. to do fundraising for his other electric car company, Faraday Future. The Beijing branch of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) issued a notice last week ordering the CEO to return to China to address mounting debt and to protect investors’ rights. Jia said he’d asked his brother, Jia Yuemin, to meet with the commission last Friday to provide a report. “I am deeply sorry and blame myself for the negative impact of LeEco’s debt crisis. The fundraising for Faraday Future in the United States is making significant progress and there are many tasks I need to push forward in order to ensure the production and timely delivery of the FF91,” he said in a statement…………. Lyft will be showing off an autonomous ride-hailing service at CES in Las Vegas later this month, in partnership with Aptiv Plc and its automated driving platform. Aptiv was launched in December when auto supplier Delphi Automotive split into two companies. Lyft and Aptiv will offer rides to attendees at CES in the “point-to-point” ride-hailing system utilizing Lyft’s mobile app and Aptiv’s platform. Lyft is poised to play a leading role in working with technology partners to tap into the ride-hailing firm’s resource of providing about one million rides per day. Analysts predict that autonomous ride-hailing and ridesharing mobility services will lead the way in adoption of self-driving cars.

What declining oil prices mean:  Shale oil drillers have become good enough at what they due to bring record highs to U.S. crude oil production, according to a Washington Post feature.

Shale oil drills can now plunge deep, pivot, and tunnel sideways for miles until they find an oil pocket, said Frank Verrastro, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Here a few trends to follow on the impact of U.S. oil production capacity:

  • Global oil demand is increasing in an expanding world economy, and production cutbacks by Russia and OPEC nations have helped push the price of a barrel of oil above $60 in recent days.
  • Trump administration policies, along with bountiful supply from shale oil drills and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), are expected to keep oil and gasoline prices down in the U.S. Trump administration has approved the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and may be loosening offshore oil drilling regulations. Another move could come from the tax bill that was just approved on Dec. 22; it allows oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a potentially rich oil supply but a move that conservationists and environmentalists oppose.
  • This trend will be increasing U.S. energy independence even more, taking away the type of pressure felt during the 1970s during the OPEC oil embargoes.
  • High gas and diesel prices have been critical selling points for the marketing of electric and alternative fuel vehicles. As Tesla and a few competitors have found, there are other strong points to make and experiences to offer car shoppers. Driving one of the cars is the best one, and answering questions about the environmental gains made in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; plus savings in lifecycle costs even if gas prices stay down through this year.

This Week’s Top 10: Nissan sees Leaf sales slip, Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric are perplexed by how the BMW i3 works

by Jon LeSage, editor and publisher, Green Auto Market 

Here’s my take on the 10 most significant and interesting occurrences during the past week…….

  1. Nissan Leaf sales successPlug-in sales: There’s been a wide range of estimates on Tesla Model S sales in the month of January, but they’re all ahead of what Nissan reported for the Leaf. Whether those Model S numbers might have been 1,100 units sold, 1,300, or 1,500, they’re all higher than 1,070 Nissan Leafs that were confirmed as being sold. The Leaf was down 14.5% from January 2014, ending a 23 month cycle of sales increases. The Chevrolet Volt was way down from a year ago – 41%. That likely had something to do with the refreshed model coming out later this year. com reported that plug-in hybrid sales were down 45.4% from December and down 28% from January 2014; battery electric vehicles were down 46.4% from December and were up 33.9% over January 2014.
  2. Boy, things have changed. A TV commercial for the BMW i3 shows NBC reporters Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric in 1994 discussing this “newfangled” internet thing. Fast forward to 2015, Gumbel and Couric are now confused about riding in a car with no engine with its power somehow coming from a wind turbine. It was one of the TV ads shown during the Super Bowl game on Feb. 1.
  3. General Motors will begin building a production version of its Chevrolet Bolt battery-electric concept vehicle in October 2016, according to inside sources. That will put GM into direct competition with California EV start-up Tesla Motors, Nissan, and BMW. GM’s production target for the Bolt is about 25,000 to 30,000 cars a year.
  4. CALSTART hosted its annual Low-Carbon Fuel Summit in Sacramento on Feb. 3. More than 150 people attended, representing the state legislature, clean fuels producers, and consumers. Low gasoline prices held a lot of attention during discussions, along with the California Air Resources Board’s low-carbon fuel standard.
  5. Google may be going after Uber’s ridesharing market with its self-driving car technology. Uber executives have seen screenshots of what appears to be a Google ridesharing app that is currently being used by Google employees. Google’s venture capital division, Google Ventures, had invested $258 in Uber in August 2013.
  6. The Obama administration may turn the federal tax credit for electric vehicles into a rebate program as part of its proposed budget. That idea was first put out by the administration in 2011, but it’s taken a while to gain enough Congressional support. That $7,500 tax credit could be turned into a $10,000 rebate if enough support is gained.
  7. University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute reported that average fuel economy of light vehicles purchased in the U.S. improved last month for the first time since August, increasing 0.3 mpg and coming in at 25.4 mpg. January’s 0.5 jump from a year earlier marks the 12th consecutive month that average fuel economy has been above 25. Average fuel economy is up 5.3 mpg from October 2007, according to the report.
  8. Oklahoma-based organization Alternative Fuels Technology Center is now offering online courses for training on alternative fuel vehicles. The courses are self-paced and take between two to three weeks to complete. Available online courses include: CNG Vehicle Code; CNG Compressor Operator Safety and Code; LPG Vehicle Code; and Introduction to Hybrid Vehicles.
  9. Natural gas fuel-storage company Agility Fuel Systems and Clean Energy Fuels have announced a joint compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel system sales program to reduce the incremental cost of heavy-duty natural gas trucks. Under the program, Agility and Clean Energy will work with trucking customers and offer CNG fuel systems installed at a substantially reduced cost when there is a natural gas fueling agreement.
  10. The Mercedes-Benz C350e plug-in hybrid is launching in Germany this month with a price tag of $57,645, a fuel economy rating of 112 MPGe (though not by US EPA standards), and an optional wagon version.

So who is actually leading the EV sales race – the Leaf or the Model S?

Tesla Model S vs. Nissan LeafIf you had read “This Week’s Top 10” a week ago in Green Auto Market, you might have assumed that the Nissan Leaf took top spot in US electric vehicle (EV) sales during December. It’s possible that the Leaf didn’t take the No. 1 sales spot – it may have been the Tesla Model S. It depends on who you ask.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk did not want to give out the December sales number for the Model S while in Detroit to speak at the auto show – though the company had given out that number a year ago at the Detroit Auto Show.

Tesla Motors doesn’t provide monthly sales figures like all the rest of the automakers do. Those sales numbers come through its quarterly earnings reports; its fourth quarter 2014 numbers will be released in early February; and will be for the quarter without monthly numbers. However, as mentioned in a few articles last week, Tesla may have beat Nissan – and those figures come from the Inside EVs publication and its monthly reporting. Stock market analyst service MarketWatch reported that the Model S became the best-selling electric car in the US during December 2014, beating the Leaf for the first time. Selling 3,500 units last month beat out the Leaf sales figure of 3,102 units.

When you look at the Inside EVs chart for December, the footnote on the Tesla number reads, ”Estimated Tesla NA Sales Numbers – Reconciled on Quarterly Totals from Earnings Report (Q1 Sales reported @ 6,457-3,000 Intl Delivers, Q2 7,579 total-approx reported International registrations, Q3 7,785 total deliveries ~ 3,900 US).” Where is that fourth quarter estimate coming from? Who knows. Maybe the publication gets some of that information from Tesla – or they know a stock market analyst who does.

There’s another figure much lower than that reported by Inside EVsHybridCars.com and its sales reporting partner Baum & Associates said that the Leaf sold 3,102 units in the US and that there were 1,900 of the Model S units delivered. That’s a very wide gap from the 3,500 reported by Inside EVs.

Green Auto Market – Extended Edition, the monthly subscription-based version of this newsletter, uses the HybridCars.com and Baum and Associates figures. Those figures have been reported longer than any other sales data, and Baum & Associates is respected in the industry for its expertise on alternative/clean vehicle reporting; HybridCars.com has done a very good job reporting on hybrids and EVs for several years.

In the end, HybridCars.com, Baum & Associates, Inside EVs, and other sources have different numbers on sales of the Tesla Model S. One thing is for sure: whether the Leaf or Model S came in first place, battery electric vehicles are beating extended range/plug-in hybrid vehicles in monthly US sales. Why might that be? Here are a few of my thoughts on that question:

  • Very impressive product. If you’ve ever driven a Leaf or Model S, you’re likely to have been impressed by their performance and handling.
  • The range is enough for now. You can go about 84 miles on the Leaf after a full charge, and up to 300 miles on the Model S (depending on which version of the Model S you’re driving). Most drivers are using these cars for daily commutes and short trips and know how to charge them everywhere – and usually do so. Range anxiety isn’t as much of an issue for them as it is for plug-in hybrid drivers, and for consumers and fleets just thinking about getting an EV.
  • Leasing makes EVs more affordable. Leasing has made EVs more attractive for car shoppers. Tesla has created its own “guaranteed buy back” program and Nissan, Chevrolet, BMW, and other automakers are offering their own competitive lease packages. That’s helping get first-time EV buyers into EVs of all types.