If you went into 2023 thinking this year would mark the permanent rise of electric vehicles along some perfect, up-and-to-the-right growth curve, a gloomy tide of recent news may have you wondered how and when, exactly, you ended up in the Twilight Zone.
In just the past few weeks, General Motors had a disastrous Q3 earnings call where it abandoned its goal of building 400,000 EVs by mid-2024, announced a delay of more electric models and even hit pause on a new battery plant. Similarly, Ford’s Q3 saw an even bigger loss on EVs than in Q2, perhaps as much as $36,000 per vehicle; this, after it already tweaked its strategy to focus more on hybrids than full EVs amid high costs and slowing sales. Both automakers have struggled to get new EV models out the door at affordable prices while keeping costs and quality problems in check.
Meanwhile, even Elon Musk, of all people, recently warned of production headaches ahead and seemed noncommittal on plans for a Mexican factory thanks to high interest rates. This isn’t what investors want to hear, especially in America, where quarterly profits are upheld as sacrosanct above almost everything else.
Is the EV revolution dead on arrival before it ever really started? That’s the undertone you find in a lot of news stories lately, complete with the “I told you so” quotes from current and former auto execs who would rather do the same thing they’ve always done than transform their businesses. You can be forgiven for reading those stories and wondering: was this all a mistake?
The problem is that this line of thinking is wrong. What we’re seeing right now isn’t the premature death of the EV transition. Instead, it’s an injection of reality – and perhaps a badly needed one. It turns out that transforming an industry that spent a century making internal combustion engines and has a giant supplier network in support of that goal into a business that specializes in software and batteries is – wait for it – hard. Harder than expected.
But this transformation is still inevitable and necessary. The current moment is proof that EV adoption isn’t going to be a permanent upward growth curve, but one with a lot of ups and downs and winners and losers. And for these automakers, it is a question of fortitude and survival – not one of electric vehicle technology as a concept.
Overall Trends Are Still Positive
Wall Street, obviously, isn’t thrilled with this news. And much of the financial press is singing the same tune. But it’s crucial to remember that those same investors and analysts used to sneer at the Detroit automakers for not being ready for “the future” the way Tesla was, even when Tesla was burning cash to scale its EV plans. That’s how this works. Any drastically new technology ramp-up requires a huge amount of capital and probably a hit to profits in the meantime. Remember how long it took Tesla to get to consistent profitability?
To riff on an often misrepresented John Steinbeck quote, I call this mentality “Temporarily Embarrassed Billionaire Capitalism”; if something isn’t the next Google or Amazon destined to make everyone involved fabulously wealthy overnight, it is not worth attempting. And right now, the Temporarily Embarrassed Billionaires who once pressed traditional automakers to be more like Tesla seem to think that EVs are a waste of time after two rough quarters.
It’s hard to square sudden EV pessimism against the fact that this year is already a record one for electric sales in the U.S., which, according to Cox Automotive, were at more than 873,000 through September with the first-ever 1 million mark projected for November. Or the fact that even some once-slow-selling brands and models are seeing steady growth across the world.
Or that EVs already dominate in countries like Norway and, increasingly, China. Or the fact that the U.S. alone is seeing remarkable interest in used EVs. Even Ford, for all of its problems, hit record EV sales in Q3. New EV models are coming out all the time, new battery plants are set to bring some 80,000 new manufacturing jobs to this country alone, and EV charging is steadily growing too – the latter especially fueled by a glut of government subsidies in the U.S.
A few bad financial quarters hardly mean those things are going away, and neither is the consumer desire to kick gasoline to the curb – the explosive growth of hybrid sales is proof of that alone. Instead, what we’re primarily seeing is a series of consistent, often related headaches on the automaker side.
After all, Americans haven’t exactly been spoiled for choice in terms of affordable EV pricing yet. GM, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and countless others are finding it incredibly difficult to make these cars reliably, profitably and at scale. Honda’s decision to abandon that joint EV venture with GM, for example, may have more to do with GM’s continual Ultium platforms development problems than not seeing a path to an electric future at all. (And in the case of Tesla, many of its anticipated wounds around the Cybertruck are self-inflicted; nobody made Musk decide to make a truck from stainless steel.)
Figure It Out, Or Someone Else Will
The automotive industry has always chased efficiency as a principle, even when it has to be dragged kicking and screaming in that direction by regulations. And it faces tough ones in Europe, the U.S. and other parts of the world that all but ensure a zero-emission future someday. (And if part of this means more hybrids get sold along the way, it’s a net good for the planet and everything that lives on it, too; Ford to its credit is going in that direction, which is more than we can say for GM.)
It’s essential to realize these trends are not happening uniformly across the board. An equally important headline this week against all of GM and Ford’s doom-and-gloom is Hyundai’s news that it posted a record profit in Q3 and is keeping its EV plans on track. It’s a “legacy” automaker too, but one that saw the writing on the wall, invested early into this technology, created some of the best EVs on the market right now, and they’re still selling steadily despite their lack of U.S. tax credits.
As the American automakers struggle with quality control like they so often do, just one of the Hyundai Group’s brands, Kia, is planning eight global EV production hubs and a huge family of new electric models. That includes ones priced at $30,000 or less, too. As GM and Ford start to sweat, Hyundai is clearly saying “Bring it on.” Those cars are excellent, generally affordable (and getting more so all the time) and they’re being built en masse — basically all the things GM and Ford are struggling with.
And that’s the problem with equating a few bad Ford and GM quarters with the death of EVs: nowhere is it written that the automakers who can’t figure out this technology transition are just inherently and institutionally meant to be here forever. If anything, recent history have proven the opposite. Is America any worse off without Oldsmobile or Pontiac? Or because we’ve barely heard crickets out of Lincoln in years?
This moment isn’t a test of EVs as a concept; it’s a test of whether automakers like GM and Ford can meet the moment, or if they’re meant to become the next International Harvester: vastly smaller makers of gas trucks and SUVs for commercial clients. (And probably also the Cadillac Escalade, somehow.)
BYD has an answer to any EV skepticism out there. And XPeng. And the Geely conglomerate, which already sells EVs here under its Volvo and Polestar brands with more to come. The Chinese automakers have world domination on their minds and they aren’t doing it with gasoline cars. They have a tough time in America now thanks to steep tariffs, but they’re not far off from building factories in Mexico to fix that little inconvenience. When they do, they can follow the playbook written by Volkswagen, Toyota and Hyundai: come in cheap, build up volume and grow from there.
You don’t think the Japanese automakers are absolutely spooked by this recent Chinese and Korean electric show of force? You don’t think that’s why Toyota, the world’s biggest automaker, had such a huge EV push on display at the Japan Mobility Show this past week? Or why Nissan too is racing toward solid-state battery production?
I was in Japan last week covering that event, and I’ve heard tons of people at Toyota alone talk about taking time to get things right – but not scrapping an electric future entirely. The world’s biggest car company by volume, once accused of lagging on this technology and even lobbying against it, is now going full tilt on new battery chemistries, solid-state batteries and partnerships with LG, Panasonic and Idemitsu. Toyota has a lot to show, not tell, on the EV front, but it could soon prove to be a sleeping giant in the EV world.
Walking away from an electric transition isn’t an option. The planet simply cannot wait forever to decarbonize transportation, although certainly, the needs of the planet and the demands of capitalism are never really in sync. But it’s a moment where survival is at stake for these automakers. They’re going to have to play the long game and endure some pain if they want to be on the right side of history. And if they don’t, somebody else will be.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org