CES: Yes, People Are Still Getting COVID

By Gary S. Vasilash

Auto shows, for purposes of publicity, have become passe. In terms of allowing consumers to get a chance to see a vast array of brand-new vehicles, they are great. But when it comes to getting attention from reportorial outlets, vehicle manufacturers have increasingly run the numbers and concluded that the input (the money they spend) is far in excess of the output (the amount of coverage) at auto shows.

During the past few years, OEMs have glommed on to the fact that there is a big technology show held in Las Vegas at the start of January each year, CES.

This used to be the “Consumer Electronics Show.” But the show organizers have presumably decided that it is better to be as inclusive as possible, so by using three letters rather than descriptive words, they can get more exhibitors.

As the fortunes of traditional auto shows have waned, those of CES have waxed.

So more and more automotive OEMs and suppliers have decided that CES is a place they need to be.

It doesn’t hurt that they want to be perceived, for purposes of stock valuation, as being “tech companies,” something that is a bit more difficult to pull off at a traditional auto show.

So a number of OEMs have signed up for CES.

Last January CES was entirely virtual. That was when COVID-19 was raging.

This January CES is being held in person. This will be when COVID-19 is raging.

Some tech companies came to the realization that a jammed trade show with people from all around the world (159 countries) in attendance—even though attendees must show proof of vaccination, wear masks, and get test kits along with their badges—is not a good venue while hospitals are at the breaking point with COVID cases.

Twitter, T-Mobile, Amazon, Intel, Lenovo, Google, Microsoft and Meta dropped out. Tech media outlets including TechCrunch and The Verge said they wouldn’t put their people in harm’s way.

In the automotive space General Motors and Waymo have announced they’re not going to physically participate.

The CES organizers maintain that the show must go on.

Here’s something to know: as of December 26, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS), 84.36% of the ICU beds in Nevada are in use, of which 21.85% are for COVID patients.

Of course, were someone to attend CES and become infected they would probably back in their home locale before they became really sick.

So it should be known that HHS stats have it that in the U.S., as of December 26, 75.34% of all ICU beds are in use, of which 21.28% are in use for COVID patients.

Wonder how the ventilator supply is holding up. . . .

To say nothing of the nurses, doctors, orderlies, technicians, cleaning personnel, and all the other people who keep our medical facilities running, people who have been going through unmitigated hell because there are people and organizations that evidently are self-centered.

Yes, yes, we’re all tired of the pandemic. Yes, yes, we all want to get back to things in person. Yes, yes, plenty of people have been vaccinated.

Yes, yes, these are not normal times. Some companies clearly understand that. They clearly understand the health and safety of their people (and by extension, people who would come in contact with them) are critically important.

When companies ranging from Amazon to GM to Waymo figure CES isn’t the place to be, (1) how can other companies not come to that conclusion and (2) how can the CES organizers not understand that fact?

Electric Vehicles Need Batteries. Battery Plants Need (Cheap) Electricity

By Gary S. Vasilash

One of the key things needed for an electric vehicle is—surprise, surprise—batteries.

One of the things that OEMs are doing is not simply depending on suppliers to build the battery plants, but, in efforts to better control their supply chains, participating in the build of the factories with suppliers, such as GM and LG in Ohio and Ford and SK Innovation in Tennessee.

Ford’s $5.6 billion mega campus, BlueOval City, is not being built in Michigan. It will go up in Tennessee. One reason: electricity is cheaper there. (Image: Ford)

While GM and Ford are both headquartered in Michigan, they’ve not picked Michigan as a place to build a battery plant.

So, reports Bridge Michigan, on Wednesday the Michigan Public Service Commission voted to do something that could help make the state more appealing, and not just to the home-state OEMs:

Allow utility companies to offer industrial customers a reduced rate for electricity.

Presently industrial customers in Michigan pay 7.85 cents per kilowatt hour. Just across the border in Ohio the rate is 6.85 cents.

And for companies operating battery plants or semiconductor fabs, those pennies add up. Fast.

GM Takes to the Water

Electric vehicles don’t all have to have wheels

By Gary S. Vasilash

From 1919 to 1979 General Motors owned Frigidaire, the appliance company that made, primarily, refrigerators.

Toyota was once cracked for making “appliances.” GM once did, literally.

(The Toyota comment was related to the fact that its designs were rather innocuous, like those white rectangles that are in kitchens and laundry rooms. Of course, a positive spin would go to the point that many major appliances are often highly reliable. . . .)

GM has announced that it is taking a 25% ownership in Pure Watercraft.

Seattle-based Pure Watercraft make boats.

But not your ordinary run-of-the-lake boats but electric boats. For the sake of argument, these are not “EBs” but bona fide “EVs.”

Said Dan Nicholson, GM vice president of Global Electrification, Controls, Software and Electronics, “GM’s stake in Pure Watercraft represents another exciting opportunity to extend our zero-emissions goal beyond automotive applications.”

The company recently announced that it is working with Wabtec Corp., a locomotive builder, providing batteries and its hydrogen fuel cell technology.

So obviously they’re serious about “beyond automotive.”

If you think back to the last time you were trying to take a snooze on a beach and then a boat with a massive outboard came blasting by, the whole notion of the silent running of a battery-powered boat seems all the more understandable.

At the very least the GM investment is going to expand scale to boat electrification, which should make it more accessible to more people.

And let’s face it: GM’s involvement in watercraft makes a whole lot more sense than refrigerators.

Auto Numbers: Something to Consider

The math is. . .surprising

By Gary S. Vasilash

A few numbers.

In the first three quarters of 2021, these are the U.S. sales numbers of the leading luxury brands:

  • 259,237 BMW
  • 245,864 Lexus
  • 230,855 Tesla
  • 213,708 Mercedes

That’s right: Tesla outsold Mercedes.

And then there is this, the market capitalization (on 11/11/21) of the three companies that were once known as the “Big Three”:

  • GM: $89.14 billion
  • Ford: $77.5 billion
  • Stellantis: $64.21 billion

(It is worth noting that in addition to Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Mopar and Ram, Stellantis includes Abarth, Maserati, Open, Alfa Romeo, Citroen, DS Automobiles, Fiat, Fiat Professional, Lancia, Peugeot, and Vauxhall. Meaning it is a much larger company back when it was part of the Big Three.)

Here’s the kicker:

  • Tesla: $1.068 trillion

Tesla could buy all three.

But then what would become of its value?

Cadillac LYRIQ: Hitting All the Right Notes

An up-close look at the exterior and interior design of what will undoubtedly become the flagship of the Cadillac lineup (sorry, Escalade)

By Gary S. Vasilash

The Cadillac LYRIQ is certainly the most important Cadillac vehicle to be launched since the Cadillac CTS appeared in 2003. Arguably the LYRIQ, an electric vehicle, is one of the most important products that General Motors is putting on the market because it truly marks a commitment to contemporary EVs that it has announced are coming.

The 2023 LYRIQ, which will be on the market in the first half of 2022, is the real thing.

The fresh face of Cadillac. (Images: Cadillac)

Yes, it will be beaten to showrooms by the GMC HUMMER EV, but that is arguably a niche vehicle. A niche vehicle with people with deep pockets: the first edition, for which all of the reservations have been spoken for, has an MSRP of $112,595.

The LYRIQ will start at $58,795. The reservations for the first edition of the crossover were full. In 10 minutes.

The LYRIQ has an estimated range of over 300 miles from the 100.4-kWh Ultium battery pack. It is a rear-drive vehicle. The Ultium drive unit will provide ~325 hp.

On the inside there is a 33-inch diagonal screen that stretches across the instrument panel, a 19-speaker AKG Studio audio system, eight-way power driver and front passenger seats, and other accoutrements that are characteristic of a vehicle that is a showcase for the brand.

An interior so well crafted, you might not want to leave when your trip is complete.

On the exterior there is a illuminated black crystal front grille that illuminates in an orchestrated manner, a grille that is certainly a signature of not only the vehicle, but of the level of creativity, imagination and technology that may become known as what Cadillac is all about.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours,” we learn about the LYRIQ, inside and out.

We—“Autoline’s” John McElroy, Henry Payne of The Detroit News, and me—are joined by Brian Smith, Cadillac exterior design director, and Tristan Murphy, Cadillac interior design manager.

What is notable about LYRIQ, even if you put aside that it is an EV, is that this is a vehicle that was a total clean-sheet design. They were creating something absolutely new, something that wasn’t a variation on a theme.

The charter was to create a vehicle that would not only show the world of electric vehicles that Cadillac has arrived, but the world that drivers live in too: This is meant to be a vehicle that not only will people like driving, but be one that they’ll be proud to be seen in.

Three of the words that Smith and Murphy use to characterize what the LYRIQ represents are performance, technology and craftsmanship.

The best of right now with the attention of detail that often seems to be lost.

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Then, for the second half of the show, McElroy, Payne and I, all jurors for the North American Car, Truck & Utility of the Year (NACTOY) awards, talk about the vehicles that we had the opportunity to drive earlier in the week, all semifinalists for the 2022 awards.

The vehicles include:

  • Audi A3 and S3
  • Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing
  • Genesis G70
  • Honda Civic
  • Mercedes S Class
  • VW Golf and GTI
  • Ford Maverick
  • Hyundai Santa Cruz
  • Nissan Frontier
  • Toyota Tundra
  • GMC HUMMER EV pickup
  • Rivian R1T
  • Ford Bronco
  • Genesis GV70
  • Hyundai Tucson
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Jeep Wagoneer & Grand Wagoneer
  • Kia Carnival
  • Nissan Pathfinder
  • VW ID.4

And you can see it all here.

Thinking About Buying a New Vehicle? Think Hard

. . .because (a) you’re going to be spending more than you might think and (b) you may be buying something that you aren’t necessarily considering

By Gary S. Vasilash

If you’re thinking about buying a new car, ute or truck—and “new” may mean “new to you,” as in “used”—then you ought to hear what Charlie Chesbrough, senor economist and senior director of industry insights for Cox Automotive has to say about the current market conditions.

As Cox Automotive encompasses a variety of businesses that know more than a little something about, as they say, the conditions on the ground—as in Kelley Blue Book and Manheim Actions—Chesbrough’s observations and understanding are grounded in what’s really happening, not some theoretically calculations.

The fundamental thing is this: Although it might seem that COVID is behind us, that everything, with a few hitches here and there, is getting back to normal, that is far from being the case with regard to the availability of some things. Things like motor vehicles.

This is because COVID helped cause a semiconductor chip shortage. In part this came from everyone working or playing from home, which led to a sudden demand for PCs and PlayStations, both of which use silicon.

Because the auto companies faced shutdowns of their factories last year, they canceled their orders with the semiconductor providers, who then readily found anxious customers who were making things like PCs and PlayStations.

So the vehicle manufacturers had to go to the end of the line.

It is also worth noting that some of the chips that go into vehicles don’t have the types of margins that chips that go into other products do, so the semiconductor manufacturers realized that they’d do well by just serving the non-automotive customers fulsomely while providing the auto manufacturers—who are famously thrifty when it comes to paying suppliers—with a reduced number of chips.

This has led to two things, Chesbrough notes:

  1. Overall reduced number of available vehicles
  2. Overall increases in the prices being charged for vehicles—new and used

While the first part of the year seemed to be improving when it came to the availability of vehicles (relatively speaking—2020 was a horrible year for sales and 2021 was an improvement on that), things have gone south since then.

Chesbrough suggests that things won’t get back to what may be considered “normal” until sometime next year (if at all).

At present, OEMs are concentrating on putting chips in vehicles that are high-ticket items, which is good for returns, but which put many consumers in a bind (unless they are high-end buyers).

There are some companies, like Ford, which are recommending that people order vehicles, something common in Europe but not a practice that is at the basis of the auto market as it has developed in the U.S., which is all about moving the metal.

Chesbrough talks to Keith Naughton of Bloomberg, Joe White of Reuters and me on the show.

In addition to which, Naughton, White and I talk about Ford’s massive investments in electric vehicle/battery manufacturing capacity in Kentucky and Tennessee—and how Michigan didn’t even make a proposal for the investments, as well as about GM’s Investor Day presentations, which were clearly designed to make Wall Street look at GM more as a “tech company” with a wide range of product in the pipeline and technology and capacity that will make money sooner rather than later.

And you can see it all

.

GM BrightDrop Announces EV600 Build

An approach to vehicle production at a fast rate: have someone else do it

By Gary S. Vasilash

General Motors is proud because in a rapidly changing industry, it shows that it can go fast.

“Getting our first electric vehicles on the streets in record time before another peak holiday shipping season is the best gift we could receive this year, especially when we consider the supply chain headwinds the world is facing right now,” said Travis Katz, BrightDrop president and CEO.

BrightDrop is the GM business that is developing products—such as electric delivery truck and associated material handling equipment—for companies like FedEx Express and Verizon.

The classification is “eLCV,” for “electric light delivery commercial vehicle.”

Katz is referring to the production of the EV600.

BrightDrop EV 600 (Image :General Motors)

From concept to development in 20 months.

Speaking of the build speed, Katz continued, “This is a strong statement to the market of how our unique operations setup, which marries the cutting-edge innovation, agility and focus of a technology startup with the scale and manufacturing might of a major automaker, can deliver real value to both customers and the planet.”

An interesting aspect of this.

The early builds of the EV600 were done for General Motors by automation supplier Kuka AG.

Perhaps that is the “unique operations setup.”

To be fair, GM will be building the EV600, the EV410 and possibly other vehicles at its CAMI Assembly Plant in Ingersoll, Ontario. The plant is currently being transformed for the production.

The first EV600 is expected to go off the line at CAMI in November 2022.

Or 13 months from now.

Euros to Make More EV Batteries

Mercedes joins Stellantis and TotalEnergies

By Gary S. Vasilash

If nothing else, you’ve got to give General Motors credit for naming the jv company it is running with LG Chem for electric vehicle battery development “Ultium,” because it sounds like something from the Marvel Universe, which isn’t an entirely bad thing when it comes to attracting younger buyers for the EVs GM will have in dealerships.

Contrast that name with a Europe-based battery company, one that had been established by Stellantis and TotalEnergies (the company that used to be simply named “Total” before it recognized the need to expand its portfolio beyond petroleum) and has now been joined by Mercedes-Benz:

Automotive Cells Company.

Hope no one stayed up too late at night trying to come up with that.

They should have had the packaging designers work on the name because it is suitably of-the-moment. (Image: ACC)

ACC is also being supported by the French, German and European authorities because they don’t want Europe to be left behind when it comes to battery tech.

The company is still young, having been established in August 2020. With the addition of Mercedes, the investment is on the order of seven billion euros. Each company has a one-third equity stake.

By 2030 it may be making 120 GWh’s worth of batteries.

Given that both Stellantis and Mercedes have aggressive EV plans, they’re going to need capacity.

Beyond the Bolt Battery Problem

Yes, it is an issue right now, but it has serious ramifications going forward

By Gary S. Vasilash

The facts of the situation is that General Motors is recalling all of the Chevrolet Bolts that the company has ever built. About 142,000. “Out of an abundance of caution.” There is a manufacturing defect in the batteries that could lead to fires. The batteries are produced for GM by LG Energy Solution.

GM is going to replace the batteries in the vehicles.

All in, the price is going to be on the order of $1.8-billion.

2022 Chevrolet Bolt EV connected to a DC fast charger during the final stage of production at the General Motors Orion Assembly Plant. (Photo by Steve Fecht for Chevrolet)

GM and LG are currently building two battery plants. But these plants are for a different type of battery—“Ultium” is the brand name—than the type of battery found in the Bolt EV and Bolt EUV. It doesn’t have a brand name.

The new GM EVs—which aren’t out yet—will  have the Ultium batteries, not the type found in the Bolt.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential problems with the Ultium battery somewhere down the road. But it does mean that there aren’t issues for those new vehicles—e.g., Cadillac Lyriq, HUMMER EV—right out of the box.

What could be a real problem for GM—no matter how well the recall is handled—is that of the perception of potential consumers.

There needs to be a sell of the whole idea of an EV. This is not easy. Everyone driving today is at least passingly familiar with pulling into a gas station. But charging is something else entirely. First of all, everyone (I know I am using this broad brush broadly, but let’s face it: we live in a transportation environment that is predicated on petroleum) knows where gas stations are. How many people know where charging stations are? (Yes, most haven’t had a need to look for them, but I have, and they aren’t easy to find, even if you know where they are.) So some people are going to be off-put by that. And there are issues like the comfort of plugging in, and the time required to charge a vehicle. (“What if it is raining?”)

These are real challenges. Non-trivial challenges.

GM now has a group of people who are going to be all the more trepidatious to get an EV that it needs to convince to buy EVs. GM wants the EV to be a mass-market vehicle, not something driven just by the rich or enthusiastic.

All OEMs—with the probable exclusion of Tesla—are pretty much faced with the challenge of convincing people about buying EVs.

GM now has a particular problem as a result of this recall.

What to Know About Hydrogen Vehicles

Unless you drive a big rig or a locomotive, there probably isn’t a whole lot you need to know

By Gary S. Vasilash

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center of the U.S. Department of Energy, “In mid-2020, there were about 43 retail stations available nationwide.” Those are retail stations where there is hydrogen refueling. The sentence went on, “mostly concentrated in California.”

The good news is that the AFDC accumulated more data on the retail hydrogen fueling infrastructure in the U.S. And what’s more, there is actually an increase in the number of stations.

But there is still that concentration in California.

The total is 49 retail stations.

Forty-eight of those are in California.

There is one in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, over in the European Union there are more stations, although the numbers from the ACEA don’t indicate whether these are retail-only or whether the number also includes private refueling stations.

When it comes to the EU Germany is almost like California.

That is, there are 83 hydrogen refueling stations there, which accounts for 66.9% of the total 124 stations in all of the EU.

All of this goes to the point that you are not likely to be rolling around in a hydrogen-powered vehicle any time soon—even if you live in California.

The infrastructure for refueling simply isn’t there.

Notes Charlie Freese, “It is a difficult infrastructure play if you have a station and are refueling one vehicle per week.”

In a record published earlier this year for the Department of Energy about plans for 111 new hydrogen refueling stations in California, “Hydrogen Fueling Stations Cost,” “Capital equipment cost estimates for 111 new fueling stations. . .varied between approximately $1,200 and $3,000 per kilogram hydrogen dispensed per day.”

According to Freese, you can think of a kilogram of hydrogen as a gallon of gasoline.

This is a fuel cell. Actually a HYDROTEC fuel cell module that contains fuel cells. (Image: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Yes, a very difficult infrastructure play.

But Freese is a proponent of hydrogen. He is the executive director of General Motors’ global fuel cell business which uses the name HYDROTEC.

HYDROTEC fuel cell modules have a variety of applications in transportation—applications that you might not expect.

That is, it has announced activities with:

  • Liebherr-Aerospace: Yes, fuel cells for aircraft
  • Wabtec: A producer of locomotives
  • Navistar: Two HYDROTEC fuel cell cubes will be used to power Navistar’s International RH Series

Freese points out that there are extensive opportunities in applications like these because there is a lot that is “known”:

Planes fly on specific routes and land at airports. Locomotive routes are literally on rails. And trucking goes from the depot to the point of delivery—and at the point of delivery (e.g., a warehouse or factory) there are likely to be pieces of material handling equipment—powered by hydrogen.

For individual drivers where one might go is not known. So there can be refueling stations that accumulate proverbial—if not actual—cobwebs.

But for commercial transport, there is the opportunity to have a calculated number of fuel users, which is an absolute advantage.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” Freese talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Lindsay Brooke of SAE’s Automotive Engineering and me on a variety of hydrogen-related subjects.

In addition to which, John, Lindsay and I talk about a variety of other subjects, including VW’s commitment to EVs, the European Commission’s tentative plan to stop sale of new vehicles powered with internal combustion engines in the region by 2035, the right to repair, and more.

Which you can see right here.