Premium Vehicle Perspective: Depends Where You Look

When looking at charts developed by French auto analyst firm Inovev of the sales of premium vehicles in the U.S., China and Europe for the first 11 months of 2021, there are a few surprises.

As in sales of 2 million in the U.S., 3 million in China and 2.5 million in Europe.

It’s not surprising that the number is higher in China than in the other two regions. After all, it has a population of 1.4 billion.

It is a little surprising that the numbers break as they do, given that the population in Europe is 748 million, which is about half of that in China and slightly more than twice the population in the U.S. The 500K increments seem strange given that.

Clearly wealth is not evenly distributed, with the U.S. having a higher proportion of its population capable of affording a premium vehicle.

But the surprising thing is the relative sales of the premium brands in the three markets.

The five three brands in the U.S. during this period are BMW, Lexus, Tesla, Mercedes and Audi. Then there is a slight falloff in numbers.

The top five brands in China are BMW, Mercedes, Audi, then a big decline (Audi is at over 600,000 units) to Tesla (at 240,000) and Cadillac.

In Europe it is BMW, Mercedes, Audi, then a big drop to Volvo (Audi: >500K; Volvo: 245K) and Tesla.

While there is consistency with BMW, Mercedes and Audi, and while Tesla is certainly on a roll, Lexus is something of an outlier. It doesn’t show up at all in the listing of sales in China and in Europe it is in ninth position, behind Lancia and just ahead of Jaguar, all of which are well below 100,000 units.

Lancia doesn’t show up at all in the sales tracking for the U.S. and China, and in the U.S. Jag is in last place and it is third from last in China.

Seems as though the German brands are consistently solid around the world while for everyone else it is somewhat random.

Elon Musk: Rocket Man

And then there’s that car business. . .

By Gary S. Vasilash

Time has named Elon Musk 2021 Person of the Year.

Presumably if nothing else it will help the publication move some issues as Tesla fanfolk snap up copies with their hero on the cover.

A double win.

One of the interesting things about the extensive story about the selection in the magazine—positive but not hagiography—is that it is primarily a story about Musk and SpaceX.

This is not to say that the terrestrial transportation products are completely overlooked, but in the context of a classic ink-on-paper newspaper it could be said that the coverage of the cars is below the fold. Well below the fold.

And an exchange quoted in the piece puts this in context:

“Musk’s toddler, X Æ A-Xii (pronounced ‘X’), has recently started saying car, to which his father responds, ‘Rocket!’”

Innovation, Static Practices, & How Tesla Has Disrupted the Industry

There are certain things that traditional OEMs care about that Elon Musk and his team will get to—after they accomplish the important things

By Gary S. Vasilash

In 1997 a book by Clayton Christensen was published that had a thesis that was not something that many people in companies really wanted to accept:

It essentially says that there are incumbent companies—think of the long-in-business vehicle manufacturers—who basically provide incremental improvements to their products. Things get better. Just a little bit better. Other companies are doing the same thing, so a given company really doesn’t need to concern itself with doing anything but slightly adjusting the dial. They may improve their existing processes to make their production more efficient, the production of their existing (though improved to some degree) product.

Then a new entrant comes into the field. A new entrant that can pretty much be ignored. (Or so it seems.) That’s because they’re in a space that isn’t particularly valuable (e.g., low margin). Or they provide a product that underperforms the existing. Or they are providing a product that no one has asked for.

The concept, and the title of the book: The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Actually, the one who has a dilemma is the one who isn’t innovating but trying to continue the existence of the status quo.

No one ever got fired to trying to improve margins on an existing product, so that’s pretty much what executives do: invest in improving the existing product. After all, there are all of those sunk costs in equipment and process and knowhow that have to be taken into account.

But then, not immediately, but eventually, the product that could otherwise be ignored, is transformed such that it becomes something to be reckoned with.

Case in point: Tesla.

When it introduced the Roadster in 2008, a essentially a Lotus Elise with an array of lithium-ion batteries that were otherwise found powering laptop computers back then, a two seater that had a price of over $100,000, Tesla was pretty much considered to be a company that was a niche of niche: after all, roadsters don’t have a whole lot of demand, and in 2008 a roadster with an electric powertrain was simply ridiculous.

As time went on, the incumbents looked at what Tesla was doing and didn’t think much. Yes, the Model S may have had remarkable performance, but what about the build? The Model X had doors that were visually impressive but functionally not up to snuff. The Model 3 was impressive, but as everyone knew, Tesla wasn’t profitable, so anyone could build unprofitable vehicles. The Model Y had interior fits that were not the sort of thing that one would expect from a vehicle with its price point.

But also as time went on, more and more OEMs began to realize that not only was Tesla immensely popular among consumers in a way that was beyond the wildest dreams of anyone in the car industry, but that it wasn’t going away.

So they began to roll out an EV here and an EV there, all of which were claimed—publicly or implicitly—to be “Tesla fighters.”

Seemingly that hasn’t worked out.

The innovator’s dilemma in action.

Jeff Stout is executive director for Yanfeng Automotive Interiors and a student of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” Stout joins “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Craig Cole of Roadshow by CNET and me in a spirted discussion that largely focuses on what Tesla does and doesn’t do, which leads to a variety of related subjects including whether electric vehicles will become the dominant type on the roads and whether autonomous vehicles are going to occur in a meaningful way in a bounded amount of time.

And you can see it all here.

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?

Let Musk Put You in the Driver’s Seat

With its Hertz deal, Tesla continues to defy us skeptics

By Todd Lassa

Contributor

Electric cars are the future. No matter how attracted you are to the charms of the internal combustion engine, it should be obvious by now we need to stop burning fossil fuels ASAP and begin to try and reduce greenhouse gases, if it’s not already too late.

When the transition finally comes, when internal combustion engines are powering only a few collectible cars out for a cruise on warm summer days – and two or three of them may be mine, I’m afraid – it will be right and appropriate to celebrate Tesla’s contribution to the shift. Full disclosure here: I’ve long been a Tesla skeptic, not so much because of the cars, which are undeniably state-of-the-art in their battery chemistry (until solid-state batteries become the order of the day), but mostly because of its CEO, Elon Musk.

(Image: Tesla)

From the beginning, I was skeptical about Telsa’s ability to make money. Most of the few profitable quarters since Tesla’s 2012 IPO were from selling zero-emissions vehicle credits in California to automakers whose sales of vehicles were anything but zero-emissions.

Then there’s Musk’s techie hucksterism and his faked astonishment at the value of the company’s shares. He’s long been known for unveiling new products with ridiculously short development schedules. The vehicle is introduced. The stock goes up. And in many cases, the vehicle is nowhere to be seen after it has left the stage. The Cybertruck has been delayed again and again. As has the Roadster. No matter, it seems. The Tesla faithful will wait.

Were it a brand from Detroit or Stuttgart, these delays would be derided. Not so for Musk.

When Hertz announced in October that it has signed a contract to buy 100,000 Tesla Model 3 EVs, one-fifth of its rental fleet, conventional auto business wisdom might have been, “why would Musk do that?”

“Heritage” automakers historically relied on rental fleets to take as much as one-quarter of the production of their mainstream compact and midsize models. A Nissan Sentra sold to a retail customer will make a razor-thin profit for both the automaker and the dealer – and even less when leased to Hertz or Enterprise and then sold after a couple of years at another huge discount, damaging resale values even more for those who drive these models every day. 

Many of the mainstream automakers have been talking for years about reducing their rental fleet business because of the negative effect those sales had on residual values. But when the Hertz-Tesla deal was announced, Tesla Inc.’s shares shot up by 9.6% to make it the latest tech firm to top $1-trillion in market cap. Musk may soon pass Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as the world’s wealthiest human. As I write this, one share is worth $1,096.02, or $1.1 trillion in market cap. GM is at $79.1 billion and Ford Motor is worth $68.53 billion.

Bloomberg News explains that Hertz will pay “full price” for the Teslas, worth $4.2 billion in revenue to the automaker. Citing a Hertz spokeswoman, the report says the Model 3 rental rates will be “similar” to other luxury car rates, and charging will be covered by the rental company through January of next year. Tesla will deliver all 100,000 Model 3s within the next 14 months.

What is interesting about the Hertz-Tesla deal is another individual: Hertz acting CEO Mark Fields. Fields had been the CEO of Ford, but “retired” from the company in 2017. Fields is 60. One of the rumored reasons why he departed Dearborn was because he wasn’t doing enough to message to Wall Street the OEM’s mobility vision.

Seems that what he’s contributed to Tesla’s valuation underscores his mobility vision.

What worries me about the Hertz-Tesla arrangement is this detail, also from the Bloomberg News report: You will be able to re-load your smartphone with the Hertz app, for on-demand access to Supercharger credits and to the car’s Autopilot system.

Autopilot is Tesla’s “autonomous driving” system, which Musk has promoted as the car being able to drive itself. It is not self-driving, and by most accounts it’s less sophisticated than the GMC Super Cruise commercials you might have seen on television, lately with the Queen hand-claps.

In case you rent a Tesla from Hertz and choose to download the Autopilot system on your smartphone, I’m going to give you a piece of advice I would never otherwise give for a rental car: You might want to take the supplemental insurance from Hertz.

Lucid Describes Robust Sensor Suite

Although the folks at Lucid Group probably don’t think about Elon all that often. . .

By Gary S. Vasilash

Lucid Group, which is producing its Lucid Air electric vehicles in its brand-new plant in Casa Grande, AZ, put Tesla in second place in the range department as it got a 520-mile range rating from the EPA, and the Model S Long Range is 412 miles.

(To be sure, 412 miles is nothing to sniff at, as it is the sort of thing that most OEMs would give up an engine plant to achieve.)

And now there is another numeric–and arguably functional–difference.

Elon Musk is famously sensor thrifty, as Tesla models dependi on cameras and ultrasonic sensors (it had been using radar, but evidently that went away earlier this year). Which make the nomenclature “Full Self-Driving” and “Autopilot” all the more troubling for those who actually think about the implications of those names.

Lucid announced the details of its “DreamDrive” advanced driver assistance systems, the base and Pro versions (Pro is standard on Lucid Air Dream Edition and Lucid Air Grand Touring, so the “dream” in the name goes to the model, not some sort of suggestion that one can sleep behind the wheel).

Lucid DreamDrive sensor suite provides a comprehensive scope. (Image: Lucid)

The system can utilize as many as 32 sensors, including 14 visible-light cameras, five radar units, four surround view cameras, ultrasonic sensors throughout the vehicle exterior, and, for DreamDrive Pro, solid-state lidar.

Of course, sensors are only part of an ADAS system. Processing capability is essential.

Lucid is using its proprietary “Ethernet Ring” system, which is a high-speed data network for four computer gateways to communicate at gigabit speeds so that the processors can assure that the sensor input gets translated into the steering, braking and accelerating functions as required.

When it comes to driver assistance, the more support—and sensors—the better.

Tesla’s approach notwithstanding.

Oktobertfest 2021 Was Canceled. The Auto Show Wasn’t

An inside look at IAA Mobility. Yes, the German auto show

By Gary S. Vasilash

The event formerly—for almost 70 years—known as “the Frankfurt Motor Show” is no more, as this year the event is officially titled “IAA Mobility,” and it moved about four hours southeast by car to Munich.

According to the organizers, the thesis of the event is “Mobility is the foundation for freedom, prosperity, and encounters. We face new challenges daily, such as urbanization, climate change, and digitization. But instead of borders, we recognize the call for action. It is up to us to go new ways, ask questions, and find answers.”

Which doesn’t sound like, well, an auto show as they have long existed.

Concept Mercedes-Maybach EQS: Do the 1% like garish grilles on EVs? (Image: Mercedes)

So to get some insights on the event, on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” “Autoline’s” John McElroy and Chris Paukert of Roadshow by CNET, both of whom were at the media days of IAA Mobility, talk with me about what they saw, the vehicles that they found to be of interest. (I wasn’t there.)

One interesting observation that they make is that while there were certainly plenty of introductions by the German car companies—like the Concept Mercedes-Maybach EQS, an electric vehicle that is for, well, the Maybach set; the BMW i Vision Circular, which McElroy points out has a clever approach to the traditional kidney grille, as it basically fills the front end in tasteful matter, not something garishly slapped on the nose; and the Volkswagen ID.Life, a small city car that Paukert notes is unlikely to be able to ever come to the U.S. due to the homologation requirements—the footprint of the show was far different than that of the Frankfurt venue.

In addition to which, we talk about the speed with which Tesla makes changes to its systems (e.g., electrical architecture) and whether traditional OEMs have the capability to catching up, whether those traditional OEMs should combine their mainstream powertrain operations into an independent standalone company and take the savings from the elimination of the cost of their individual ops to spend on things like electrification, and more.

All of which you can see here.

Safer Is Better

Technologies that are beneficial when you’re behind the wheel or simply a rider

By Gary S. Vasilash

One of the factors of an electric vehicle that is often overlooked—unless you happen to be a first responder—is that when there is an accident and the vehicle needs to be quickly accessed, said vehicle can be “hot”—not (necessarily) a battery fire—but as regards the electrical current that is running through the vehicle.

Device is pyrotechnically actuated to severe the high-voltage line in an EV should there be an accident. (Image: Joyson Safety Systems)

So to address this potential hazard, Joyson Safety Systems developed a pyrotechnic device that is triggered by a vehicle’s ECU in the event of an accident and cuts the electric high voltage connection within a matter of milliseconds.

This is just one of the clever products that has been developed by Joyson. Some of these devices are in use on vehicles right now (e.g., Tesla put that high voltage electric line cutter into vehicles in 2017; the system that monitors whether a driver is paying attention when GM’s Super Cruise is activated is a Joyson development, as well).

So to discuss these and other developments, on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” we are joined by Jason Lisseman, vice president, Global Product Line, Integrated Safety Systems, Joyson Safety Systems. Lisseman talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Bengt Halvorson of Green Car Reports, and me.

One of the more interesting—and unusual, though absolutely useful—developments Lisseman describes is a sensor that detects and classifies the air quality within a vehicle.  As he explains, as there are shared, autonomous vehicles, it may be that whomever was in the vehicle before you was rather, um, fragrant, and so having a sensor that will be able to make a determination that the interior is odiferous and need some attention before other passengers climb in can make a big difference.

In addition, McElroy, Halvorson and I discuss a variety of other issues, including the GM battery problem with the Bolts, public charging issues and much more.

Which you can see right here.

Why 2030 Isn’t Going to Be All That Different from 2020

Yes, there will be more electric vehicles. But not all EVs. So internal combustion engines need improvement.

By Gary S. Vasilash

Bosch, Sujit Jain, president, Powertrain Solutions for Passenger Cars, Commercial & Off-Road, and Electric Vehicles at the company’s North American operations, points out, has been advancing—and producing—technologies for the auto industry essentially for as long as there has been an auto industry.

And today isn’t any different.

The company is not only making massive investments for developing and utilizing Industry 4.0 capabilities, but it is investing heavily in the development and production of everything from microprocessors and fuel cells in order to advance the functionalities and performance in the auto industry.

It is committed to the electrification of vehicles, whether this makes the form of hybrids, full battery electrics or fuel cell powered vehicles.

But while Jain says company projections have it that the number of battery electric vehicles in the U.S. will grow from about 2% of the market in 2020 to 30% by 2030, that still leaves 70%, the large percentage of being combustion engines. Yes, they may be hybrids, but there is still gasoline or diesel being burned.

So one of the things that Jain and his colleagues are doing is developing the ways and means to increase the efficiency of those engines, both in terms of performance and emissions reduction.

Some of the things that they are pursing, Jain says on this edition of “Autoline After Hours,” include synthetic fuels, electrically heated catalysts to reduce cold-start emissions, and hydrogen fuel injection (i.e., instead of a hydrogen fuel cell, this would be a combustion engine running on hydrogen).

Jain talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Kelsey Mays of Cars.com, and me on this show.

After Jain’s segment, the three of us talk about a variety of subjects, including former Nikola head Trevor Milton being charged with three counts of criminal fraud related to the company he founded; Tesla’s Q2 financials ($1.14-billion in GAAP net income), the possible consequences of it opening up its charging network to other brands, and the move from upscale-shopping districts for its stores and galleries to lower-end real estate; Magna’s growth and technological breadth; and more.

And you can see it all here.

Tesla Q2 ‘21

If it hadn’t last $2-million on Bitcoin, the number would have been bigger

By Gary S. Vasilash

A few things from Tesla Q2 numbers

Consider this:

Models S/X production numbers were:

  • Q2 2020:      6,326
  • Q3 2020:      16,992
  • Q4 2020:      16,097
  • Q1 2021:      0
  • Q2 2021:      2,340

Were they not electric vehicles, the phrase “running out of gas” comes to mind.

To be fair to the people in the Tesla plants, for the Models 3/Y:

  • Q1 2021:      180,338
  • Q2 2021:      204,084

So they’re certainly busy.

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Here’s an interesting understatement:

“Solving full autonomy is a difficult engineering challenge in which we continue to believe can only be solved through the collection of large, real-world datasets and cutting edge AI.”

The emphasis on the dataset comes from the more than one-million Teslas the company is collecting data from.

However, there are plenty of companies that believe that in addition to the critical datasets there is a need for a sensor suite on the vehicles in order to assure that the real world is discerned by the vehicle in real time.

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The company also stated in its report to shareholders, “Public sentiment and support for electric vehicles seems to be at a never-before-seen inflection point. We continue to work hard to drive down costs and increase our rate of production to make electric vehicles accessible to as many people as possible.”

Presumably much of this growing support among the public is predicated on the availability of EVs from OEMs other than Tesla. Vehicles like the Audi e-tron and the Mustang Mach-E.

That last phrase—“accessible to as many people as possible”—seems to echo what Mary Barra has been saying for some time.  At the Aspen Ideas Festival in June Barra said, “As we move to an all-electric, zero-emissions future, it is on us to lead positive change and implement inclusive solutions that bring everyone along, especially our employees and communities.”

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So here’s a question: Is it possible that its Q2 net income of $1.1-billion, its largest-ever quarterly profit, notwithstanding, Tesla is coming from behind for a change?

Behind in terms of the development of automated driving, as it tries not to use an array of sensors.

Behind in terms of having vehicles that come at a price point that are more affordable?

As for the first, the need for things like LiDAR seem clear.

As for the second, time will tell whether companies like Volkswagen and GM are truly going to give Tesla a run for its money on the closer-to-entry end of the EV market.