A Tesla vehicle on January 4, 2021 in Redondo Beach, California (AFP/Patrick T. Fallon)
Driven by the authorities or by their own commitments, major car manufacturers have embarked on a sea change towards the end of combustion engines and the advent of electric cars. But to achieve their ambitious goals, they will have to overcome many obstacles.
Will there be enough lithium and other raw materials to make electric batteries? Enough charging stations? How to ensure that cars don’t cost too much for the most modest purses?
After the success of Tesla, built exclusively with electric vehicles, most of the big groups in the sector plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in the next few years to transform.
Stellantis (PSA-Fiat-Chrysler) wants to sell 100% of electric vehicles in Europe by 2030. Toyota plans to launch 30 models in this segment by the same date. General Motors aims to stop producing cars with combustion engines by 2035.
They are encouraged in this direction by the authorities.
The most recent, California, on Thursday banned the sale of traditional new cars starting in 2035.
– Guaranteed demand –
In Emden, Germany, on May 20, 2022 (AFP / DAVID HECKER)
The European Union has also started banning the sale of new gasoline, diesel or hybrid cars by 2035, while China wants at least half of new vehicles by that date to be electric, hybrid or hydrogen.
Automakers are warned, “It’s up to them to be able to prepare their inventories,” says Jessica Caldwell of the specialist firm Edmunds.
“It was even said recently that the biggest obstacles to the adoption of electric vehicles would be the acceptance by motorists and the price”, underlines the expert.
But driven by consumers increasingly sensitive to the impacts of climate change, the demand is there.
In the United States, for example, General Motors claims to have more than 150,000 pre-orders for the electric version of its Silverado pickup, which won’t be available until 2023. It takes several months for a Tesla, the industry’s top brand. .
“The question now seems more about whether they can get the materials they need,” notes Ms. Caldwell.
– “Drastic” changes –
“Governments can decide as much as they want about subsidies or new regulations for electric vehicles, we are currently facing a lack of palladium, nickel, lithium”, abounds Karl Brauer, from the specialist website iseecars.
Admittedly, the problem is largely linked to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but “nobody would have predicted the escalation of prices or the difficulty of obtaining these materials a year ago,” he recalls. Which highlights the fact that the situation “can change drastically at any time”.
Manufacturers are struggling to limit risk.
They build their own battery factories, create joint ventures with specialist manufacturers or form partnerships with mining companies.
German groups Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz even signed agreements directly with the Canadian government on Monday to consolidate their supply of rare metals.
But the market for oil remains global, recalls Brauer: as long as supply is limited, “there will always be someone who pays a little more.”
In that sense, other aspects of the transition to electric, like converting production lines, turn out to be quite easy “because they can control it,” he says.
– Aid in conditions –
Local regulations can also complicate the task, as in the United States, where a recent law conditions an allowance of $7,500 for the purchase of an electric car to certain elements, such as final assembly in North America.
The Automotive Innovation Alliance, an industry lobby in the United States, has calculated that about 70% of the 72 electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen models currently on the market could not, as they stand, claim this concession.
For Garrett Nelson, an analyst at CFRA, this new law will clearly favor Tesla, GM and Ford in the United States, at the expense of European and Asian manufacturers.
Following California’s announcement, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation also estimated in a press release that it would be “extremely complicated” to achieve the state’s goals due to “external factors”: inflation, electricity or hydrogen charging stations, supply chains, of work, availability and price of critical materials, and the continuing shortage of semiconductors.
“These are complex, interrelated, global issues that go far beyond the control (of California authorities) or the auto industry,” says the Alliance.