European car makers' profits threatened in electrification race

Slower global demand for cars, high manufacturing costs and looming fines put pressure on established car brands.

    By next year, carbon dioxide emissions for 95 percent of cars must be cut to 95 grammes per kilometre from the current 120.5 gramme average [File: Martial Trezzini/EPA-EFE]
    By next year, carbon dioxide emissions for 95 percent of cars must be cut to 95 grammes per kilometre from the current 120.5 gramme average [File: Martial Trezzini/EPA-EFE]

    Time is running out for European carmakers, which have waited until the last minute to try to meet ambitious European Union emissions targets and face billions in fines if they fail to comply.

    Manufacturers from PSA Group to Volkswagen will use this week's Frankfurt car show to reveal the new models and strategies they hope can slash carbon dioxide emissions within months.

    But it is a challenge fraught with danger, as the cost of pushing pricey technology on unconvinced consumers could hammer profits in an industry already suffering a downturn in sales.

    "You have cars that cost an extra 10,000 euros to build, fleet-emissions targets requiring a certain sales volume and consumers who may or may not want them," said one PSA executive.

    "All the ingredients are there for a powerful explosive."

    By next year, CO2 must be cut to 95 grammes per kilometre for 95 percent of cars from the current 120.5g average - a figure that has risen of late as consumers spurn fuel-efficient types of diesel and embrace SUVs. All new cars in the EU must be compliant in 2021.

    Another 37.5 percent cut in carbon dioxide fumes is required between 2021 and 2030 in addition to the 40 percent cut in emissions between 2007 and 2021.

    The timing could hardly be worse, with the world's main car markets in decline and the sector braced for a chaotic British exit from the EU as well as a protracted US-China trade war.

    The industry has long since given up pushing for the goals to be relaxed - a political impossibility underlined by a resurgent climate protest movement that has added the Frankfurt show to its target list.

    Volkswagen's chief executive, Herbert Diess, said the regulatory crunch and growing support for green causes prove that his company's 80 billion euro ($88bn) bet on becoming the world's largest manufacturer of electric cars is right.

    "Even Toyota and some other competitors, which were slow to bring EV's, they are now also betting on electric. So we are right," Diess said.

    New electric cars wheeled out at the show on Tuesday include PSA Group's Opel Corsa-e mini and the ID.3 compact from Volkswagen. The German carmaker is also making hybrid power standard-issue in its Golf bestseller.

    The show is also seized upon by activist groups. Greenpeace on Tuesday inflated a 1,400 cubic metre black balloon emblazoned with the word CO2 from the outsize exhaust pipes of a monster truck to protest the car industry's reliance on combustion engines.

    Fiat Chrysler, which lacks adequate green technology, has agreed to pay Tesla hundreds of millions of euros to pool emissions scores with its electric cars and escape penalties. 

    Herbert Diess - CEO volkswagen
    Herbert Diess, chief executive officer of Volkswagen AG (VW) unveiled the VW ID.3 electric car in the run-up to the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany [Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg]

    Crunch time

    For years, image-conscious mass carmakers have placed electrified models at the centre of their show stands but near the margins of their commercial offerings. Only now will they be forced to sell them in large numbers, challenging profitability.

    To meet the targets, sales of electric cars would need to triple to six percent of the market by 2021, and rechargeable hybrids surge fivefold to a five-percent market share, German engineering firm FEV Consulting estimates.

    Fines of 95 euros ($105) per car, per excess gramme of CO2, quickly add up to hundreds of millions of euros.

    "Market acceptance of a lot of this tech and exactly what people are willing to pay remains very, very unclear," said Max Warburton, an analyst at brokerage Sanford C Bernstein, who predicts that carmakers will lean on heavily discounted sales to fleet customers and even their own employees.

    Rather than incur fines that could total 25 billion euros ($28bn) in 2021 if current lineups were left unchanged, carmakers are engaged in a huge product overhaul likely to wipe more than half that amount from combined profits, Bernstein projects.

    Many electrified offerings are arriving just in time - or in many cases too late - for deliveries to begin in January when less efficient models will also become more scarce.

    Hard on the heels of VW's electric ID.3, the Golf 8 to be unveiled next month heralds a mass deployment of 48-volt hybrid technology at the very heart of Europe's car market.

    Such mild hybrids add less cost, starting at 500 euros ($552) per car, but bring more modest emissions cuts than plug-in hybrids or pure electrics costing an extra 5,000-10,000 euros ($5,522-$11,045) by comparison with an equivalent gasoline model.

    Model cull

    French carmakers face a bigger hit to margins than German rivals, analysts say, because they lack significant US and Chinese earnings to soften the blow.

    Renault, reliant on its ageing Zoe electric car, is rushing to add hybrid versions of its Clio and Captur subcompacts now expected in the second quarter of 2020.

    PSA is counting on pricier plug-ins and electric versions of its DS3, Peugeot 208 and Opel Corsa to claim seven percent of its total sales.

    Industry executives expect the cull to be replicated by other carmakers, hitting European automotive jobs already threatened by the shift to electrification.

    "During the year we're likely to see models dropped and some layoffs," said Georgeric Legros, Paris-based director at consulting firm AlixPartners.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency