Automotive

Something Weird Is Still Going On In Germany


BMW’s H2R hydrogen combustion race car concept from what feels like a lifetime ago. It was actually 2004.

BMW’s H2R hydrogen combustion race car concept from what feels like a lifetime ago. It was actually 2004.
Photo: BMW

I’ve been waiting decades now for hydrogen cars to become anything but a way to convince regulators you’re going green without ever actually doing anything. I might yet be waiting longer, if a fight in Germany continues. All that and more in The Morning Shift for September 22, 2021.

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1st Gear: The EV/Hydrogen Split Is Still A Strange One

The developing debate in Germany as to whether or not hydrogen or battery-electric vehicles are the future depends on, I guess, how seriously you take the hydrogen side. You see, auto giant VW is already churning out thousands upon thousands of EVs. Relative pipsqueak BMW, however, hydrogen’s supposed leader in the country, is looking at a different production figure, as Reuters reports:

BMW is hydrogen’s biggest proponent among Germany’s automakers, charting a path to a mass-market model around 2030. The company also has one eye on shifting hydrogen policies in Europe and in China, the world’s largest car market.

The BMW brand has developed a hydrogen prototype car based on its X5 SUV, in a project already partly funded by the German government.

Jürgen Guldner, who heads up BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell car program, told Reuters the brand would build a test fleet of close to 100 cars in 2022.

“Whether this (technology) is driven by politics or demand, we will be ready with a product,” he said, adding that his team is already working to develop the next-generation vehicles. “We are on the verge of getting there and we are really convinced we will see a breakthrough in this decade,” he said.

I am not sure if what we’re seeing in this hydrogen agenda in Germany is government support for inaction with regards to electrification under the veil of hydrogen progress.

At least, that may be on the car side of things. Trucking-wise, hydrogen seems to be making bigger steps, and we can’t discount Germany’s role as Europe’s major semi truck manufacturer. From Reuters:

Hydrogen is viewed as a sure bet by the world’s biggest truckmakers, such as Daimler unit Daimler Truck, Volvo Trucks and Hyundai, because batteries are too heavy for long-distance commercial vehicles.

Yet fuel cell technology – where hydrogen passes through a catalyst, producing electricity – is for now too costly for mass-market consumer cars. Cells are complex and contain expensive materials, and although refueling is quicker than battery recharging, infrastructure is scarcer.

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So hydrogen may end up something like diesel. It’s weird, you don’t want it, you fill up with truckers, but you’re not-so-secretly convinced you’re following the one true guiding light towards efficiency and economy.

2nd Gear: Tesla is Going Back In Court For Being Racist

The auto industry is still chasing Tesla in terms of its cars, but the actual business of making cars at Tesla sounds like a shitty one. Tesla has fought tooth and nail to keep out unions, and has worked to suppress workers’ voices with arbitration agreements that bar you from going to court. Not included in that category are temp workers, which is where our story begins. From Bloomberg:

The vast majority of Tesla employees sign arbitration agreements that make it nearly impossible for them to get their day in court. But not everyone who works at Tesla is a direct employee. Some, like Diaz, are contract workers hired via staffing agencies and don’t sign arbitration agreements.

Along with racial slurs, Diaz claims co-workers told him to “go back to Africa” and drew racist caricatures in bathroom stalls and on bales of cardboard. My colleague Josh Eidelson, who covers labor issues, wrote an in-depth story on the Diaz case in April 2018.

Jury selection begins Friday and opening arguments are set for Sept. 29 before U.S. District Judge William Orrick. The proceeding will subject greater scrutiny to the culture at Tesla’s factory and the treatment of subcontracted staff who have played key roles in making the company the most valuable automaker in the world. It’s also an important case for contract workers more broadly.

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This is not Tesla’s first lawsuit over racist workplace conditions. Elon’s response last time around was pretty rough.

Tesla has an obligation to not be a completely horrible place to work, and it should see the business case for doing so if it wants to present itself to investors as a visionary and progressive company in general.

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3rd Gear: I Am In Love With This Stupid Electric Car Startup

The world of SPAC-funded EV startups is a total shitshow, but I can’t help myself but root for this new one called Electric Last Mile that’s using little Chinese electric vans. They had an announcement this morning:

Electric Last Mile Solutions, Inc. (NASDAQ: ELMS; ELMSW) (“ELMS” or “the Company”), a pure-play commercial electric vehicle (“EV”) company focused on redefining productivity for the last mile, announced today that it has received a binding purchase order for 1,000 units of its Urban Delivery vehicle from its strategic distribution partner, Randy Marion Automotive Group.

Start of production for the Urban Delivery took place on September 20 and the Company plans to ship its first units from its production facility in Mishawaka, Indiana on September 28.

“From the outset, we stated that our goal was to deliver the first commercial Class 1 EV to the U.S. market, and with the start of production this week we will achieve that milestone,” said ELMS CEO James Taylor. “This order is reflective of the work that we do with our customers and sales channel partners to understand and meet their unique business needs.”

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They are very clearly Wuling EV50s with new branding as “Urban Delivery” vehicles, which is what Randy Marion Automotive Group calls them. Randy Marion is the company selling these things to Electric Last Mile at a stunning $25,000 a pop, according to Charged Fleet, an EV fleet news website. This is funny because these Wulings start at 108,000 yuan, or about $16,000, per PushEVs.com.

4th Gear: Good Evergrande Roundup: What If WeWork Made A Car?

Edward Ongweso Jr at Vice has a roundup on the Evergrande situation, which makes for worthwhile reading. It’s a good bit of perspective on the giant company hundreds of billions of dollars in debt, with a not-yet orphaned EV branch it’s still in charge of. From Vice:

The real estate titan is saddled with as much as $300 billion in debt that it’s no longer sure it can make good on. Banks are declining new loans to buyers of its incomplete projects. Credit ratings agencies have repeatedly downgraded the enormous firm, and Chinese authorities have already told major lenders not to expect upcoming repayments.

In a page out of the WeWork playbook, Evergrande fancied itself as more than a loss-leading, debt-burdened real estate business. The company turned its health care business unit into an electric vehicle company despite never making a single car. In July, Evergrande was considering an IPO for Evergrande Spring, its bottled water business (you read that right). At the same time, Evergrande was also considering an IPO for its tourism business and an incoherent theme park featuring fairytales from across the world. Guangzhou FC, China’s most successful soccer team, is owned by Evergrande (with an Alibaba stake) for some reason.

The situation has grown so desperate for the cash-strapped firm that it demanded employees loan Evergrande money at a high interest rate in order to keep their bonuses, only to stop paying back those loans soon after. The situation has sparked protests led by home buyers waiting on unfinished homes and employees who have lost their life savings.

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Evergrande seems only slightly more scammy than the average EV startup.

5th Gear: Bloomberg Has A Good Overview Of Abandoned Chinese EV Factories

And speaking of Chinese EV startups, we also have another good roundup from Bloomberg of what the bubble actually looks like on the ground in China.

“We have too many EV firms,” Xiao Yaqing, China’s minister for industry and information technology, told reporters Sept. 13. Mergers and acquisitions will be encouraged as the market needs to be further concentrated, he said. The government is also looking at setting production limits for the EV sector, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News this month, with provinces unable to green-light new projects until surplus capacity comes online. Resources will also be channeled into a few select EV hubs.

[…]

There are some 846 registered automobile manufacturers in China, and more than 300 of them churn out new-energy cars, loosely defined as electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. The vast majority are names unrecognizable elsewhere. In 2020 alone, the country added new production capacity of around 5 million units, about four times the actual number of EVs sold in China that year. According to regulators, almost half that capacity wasn’t in use.

Bordrin, founded by former Ford executive Huang Ximing in 2016, was targeting annual output of 700,000 cars across three factories. But it ran out of money and folded before making even one. Huang didn’t reply to messages seeking comment sent via WeChat.

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It’s a nice read, and a reminder that a lot of good and bright ideas in the car world don’t work out.

Reverse: Spaghetti Western

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Neutral: What Is Your Favorite Hydrogen Concept Car That Never Came To Be?

And why is a Mazda RX-8?

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