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The Age of Electric Cars Is Dawning Ahead of Schedule

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FRANKFURT — An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris.

As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines.

At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164.

Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2 percent of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5 percent. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9 percent in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin.

As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.

ImageChargers at the Tesla Design Center in California. The European Union has nearly 200,000 chargers. The United States has less than half as many.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla’s “Battery Day” event on Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight.

The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or start-up succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what’s known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range.

“We’re seeing energy density increase faster than ever before,” said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant which recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024.

Some industry experts are even more bullish. Hui Zhang, managing director in Germany of NIO, a Chinese electric carmaker with global ambitions, said he thought parity could be achieved in 2023.

Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who closely follows the industry, is more cautious. But he said: “We are already on a very accelerated timeline. If you asked anyone in 2010 whether we would have price parity by 2025, they would have said that was impossible.”

This transition will probably arrive at different times for different segments of the market. High-end electric vehicles are pretty close to parity already. The Tesla Model 3 and the gas-powered BMW 3 Series both sell for about $41,000 in the United States.

A Tesla may even be cheaper to own than a BMW because it never needs oil changes or new spark plugs and electricity is cheaper, per mile, than gasoline. Which car a customer chooses is more a matter of preference, particularly whether an owner is willing to trade the convenience of gas stations for charging points that take more time. (On the other hand, owners can also charge their Teslas at home.)

Consumers tend to focus on sticker prices, and it will take longer before unsubsidized electric cars cost as little to drive off a dealer’s lot as an economy car.

Credit…Samuel Zeller for The New York Times

The holy grail in the electric vehicle industry has been to push the cost of battery packs — the rechargeable system that stores energy — below $100 per kilowatt-hour, the standard measure of battery power. That is the point, more or less, at which propelling a vehicle with electricity will be as cheap as it is with gasoline.

Current battery packs cost around $150 to $200 per kilowatt-hour, depending on the technology. That means a battery pack costs around $20,000. But the price has dropped 80 percent since 2008, according to the United States Department of Energy.

All electric cars use lithium-ion batteries, but there are many variations on that basic chemistry, and intense competition to find the combination of materials that stores the most power for the least weight.

For traditional car companies, this is all very scary. Internal combustion engines have not changed fundamentally for decades, but battery technology is still wide open. There are even geopolitical implications. China is pouring resources into battery research, seeing the shift to electric power as a chance for companies like NIO to break into the European and someday, American, markets. In less than a decade, the Chinese battery maker CATL has become one of the world’s biggest manufacturers.

Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

The California company has been selling electric cars since 2008 and can draw on years of data to calculate how far it can safely push a battery’s performance without causing overheating or excessive wear. That knowledge allows Tesla to offer better range than competitors who have to be more careful. Tesla’s four models are the only widely available electric cars that can go more than 300 miles on a charge, according to Kelley Blue Book.

On Tuesday, Mr. Musk could unveil a technology offering 50 percent more storage per pound at lower cost, according to analysts at the Swiss bank UBS. If so, competitors could recede even further in the rearview mirror.

“The traditional car industry is still behind,” said Peter Carlsson, who ran Tesla’s supplier network in the company’s early days and is now chief executive of Northvolt, a new Swedish company that has contracts to manufacture batteries for Volkswagen and BMW.

“But,” Mr. Carlsson said, “there is a massive amount of resources going into the race to beat Tesla. A number, not all, of the big carmakers are going to catch up.”

Credit…Felix Odell for The New York Times

The traditional carmakers’ best hope to avoid oblivion will be to exploit their expertise in supply chains and mass production to churn out economical electrical cars by the millions.

A key test of the traditional automakers’ ability to survive will be Volkswagen’s new battery-powered ID.3, which will start at under €30,000, or $35,000, after subsidies and is arriving at European dealerships now. By using its global manufacturing and sales network, Volkswagen hopes to sell electric vehicles by the millions within a few years. It plans to begin selling the ID.4, an electric sport utility vehicle, in the United States next year. (ID stands for “intelligent design.”)

But there is a steep learning curve.

“We have been mass-producing internal combustion vehicles since Henry Ford. We don’t have that for battery vehicles. It’s a very new technology,” said Jürgen Fleischer, a professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in southwestern Germany whose research focuses on battery manufacturing. “The question will be how fast can we can get through this learning curve?”

Peter Rawlinson, who led design of the Tesla Model S and is now chief executive of the electric car start-up Lucid, likes to wow audiences by showing up at events dragging a rolling carry-on bag containing the company’s supercompact drive unit. Electric motor, transmission and differential in one, the unit saves space and, along with hundreds of other weight-saving tweaks, will allow the company’s Lucid Air luxury car — which the company unveiled on Sept. 9 — to travel more than 400 miles on a charge, Mr. Rawlinson said.

His point is that designers should focus on things like aerodynamic drag and weight to avoid the need for big, expensive batteries in the first place. “There is kind of a myopia,” Mr. Rawlinson said. “Everyone is talking about batteries. It’s the whole system.”

Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

When Jana Höffner bought an electric Renault Zoe in 2013, driving anywhere outside her home in Stuttgart was an adventure. Charging stations were rare, and didn’t always work. Ms. Höffner drove her Zoe to places like Norway or Sicily just to see if she could make it without having to call for a tow.

Ms. Höffner, who works in online communication for the state of Baden-Württemberg, has since traded up to a Tesla Model 3 equipped with software that guides her to the company’s own network of chargers, which can fill the battery to 80 percent capacity in about half an hour. She sounds almost nostalgic when she remembers how hard it was to recharge back in the electric-vehicle stone age.

“Now, it’s boring,” Ms. Höffner said. “You say where you want to go and the car takes care of the rest.”

The European Union has nearly 200,000 chargers, far short of the three million that will be needed when electric cars become ubiquitous, according to Transport & Environment, an advocacy group. The United States remains far behind, with less than half as many as Europe.

But the European network is already dense enough that owning and charging an electric car is “no problem,” said Ms. Höffner, who can’t charge at home and depends on public infrastructure.

Price and infrastructure are closely connected. At least in theory, people won’t need big, expensive batteries if there is a place nearby to quickly recharge. (Charging times are also dropping fast.)

Lucid’s first vehicle is a luxury car, but Mr. Rawlinson said his dream was to build an electric car attainable by the middle class. In his view, that would mean a lightweight vehicle capable of traveling 150 miles between charges.

“I want to make $25,000 car,” Mr. Rawlinson said. “That’s what is going to change the world.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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