Car bosses warn of supply chain threat to electric vehicle rollout

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The world’s largest carmakers have warned supply chain disruptions and higher raw material prices threaten the rollout of electric vehicles, even as demand for battery-powered models vastly exceeds manufacturers’ current production capacities.

Speaking at the Financial Times’ eighth Future of the Car summit this week, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk cast doubt on his company’s ability to reach its target — put in place just months ago — of delivering 20mn electric cars a year by the end of the decade, calling it an “aspiration, not a promise”. 

“We may stumble and not reach that goal,” an unusually conservative Musk told the conference. “There are some raw material constraints that we see coming, in lithium production, probably in about three years, and in cathode production,” he added.

Musk’s comments were echoed by several other industry leaders at the annual event, in contrast to past summits where executives have announced ever more ambitious electric vehicle targets.

In 2021, even as the semiconductor shortage showed few signs of abating, Mercedes-Benz boss Ola Källenius told attendees that his company would go “faster” when it came to phasing out combustion engine models and building electric alternatives.

But the tone at the summit this week was markedly more reserved. Not a single leading executive announced higher targets for electric vehicle sales, or battery production. Tesla’s closest competitor, Volkswagen, which has long aimed to overtake its rival in electric vehicle sales by 2025, played down its prospects of reaching that goal, calling it “very, very tight”.

“Many people are now, I think, a bit over-optimistic,” said VW chief executive Herbert Diess, referring to the rollout of electric vehicles worldwide.

Speaking from the back-seat of VW’s latest electric model, an emissions-free version of the 1960s camper van, he added: “We need the energy, we need the charging networks, we need the infrastructure, for sure, we need the cars, but we also need the batteries and the raw materials.”

Industry analysts, Diess said, were not taking the “amount of effort which has to go in to make this change happen seriously enough”.

The warnings by the top two electric vehicle producers came as consumers’ appetite for battery-powered vehicles continues to exceed the sector’s expectations.

After VW, which plans to sell roughly 700,000 electric vehicles in 2022, revealed it has sold out of battery models in the US and Europe for the rest of the year, Mercedes-Benz’s Källenius told the summit that this was “largely true for us as well”. 

Tesla’s Musk said he thought “zero about demand generation and a lot about production and engineering and supply chain”, adding that he would not rule out buying a mining company to secure the raw materials necessary to increase electric vehicle manufacturing.

Persistent bottlenecks in the supplies of crucial raw materials for batteries have tempered analysts’ expectations for the electric car industry as a whole.

Researchers at Wells Fargo who this week examined the raw material prices for components in a Tesla Model Y found “several ‘surprises’ that challenge the notion of imminent [battery electric vehicle] adoption”.

Tesla boss Elon Musk being interviewed at the FT’s Future of the Car summit this week © Em Fitzgerald/FT

“The rise of battery raw materials costs has delayed [battery electric vehicle] cost parity to [internal combustion engines] by at least a decade,” the bank warned, referring to the moment at which emissions-free vehicles become as cheap as petrol or diesel equivalents.

As a result, Wells Fargo analysts downgraded General Motors and Ford, as the US companies would “likely be forced to sell money-losing compliance [battery electric vehicles]”, to meet ever-stricter regulatory targets.

Their assessment was matched by Renault chief executive Luca de Meo, who told the FT conference that supply chain crises meant “the game has changed” and that carmakers “have to play by new rules”, which would make them reliant on the efforts of energy and mining companies.

He cautioned that the French group might not achieve cost parity for mid-range models by 2025, and that this could damp demand for electric cars. “We know that the purchasing power [of] people in many regions of the world will not necessarily increase,” De Meo said.

At the same time, generous subsidies for purchasers of electric cars in China will be phased out by the end of the year, making it harder for those on low incomes to switch.

Rival carmaker Stellantis warned batteries would become scarce in just two or three years’ time, complicating the rollout of affordable electric vehicles.

“The speed at which everybody is now building manufacturing capacities for batteries is possibly on the edge to be able to support the fast-changing markets in which we are operating,” said Stellantis chief executive Carlos Tavares.

“We are not addressing this transformation on a 360-degree strategic approach,” he added. “Everybody is going to pour EV vehicles on the market. So what’s next? Where is the clean energy? Where is the charging infrastructure? Where are the raw materials?”

To help with the commodities crunch, Mercedes’ Källenius called for Europe to mimic the raw materials procurement strategies implemented by China and the US and develop “more bilateral trade agreements . . . beyond maybe the three traditional regions”.

The EU, he said, should look at inking deals with mineral-rich countries such as Australia and India as well as South American states, and create closer relationships with “economies that may have some of those raw materials that we need for electrification”.

But most executives agreed the industry’s woes would not fade fast.

“[This is] totally different from what I used to say one year before, that you know, we are improving, we are getting better, one day we will be perfect,” said Nissan’s chief operating officer Ashwani Gupta.

“For me today, the supply chain crisis is the new normal.”



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