THE SMOKE FROM A DISTANT FIRE.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018 at 12:55PM
Editor

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. As this business careens toward The Future, it’s very clear to me that the autonomous/AI transformation of this industry is a long, long way away, no matter what the zealots at the participating companies say. The black clouds gathering on the horizon are there for all to see, and the hedging has begun in earnest. Why? Because the headlong rush into autonomous vehicles is a bet on the come that few companies are going to benefit from, and the notion that an entire industry is out over its skis is quickly gaining favor. 

This perspective is anathema to the companies that are throwing billions up against the wall to see what sticks toward the autonomous movement, however, because many of the top executives at these companies have convinced themselves that it looks like the wave of the future, so they desperately want to get out front of it for fear of being left behind. But the question has to be asked, out front of what exactly?

Even under the most optimistic circumstances, autonomous technology will have very limited applications. Commercial usage where repetitive tasks and routes can be exploited will be the obvious first wave of this technology, and just may be the only application for a long time to come. As for mainstream consumers, the idea that a switch will be flipped and we’ll all be blissfully transported to our myriad destinations in a stupor? Well, the term “wildly optimistic” only begins to cover it.

This march to transformational technology hasn’t reached “Fool’s Errand” status as of yet, but it is definitely mired in technology for technology’s sake, and to what end is highly questionable at this juncture. Some of the companies betting billions on autonomous technology are going to get caught out, there’s just no way of getting around it. And the companies with the wherewithal to hedge their bets and keep both feet in separate transportation disciplines – the what's now and the what's next – are the ones that will survive, because this just in: The New Frontier of automotive technology has to go through electrification first, and even our highly-touted Electric Future is filled with burgeoning problems and questions of its own.  

Just this week Audi unveiled its first production all-electric vehicle, the "e-tron" SUV, which will arrive in this market next spring. (Audi’s lower-case naming regimen is so tedious at this point that we can barely stand it so we're not going to do it, but please go to “On the Table” if you want to see it. -WG)

At first blush, the E-Tron seems competent and somewhat technically sophisticated, but a passage in the press release stood out to me as a clear warning that electrification on a mass scale is going to be fraught with problems. To wit: 

“For charging on the go, the e-tron will be supported by a nationwide charging network, “Powered by Electrify America.” By July 2019, this network will include nearly 500 fast-charging sites complete or under development throughout 40 states and 17 metro areas. Offering advanced charging, Electrify America’s chargers are capable of delivering up to 350kW. With the purchase of the Audi e-tron, customers will receive 1,000 kWh of charging at Electrify America sites over four years of ownership.”

Sounds all well and good, right? Not so fast. Do you realize how pathetic the reality of “nearly 500 fast-charging sites” is in this vast country? And 17 metro areas over 40 states? That’s not even a teardrop in a raging river. But to put a finer point on all of this, this fully electric Audi SUV is just the beginning of a full-on electrification onslaught from the Volkswagen Group. It plans on building around 10 million electric vehicles – 27 different models across its four group brands – based on its new modular MEB platform by the end of 2022. And remember, that’s from just one manufacturer. The others are going to weigh-in in a big way too. 

To say this nation isn’t ready for this transformation to electrification is an understatement. The infrastructure just isn’t there, no matter how optimistic the projections are for charging stations coming online. For instance, have you been to a large metropolitan airport lately? Have you seen the limited number of chargers available? Can you envision a whole floor of your airport's parking structure given over to charging stations? Yeah, I didn’t think so. But then again this is just one dimension of this “mass electrification” impetus that has to be dealt with.

The other? Widespread consumer acceptance of fully-electric vehicles is another issue altogether. I’m not talking about the early adopters here, because those people don’t have to be convinced; they’ve already bought in all the way. But what about the rest of the automotive shoppers out there in ConsumerVille? What about the people who make real monthly payments on vehicles they need and/or want? Do you think the notion of fully-electric vehicles will be a slam dunk to these consumers? Think again, because if that were the case the Chevrolet Bolt would be flying off the lots as Chevrolet’s top seller just this side of the Silverado pickup. And though the Bolt is an impressive, well-engineered vehicle and is doing fairly well of late, it’s not even close to that kind of retail acceptance. (And the same goes for the VW e-Golf too.)

And I haven’t even gotten to the cost of these BEV machines. The announced prices for Audi’s new E-Tron SUV are, ahem, impressive. The E-Tron is available in three trim levels: Premium Plus ($74,800), Prestige ($81,800) and First Edition ($86,700). And remember, this is for an Audi Q5-sized SUV. And with government incentives receding into the woodwork, do you really think consumers are going to rush in to go fully-electric? Let’s just say that I am highly skeptical. The marketing and advertising of fully-electric vehicles is going to be nothing short of the biggest single challenge facing automotive marketers in the coming years.

So here we are. Before this business can get its autonomy on, it’s going to have to get its electrification on. But before it can get its electrification on, this business has to deal with the fact that the vast majority of the cars and trucks being sold over the next ten years will be traditional, ICE-powered vehicles. 

Maybe those black clouds off to the horizon aren’t clouds after all. Instead, maybe it’s the smoke from a distant fire that’s threatening to consume everything in this industry’s path.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

Article originally appeared on Autoextremist.com ~ the bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high octane truth... (http://www.autoextremist.com/).
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