Isn’t it great to hear auto execs talk about electric cars these days? It’s so encouraging to hear how their companies are “all in” on the EV revolution, and how much it will benefit our grandchildren. Why, just last week, here’s what Audi CEO Markus Duesmann had to say: “E-mobility is by far the most efficient way to defossilize. This is why we are expanding our portfolio to over 20 models by 2026.”
Glad to hear it! But…wait a minute. We seem to recall an Audi CEO named Markus Duesmann who said, in July 2020, that ICE vehicles “will be alive for a very long time. This is why we continue to invest massively in the development of combustion engines.”
Is this the same Herr Duesmann? We’re pretty sure it is. Isn’t it unusual for an exec to make two such seemingly contradictory statements in the space of two years?
Not at all. Here’s what Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares had to say at a recent press event: “I am very confident, I am trying not to be arrogant, just confident of the fact that we are going to catch up in the next couple of years with Tesla and it’s going to be a very healthy competition. Very good for the consumer, by the way.”
Three months ago, in December, he was singing a much sadder song, telling Reuters that “external pressure” [from government regulators, or from Tesla?] on automakers to accelerate the shift to EVs was a threat to jobs, and that the costs of the transition to EVs would be “beyond the limits” of what the auto industry can sustain. “What has been decided is to impose on the automotive industry electrification that brings 50% additional costs against a conventional vehicle,” he said. “There is no way we can transfer 50% of additional costs to the final consumer because most parts of the middle class will not be able to pay.”
Why do execs jump from one side of the argument to the other? Can’t they make up their minds? The cynical explanation is that they deliver different messages for different audiences. When they speak to left-leaning media, they’re full of praise for electric vehicles, renewable energy and grandchildren. When they address shareholders (who fear lower profit margins) or labor union reps (who fear job losses), they assure their listeners that they’ll slow-walk the scary transition to EVs, and keep those profitable ICEs alive as long as they can. And remarks about “jobs” and “the middle class” are clearly aimed at politicians — Mr. Tavares’s lament could be read as an appeal for government subsidies.
There’s also a more optimistic possibility: these leaders are changing their minds in response to changing conditions. They read the news. Popular electric cars are sold out for years to come, Tesla is delivering high-performance EVs in the heart of Europe’s auto industry (and earning healthy profits), and the Western world’s oil addiction is financing a murderous war, also in the heart of Europe. The handwriting is all over the wall. If Duesmann, Tavares et al are sincere about their conversions, they deserve praise, and support.
It’s not just auto execs who put on their flip-flops when the weather changes. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a long-time bogeyman for electric car enthusiasts, now claims to have seen the electric light.
In 2018, Ford’s government cancelled Ontario’s EV rebate program, and scrapped a cap-and-trade alliance with Quebec and California, which was bringing in $2 billion each year to fund EV subsidies and charging infrastructure. In 2019, he had EV chargers removed from transit lots, and cancelled other green energy projects.
In November 2021, he changed his tune: “We’re going to be the number one manufacturer of electric battery operated cars in North America. We’re not only going to manufacture the batteries here, but also manufacture the cars.
Ford has made it pretty clear that his polarity reversal has to do with an election that’s coming up in June. “Before the election, I didn’t believe in giving millionaires rebates on…$100,000 Tesla cars. Nothing against Tesla, they’re gorgeous cars [but] I just didn’t believe in it. Let’s see how the market dictates. We’re putting billions and billions of dollars into the electric vehicle market, into companies.”
That may sound encouraging, as far as it goes, but it’s important to remember that politicians operate in a different world from auto industry execs. Once they’re re-elected, they can, and often do, forget about they promises they made during the campaign. Ford, the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative (aka Tory) party, will be facing opponents from the more left-leaning New Democratic and Liberal parties, among others, which seem more likely to prove champions of electrification.