CATL is expanding its electric car intentions. Not content with being just a supplier of batteries to other companies, it has recently begun building a network of battery swapping stations in China. Now it says it has signed a memorandum of understanding with VinFast to supply the Vietnamese company with what it calls its “CATL Intelligent Integrated Chassis.”
What exactly is a CIIC? We can’t say for sure. The company rather cryptically says it consists of “battery packs, electric motors and other components.” It is understood that those battery packs use CATL’s latest cell-to-pack technology, but details are sketchy.
What is known is that CATL and VinFast this week have signed a memorandum of understanding that will see CATL supply a complete EV chassis to the Vietnamese company. Presumably, VinFast will plunk a body on top of the CIIC, much the way Canoo can swap what it calls “top hats” onto its proprietary skateboard chassis.
Chinese media sources k.sima.com.cn and thepaper.cn report that in addition to the battery and motor, the chassis platform includes braking, steering, and power electronics components. It is said to be adjustable in length, able to house the batteries in different locations, and allow for a “removable body.” They also say CATL began building a factory for the chassis project in February and that the company reportedly filed a patent in early October that is “very similar to the skateboard chassis.” If that is so, CATL has been very quiet about its intention to develop an EV skateboard until now.
Assembler vs. Manufacturer
What is an automobile? Traditionally, it was a transportation device designed, developed, and assembled by a single manufacturer. A Ford Model T used engines and transmissions made by Ford mounted to a chassis made by Ford with doors and fenders also made by Ford. Not so long ago, drivers in the US were shocked — SHOCKED! — to discover the engines in their Buicks and Oldsmobiles were in fact manufactured by Chevrolet. They sued GM and won.
And yet, there is now a whole industry of specialty manufacturers who build cars for other companies. Magna builds the Jaguar I-Pace under contract for Jaguar. Parts suppliers make seats, dashboards, tires, windshields, brakes, and a zillion other components for the auto industry. Does anyone really know who manufactures the motors in their electric car? As long as it goes forward and backward on demand, they’re happy.
In the golden age of the American automobile, enthusiasts would spend hours swapping stories about how their car had a Muncie T4 “Rock Crusher” transmission or the special COPO dual quad carburetor setup supplied by Holley. Today? Not so much. Cars are more and more fungible goods — that is to say, one car is very much like another. The biggest distinguishing feature is the manufacturer’s logo on the hood. Many of the parts beneath the skin are found on dozens of models from a variety of car companies.
Fisker is hiring Foxconn to assemble its PEAR electric car. Foxconn is also openly soliciting customers for its own proprietary EV chassis. Ford is planning to build electric cars for its European customers based on Volkswagen’s MEB EV platform.
Many automakers worry about becoming merely assemblers of parts supplied by others. Is the only difference between a BMW EV and Mercedes EV those two garish nostrils in the grille? If you blindfolded passengers and gave them ride in each, would they be able to tell the difference? In most cases, the answer is no. A Lexus and a Nissan ride pretty much the same, as does a Tesla Model Y and a Polestar 2.
Other than headroom and cargo capacity, cars today are converging on some common denominator. They look the same, drive the same, smell the same, and sound the same. So why shouldn’t CATL extend its reach by offering an EV skateboard chassis to anyone who needs one? Mazda is one company we can think of that could benefit from access to a modern EV chassis without spending big bucks to create its own.
If the trend toward sharing EV skateboard platforms with several manufacturers lowers costs, more people can afford to drive an electric car. We are all in favor of that. It sounds like a good business opportunity for CATL to us.
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