Volkswagen PHEV, image courtesy of Volkswagen

Jim Farley & Mary Barra Discuss Their Hybrid & Plug-in Hybrid Plans

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At a conference last week, Ford CEO Jim Farley and GM CEO Mary Barra served up two contradictory visions of the path forward for electrified vehicles. Both companies have been backpedaling furiously on their battery electric car plans amid what some allege is a slowdown in consumer interest in EVs. In his remarks, Farley sounded like he had just spent a weekend playing golf with Akio Toyoda. Ford, he said, would focus on bringing more pure hybrid models to market, believing that is what consumers want most. Barra, on the other hand, said her company was placing its bets on plug-in hybrids, which offer a driving experience similar to a battery electric car (assuming the owners plug them in.)

Reuters reports that Farley wants the industry to stop viewing hybrid vehicles as only an interim solution to be used until drivers are comfortable going fully electric, while GM CEO Mary Barra does not view the technology as a longer-term play. “We should stop talking about it as transitional technology,” Farley said. “Many of our hybrids in the US are now more profitable than their non-hybrid equivalent.” Plug-in hybrids, which have a small battery that can be used for shorter distances, may not be relevant in a few years, Farley said, before adding that extended range hybrids are an important technology for the future.

By contrast, Barra said General Motors will begin offering plug-in hybrids starting in 2027 in order to comply with the stricter exhaust emission standards that take effect in that model year. But she reiterated her confidence that the market is moving inexorably toward EVs. She said hybrids are “not the end game” because they are not zero-emissions vehicles. “We’re trying to be very smart about how we do that and how we deploy capital there,” she added.

Quadruple Hybrid Sales

Ford is aiming to quadruple hybrid sales over the next several years. In fact, it has pulled back on some of its EV investments and pushed back production of EVs in Canada and the US. Farley said this week that EVs should not be subsidized and that automakers should be pushing to profitably produce battery-powered models quickly. “We believe that we have to get to that fitness level as soon as possible,” he said.

In a related development, Autoblog reported recently that a Ford Maverick midsized pickup truck has been photographed in the wild with a “Hybrid” badge on the tailgate. While it’s possible Ford did this to spoof the photographers who make their living capturing images of future models, the photos do show an independent rear suspension under the cargo box — a pretty good clue that an all-wheel-drive version of the Maverick is being tested. Whether it is really a hybrid or not is impossible to say at this time.

Also this week, BMW announced that this summer it will offer two versions of the BMW 5 Series Touring with plug-in-drives. The new BMW 530e Touring will have an electric range of 83–95 kilometres (52–55 miles), while the BMW 530e xDrive Touring will have a range of 82–89 kilometres (51–55 miles) on battery power alone. The BMW 5 Series Sedan will also be offered as a PHEV. All three models have an identical powertrain consisting of a four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor “which together generate a system output of 220 kW/299 hp.” The battery is rated at 19.5 kWh. In addition, BMW said new 3 Series sedan and Touring models will be launched worldwide in July 2024 and it will offer a plug-in hybrid option as well. The same 19.5 kWh battery will also be part of the powertrain for those 3 Series models.

China & The Hybrid Market

Farley and other automotive executives at the conference last week said software and subscription services will be key profit drivers in the future. The Ford CEO said autonomous driving technology is one of the largest growth opportunities for the automaker. Elon Musk, of course, thinks Tesla will be there first and has promised a major announcement on August 8 of this year.

Chinese competitors have been superior in their approach to developing software and services that attract customers, Farley said. “The China consumer experience digitally is far beyond the West,” he said. “You have to have great cost fitness and quality fitness to even have the right to compete and that’s being defined not here in the US. It’s defined by China. Mary Barra agreed that GM is carefully watching the top automakers in China. She added that GM must maintain strong brands, products, and cost control to not fall behind them. “I take the Chinese competitors, especially the top ones, very seriously. We’ve got to continue to take cost out so we can compete successfully,” she said.

With such fierce competition overseas, Farley said he does not believe all current car companies will survive. Pressure will be the greatest on the all-EV brands that do not have gasoline-powered offerings to boost their profits, he said. That is clearly a shot across the bow of Tesla, which does not have the ability to manufacture either hybrid or plug-in hybrid models if that is what the market demands.

AAA 2024 Market Guide

Musk, of course, is not overly concerned. He has made building battery electric vehicles the one and only goal of his company. CleanTechnica readers may wonder if it is possible the EV revolution will transform into a hybrid and plug-in hybrid revolution instead. AAA offered a partial answer to that question recently when it selected an electrified vehicle as the best choice for consumers in every one of its many categories. Here are the results of the latest AAA Car Guide report:

  • Overall — 2023 Mercedes-Benz EQS 580 4MATIC SUV (electric)
  • Small Car — 2023 Volvo S60 Recharge Ultimate Black Edition (plug-in hybrid)
  • Midsize Car — 2023 Mercedes-Benz EQE 350 4MATIC Sedan (electric)
  • Large Car — 2023 BMW i7 xDrive60 (electric)
  • Pickup Truck — 2023 Ford F-150 Lightning Lariat (electric)
  • Small SUV — 2023 Hyundai IONIQ 5 Limited (electric)
  • Midsize SUV — 2023 Genesis Electrified GV70 Prestige (electric)
  • Large SUV — 2023 Mercedes-Benz EQS 580 4MATIC SUV (electric)
  • Best Under $40K — 2023 Honda CR-V Sport Touring (hybrid)
  • Best Between $40K — $60K 2023 Hyundai IONIQ 5 Limited (electric)
  • Over $60K — 2023 Mercedes-Benz EQS 580 4MATIC SUV (electric)

Whether you agree with the AAA rankings or not is largely irrelevant. What matters is that every car on the list has an electric motor and a traction battery somewhere in its propulsion system. Bloomberg recently reported that sales of electric cars were robust in the US in the first quarter — except for Tesla. It said that “electric cars were an adolescent industry on the verge of its next growth spurt. In fact, for most automakers, the first quarter was a blockbuster for electric car sales. Six of the 10 biggest EV makers in the US saw sales grow at a scorching pace compared to a year ago. Electric car sales were up 56% at Hyundai and Kia and 86% at Ford. A sampling of April sales also show strong gains.”

The Takeaway

The auto market is in turmoil at the moment and it is unclear who will win, who will lose, and who will learn to sing the blues. We all want the EV revolution — and Tesla — to succeed, but wishing and hoping won’t make it so. What is becoming clear is that China today is the tail that wags the dog in the international auto market. It has the largest new car market in history (and India may be next). What happens in the US may be vitally important to America but less so to the world at large. China is where the impetus to adopt electric cars as the new normal will come from. What happens in the US may become increasingly irrelevant in the big picture, as Americans increasingly mortgage their future in order to drive gargantuan gasoline-powered behemoths. Suck, Push, Bang, Blow, baby!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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