Robust management and struggling EV’s

This week will be a small overview of various things happening in the car industry as well as around it, highlighting some current developments and issues and some others that may become important in the coming years. This will of course touch on EV’s that seem to become a crucial part of that future whichever way you turn, but we’ll actually start in the (still) conventional industry, up at Aston Martin’s HQ in Gaydon in the UK. That is where Tobias Moers, previous CEO of Mercedes-AMG, moved in two years ago, with a mission to improve profitability at Aston. He did, quicker than most expected, but in spite of that, last week he was forced to clean his desk.

I’ve touched upon Moers both in my post on AMG and in that on the Aston DBX last year. He was the boss of AMG between 2013 and 2020, leading Mercedes’s sub-brand in a short-term successful, but in my humble opinion a long-term somewhat risky brand dilution strategy, and was hired by Aston’s strong man Lawrence Stroll in 2020 (father of F1 driver Lance Stroll) to accelerate Aston’s turnaround. Moers said himself that he would never have taken the job hadn’t it been for Aston’s line-up, especially the DBX, and he started the transformational Project Horizon straight away, contributing to rapidly increasing profit numbers for Aston, to a large extent built on the DBX. There’s no doubt he greatly improved and streamlined Aston’s production processes, but in parallel he also became known for his “robust management style”, apparently contributing to many senior departures and a general bad climate in the Gaydon factory. This to me sounds very much like a cultural clash between German efficiency and British, well, uniqueness, but Moers is anyway now replaced by ex-Ferrari chief executive Amedeo Felisa as Aston prepares to launch a new range of sports cars, most of them electric.

Well, he does look rather “robust”…

That brings us to the latest from the EV world, and I believe what we’re witnessing right now and will continue to witness over the coming months and years, is the great pains associated with going from the production of a few hundred cars to true mass production. The two new EV brands mostly in the news and also those with the most exagerrated valuations (although those are far less exagerrated now than a few weeks ago) are no doubt Lucid Motors, the American luxury EV builder, and Rivian, the equally American EV pick-up builder. Starting with the latter, it recently had to increase the price of its R1T by up to 20% and halve its production target of 25′ cars this year. So far, around 900 Rivians have been built. Lucid on the other hand, saying it wants to get its first car “exactly right” has pushed back the production start several months.

There’s a few things here worth considering. No doubt part of the problems can be traced back to the global supply chain issues the world is currently experiencing, more on that later. That’s however far form the whole story, the most important component of which to my mind boils down to whether these new car builders can emulate the Tesla success story with the same kind of “mojo” that made Tesla what it is. I’m not saying they can’t, but it’s certainly not a given. Firstly, there are very few Elon Musks in the world. Secondly, it’s very easy to forget the production hell Tesla went through over close to ten years before starting to make money. At one point that production hell was so bad that dealers had to fit the wheels on the cars, just to give an example, and quality issues plagued the company on several occasions (and to be honest, still do).

Personally I think it would be great if Rivian made it!

That’s all changed now, but the change consists in a development which has made Tesla much more of a standardized car company, whether they like it or not. Which then of course brings us back to all the traditional carmakers who now all have a number of EV’s in their line-up. They were certainly neither first, nor very innovative, but they know how to build cars and have the production process not only under control, but perfected over decades. I’m sure we’ll have a new Tesla at some point. It may be a brand we’ve yet to hear of, or it may be Lucid and Rivian, but that’s far from certain. They probably have about 12 months to make or break it, and I wouldn’t put my oney on them making it.

Things would certainly become much easier for not only Lucid, Rivian and Tesla, but also for all other car makers in the world if the current supply chain disruptions were solved, or at least improving. Currently however, rather the contrary is the case. Many of you have probably already seen the below picture in various forms, showing all ships currently waiting to unload in China, mainly in locked-down Shanghai. The total number is over 500, and they’re not waiting because the port is full of ships leaving…

Zero Covid has a price…

Shanghai is in a lockdown that doesn’t seem to end anytime soon, rather the contrary as imposing similar lockdown measures in Peking is now being discussed. We’re not going into Covid policies here, let’s just say that the combination of a zero Covid policy leading to most people not having antibodies in combination with clearly less efficient domestic vaccines (no Western vaccines are allowed in China) make even the current Omicron variant potentially quite dangerous. And “dangerous” in a country of 1.5bn in habitants could mean a few million deaths. The current situation will therefore not change soon, but at some point China will have to decide between an economic depression an relaxing measures. Not only car builders hope for the latter.

To conclude, let me share an interesting picture from Zeihan on Geopolitics (highly recommended for those with an interest in geopolitics!), showing the material consumption of EV’s vs conventional cars, as well as materials used in various energy sources. It’s no secret that EV’s require a greater quantity of most materials than conventional cars, quite a few of which are problematic, as highlighted in my post on why EV’s won’t save the world a bit more than a year ago. It’s also true that things are improving, which is great. I notably learnt from a trustworthy source last week that Tesla has now managed to eliminate cobalt in roughly half their batteries. Such and other improvements also mean EV’s make up the CO2 deficit from their production in fewer km’s which is also great – although that calculation never includes the fact that you’re building a whole new car often only to replace a still fully functional existing one, as I believe it should, given we still have no answer to what should happen to all the cars we plan on replacing with EV’s.

These are not produced in your typical holiday destination…

There will however always be more problematic materials needed in EV’s and renewable energy sources, and if we think about where these are produced, that puts Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine into perspective. We’re currently all dreaming of eliminating Russia as an energy supplier (and please, also as an aggressive invader of other countries!), and few people think of Saudi Arabia and Iran as other great countries to do business with, but as we electrify the world and need to get to the minerals mentioned above, we’ll have to deal with a far larger number of other not-so-great countries than we did in the oil days. These notably include Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Mozambique, Guinea, Gabon, China, Congo and yes, Russia. That’s obviously not ideal in any way, but it’s the price to pay for a future based on windmills and solar panels!

The DBX won’t save Aston Martin

Last week in my post on AMG, I wrote about the risk of diluting a brand when like Mercedes do with AMG, you start adding AMG badges to a large number of models in the line-up. In defence of Mercedes they build cars to make money and I strongly suspect they wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t good business. Also, they own all of AMG these days so they’re obviously free to use the brand how they wish even if as said, I think it risks scaring away some enthusiasts.

As I also mentioned last week, AMG have through the years done both engines and parts for a whole line of other manufacturers, and it’s one of these we’ll talk about today. Because if there’s a risk of brand value dilution within one group with too extensive use of a sub-brand, what about a brand that sells very pricey cars but where these no longer rely neither on their own engines, nor gearboxes, nor updated technology? I would claim this doesn’t sound like a recipe for success in the long term, but it is what Aston Martin offers today, including in the new SUV DBX, a car everyone says their future depends on. Aston’s new ex-AMG boss Tobias Moers has even said that he wouldn’t have taken the job as Aston CEO if the DBX hadn’t been in the line-up. I guess there’s a logic to that given everyone wants an SUV these days, but is the DBX a good enough SUV to motivate its price tag of around CHF 230.000-250.000 (roughly the same in EUR or USD), and is it still a real Aston Martin?

Short overhangs helps making it a great drive – for an SUV.

The first point to note is that the DBX is in no way a bad car. I seem to be one of the few who don’t like the looks of it so let’s pass on that, but the reviews, even the non-English ones, have generally been positive. With short overhangs and, well, being an Aston, it drives better than any other SUV and has a beautiful, hand-crafted interior that’s available in a multitude of trims and colours. Of course nothing less should be expected given the price tag, which puts it in the same segment as for example the Bentley Bentayga and various AMG SUV’s, from the G63 to the GLS-Maybach. Something like a fully equipped Cayenne Turbo or Maserati Levante is even cheaper as you’ll get one of those for around EUR 200.000 in top trim.

Aston these days fits Mercedes engines and so the DBX has the current, twin-turbo, 3.9 litre AMG engine, producing around 550 hp. That’s a brilliant power unit and one you find in all the AMG top models as well. What the AMG cars will also have is the latest version of Mercedes’s MBUX, the best infotainment unit in the industry. The DBX is however equipped with a screen that looks like a touch screen but isn’t, and behind it is Mercedes’s previous infotainment unit, the origins of which go back to 2014. That’s most probably older than your phone, and quite far from today’s standard. On the dash above the screen the DBX has large buttons to engage the different gears. I don’t know why Aston is so keen on these given they’re neither nice to look at, nor necessary. In the DBX they’re connected to a 9-gear box from, you guessed it, Mercedes. And that gearbox can be a bit laggy, especially if you use the paddles. And if you’ve sat in the car long enough to notice these things as I did last week (except the paddle slowness), you will probably also have realized that the beautifully handcrafted interior looks a bit too handcrafted in certain areas, with some parts not fitting exactly as they should. Tests have shown that when driving, it tends to squeek a bit here and there. That’s the DBX, and it costs a quarter of a million.

Beautiful but squeeky materials, non-touchscreen tech from 2014, dash gear buttons

I get that everyone doesn’t want a mass-produced Cayenne, one of the various Mercedes-AMG SUV’s, or feels too young for a Bentayga, but surely the solution can’t be to use the Aston brand to sell an inferior product? You’ll tell me the Bentayga is an Audi underneath and that’s true, but it motivates its price because the total package is superior to anything in the Audi line-up. You’ll remind me that I’ve just told you AMG is a diluted brand, but that doesn’t change the fact that the real AMG cars are the best of what Mercedes offers, which means some of the best in the market. You’ll tell me Porsche did the same thing as Aston do now when they launched the Cayenne, banking on 911 owners buying an SUV if Porsche built one. That’s also true, but it was almost 20 years ago and then even more than now, there were far more 911 owners around than DB9 drivers. The DBX may well drive better than a Cayenne on the margin but it’s a family SUV we’re talking about here and if that argument counted for anything, our streets wouldn’t be clogged with less well-handling, 500 hp SUV’s.

If it’s really about cornering speeds, why does this thing keep selling like never before?

Aston Martin has built some of the most beautiful sports cars in the world through the years. That’s where the brand value resides. That’s the kind of Aston most of us would love to have in our garage and where we wouldn’t care less about what type of infotainment solution it has (and that’s good, because the earlier ones were even more crappy), or if there’s a squeek here and there in the interior. The company jumped on the SUV bandwagon like everyone else but firstly, they were late to the party and secondly, where Bentley and Lamborghini have the full VW group behind them, including quality checks, Aston as an independent company at least for now has to content with what Mercedes is happy to sell them. On the whole, that makes the DBX an inferior product from a rational point of view, and that seems to be confirmed by sales numbers which have now been revised to roughly half of what they were pre-Covid (3000 for 2021). So far, around 2000 have been sold. Living in Zurich, a city that is like a rolling automobile exhibition, I’ve so far only seen two or three.

I don’t think the DBX will save Aston Martin, but that doesn’t mean Tobias Moers won’t. A man with his background can teach Aston a lot on everything from efficiency (he claims to already having reduced the number of work stations from over 70 to around 20…) to quality thinking, the DBX platform can obviously be re-used for future models, and Moers has all the connections needed within AMG to make sure that with time, Aston will benefit not only from the latest engines. That however takes us back to where we started this because when he’s done, Aston will have become yet another AMG outlet – albeit under a different logo.

Those were the days!

12 things to expect – or not – in 2021

So here we are, in the new year 2021, and no doubt all of us hope it will be a more positive one than 2020! In the car world there will certainly be lots going on, notably in terms of new sportscar launches, a few of which I highlighted in an earlier post you can read here. With a highly interesting 2021 line-up in F1 (see my latest post on that here for more details), there will hopefully be no lack of excitement there either!

To start off the year in style, I’ve compiled a list of things that can be expected – or not – in 2021. 12 to be more exact, each one corresponding to the first letter of the 12 months. This is not a prediction that they will happen in that particular month, or indeed that they will happen at all, so don’t take it too seriously!

January – as in jolly bloody happy that the new year has begun and with hopes that it will be an easier one than the last one, and that all of us get the opportunity to take our very personal dream roadtrips!

February – as in F1, and a new season that looks very exciting although it won’t start until March. Following Red Bull’s decision mid-December to replace Alex Albon with Sergio Perez, I would claim that 1) the three top teams (assuming here Ferrari finds its way again) have very competitive line-ups and that 2) the teams just behind have at least one top driver. For memory, assuming Lewis Hamilton does finally sign up for the new year, Mercedes will have him and Valtteri, Red Bull will have Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, and Ferrari obviously Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. And then right behind, McLaren has Daniel Ricciardo, Renault has the returning Fernando Alonso, and Racing Point (Aston Martin from next year) Seb Vettel, really hoping he can return to form. Let the races begin!

They will both be wearing different colors next year!

March – as in motor engines, and most probably the continued growth of electrical. The question is how far and how fast? On the bright side, in Germany in 2020 when the market as a whole was down 22% in new sales, electrical and hybrid cars grew their market share more than four times, and experts now speak of 2020 as the year of the electrical breakthrough. On the less positive side, looking for example at the Ionity charging network across Europe, it’s still many miles away from what Tesla offers, meaning European electrical cars (not hybrids) are still mostly charged at home and thereby reserved for shorter trips. All in all, even though I was negative on Tesla in Europe a while ago (see here), there’s no doubt electrical cars as such will continue to grow, the question is how much and how fast.

No cylinders here…

April – as in autonomous driving, which arguably doesn’t add to the thrill of driving but does add to the safety – although as some incidents notably with Tesla have helped us realize, staying awake and looking at the road ahead is still to be recommended. That’s anyway what you still need to do in many countries, even touching the wheel from time to time, as technology once again is far ahead of legislation. Don’t expect that gap to close in 2021.

Not to be recommended – yet

May – as in Maserati MC20 and all the other great sports cars coming to market, some of which I mentioned in the post referenced above. This is a segment where electricity is setting in big time, with the MC20 as one of few exceptions. You have to wonder how long we will still have alternatives, to electric power, especially of the 8- and 12 cylinder kind!

It may be one of the last of its kind

June – as in Japanese automakers and the question whether I’m the only one feeling that it’s time for them to hit us with something a bit more interesting than what’s been the case in the last years? This is the country that used to give us cool Skylines, supercar beauties like the NSX and more recently the Nürburgring record setting Nissan GT-R. That’s 10 years ago now, and this year, Nissan launched a new GT-R that looks exactly like the old one. And as for the NSX’s replacement, firstly it was delayed for an eternity and when it then came, it didn’t blow anyone out of his seat. Not much else has happened except a few more wings on the latest Type R hot hatch, that may be excellent but that just by its looks scares away any sane person over 30. C’mon Japan, give us something to drool about again!

I’ll have the one on the left please

July – as in jailtime, which is what you will spend in some countries if you’re caught speeding heavily. This isn’t new, but what is, and what’s currently being implemented in a number of countries, is measuring your speed over a distance. That’s a real bummer that takes the fun away quickly – and makes it expensive. In Italy where they use a system called Tutor, they at least have the decency of telling you in advance, which is obviously what you do if you’re more interested in lowering speeds and less in filling the state reserves. That will surely not be the case everywhere…

This is a bad sign

August – as in Aston Martin, where ex AMG-boss Tobias Moers will by August have been behind the wheel for a year. Moers has ambitious plans and a solid financial base, notably from chairman and 17% owner Lawrence Stroll, and also a solid collaboration with Mercedes-Benz which own a further 20% in the company. Moers wishes to see a more engineering-led Aston going forward and has in a rare interview also said that he wishes Aston to work more with the Mercedes engineers in Germany, and derive more engines from AMG. We all wish them viel Glück!

A lot of Aston’s future is riding on the DBX

September – as in solid state, and generally what I believe will be required to really give electric mobility the final push it needs, i.e. a significant advance in battery technology. As opposed to lithium, solid state batteries use solid electrodes and electrolyte, and other materials are mostly ceramics. They’re already used in for example pacemakers, they are extremely long-lived, and they’re much quicker to charge than lithium batteries. So where’s the catch? Well, they aren’t cheap… Prices will of couse drop going forward (although probably not as early as 2021), and this is perhaps the big leap electric cars are waiting for.

It’s always blue when it’s about EV’s…

October – as in obesity, something most of the so beloved SUV’s suffer from. And more generally, even a normal sedan is several hundred kilos heavier today than it was just 15-20 years ago. Arguably a lot of this is linked to much improved safety, but we’ve reached a stage where trimming the weight is less important as you can just mask it by increasing the turbo pressure such as to take out more power. Will we see a change to the “more weight therefore more power” equation soon, and a return to something like the Lotus concept that I explored through my friend Erik back in October (see here)? It would definitely be benefitting consumption! And by the way, since the post, Erik has gone off and bought himself an Elise that I’ll hopefully be exploring this spring.

November – as in Nikola, the biggest corporate scandal in 2020 after Wirecard. For those of you who’ve missed it, Nikola is a producer of electric trucks in the US, founded by Trevor Milton and built on a lease model with very nice cash proceeds – on paper. Because as it emerged, everything was on paper, including the trucks themselves that don’t exist yet. Unfortunately investors – including a small company called General Motors – forgot to do their due diligence around Milton and his background, which would have revealed a history of smaller or larger corporate scandals, generous spending of company proceeds etc. The company is still listed but unless you’re a distressed investor, stay away, and also, whether you’re buying a stock or a car, always do your own research and don’t trust anyone – including GM…

Never believe a truck salesman…

December – as darn, there goes another year! What will have changed? Will Japan have presented a supercar project? Will Aston be back on solid footing? Will Lewis have claimed his 8th title, and will more automakers have seen the Lotus logic of more for less? But even more important than all this, will we finally be rid of this bloody virus? We’ll know in 12 months!

Will AMG save A(ston) M(artin)?

If Aston Martin were a cat, it would slowly but surely run out of lives. The car maker that has spoiled us with some of the most beautiful sports cars through history has declared bankruptcy no less than seven times. In 2018, an IPO was supposed to solve its financial problems but in the two years since, Aston has missed more earnings estimates than its had bankruptcies, leading to a stock price declining by 90%, The Gaydon-based company lost GBP 104m in 2019 and a further GBP 120m in Q1 2020, and now has total debt of around GBP 1bn. But as has emerged over the last weeks, there may be hope for Aston – yet again.

Not a very successful IPO…

That hope has three names. The first is Tobias Moers, the long-time and very successful AMG boss that will take over the helm at Aston after Andy Palmer’s five-year reign. Moers is credited with having taken AMG from a tuner among many to a very profitable division of Daimler, even if it’s been at the cost of some AMG brand dilution. That is also something Aston and Andy Palmer know something about, as under Palmer’s reign, the Aston symbol has through licensing deals appeared on everything from clothes to boats. To his credit is having kept Aston’s outgoing models running longer than anyone thought, but also having launched three new cars in as many years – the new Vantage, the DB11 and the DBS.

Moers has a reputation of being a real petrol head – and a man many are afraid of…

The second name that bodes well for Aston is its new shareholder and financier Lawrence Stroll, who has already injected GBP 540m in the company for a controlling stake. Stroll’s F1 team Racing Point will be renamed Aston Martin next year, it is Stroll who appointed Moers, no doubt also with the thought of developing the existing collaboration with Mercedes further, and Stroll certainly has a role in getting Aston’s other new major shareholder aboard, Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff. So for the future of F1 it looks quite solid – but what about the road cars?

It’s not just the colour that is debatable…

The volume car in the current line-up is of course the Vantage. The problem is that it doesn’t sell very well. Its looks have been debated and whatever you think of it, no one thinks it looks better than the car it replaces. That shows in the sales numbers and puts even more importance on the new DBX SUV being a success. It seems to be a car that has a lot going for it and it’s certainly in a segment that is growing strongly, so time will tell. Most people – me excluded – also seem to think it looks quite good, which would be a first among luxury SUV’s (see my thoughts on that topic here).

There is some irony in that just as was the case with Porsche 15 years ago, if Aston is to be saved, it’s by an SUV …

Can Moers as Aston’s new boss, Stroll as its new shareholder and an intensified collaboration with Mercedes, for example in Mercedes using Aston’s newly developed V6 engine, save Aston Martin, and is it then time to buy the stock? This isn’t the place for stock tips but the downside is obviously limited, and what should also be said is that neither Mercedes nor Lawrence Stroll have become successful by losing money, so there is indeed hope. Time will tell.

In other news it should be noted that a very strange F1 season started on Sunday with the Austrian GP. Face masks everywhere, obviously no audience, and overall quite a strange feeling. The race itself was also strange, with Bottas (Mercedes) winning ahead of Leclerc (Ferrari) and Lando Norris (McLaren), no doubt the surprise of the day but the result of no less than 9 cars retiring, and Hamilton (Mercedes) being penalized for having put Albon (Red Bull) in the sand. You would think the teams would have had enough time in the last months to solve really all technical issues, but apparently that’s not the case… Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) started outside of the top 10 and spun himself to the very end of the field after half the race, before finishing in 10th place. As we learnt last week Ferrari didn’t even offer him a contract for 2021 and as per the time of writing, no one else has either. I stand by my assessment from earlier this year (see here) that Vettel will leave F1 after the season.

The silver arrows are black this year, but can be expected to be at the front of the field.