There’s a new war brewing over biofuels, Ford has made a manufacturing breakthrough and new pickup trucks should be easier to find while the flowers are blooming. All that and more in this edition of The Morning Shift for Monday, May 1, 2023.
1st Gear: The Next Credit Battleground
In December, the Environmental Protection Agency floated a plan to allow EV makers to earn tradable credits based on the fact that the electricity they use will come, in part, from biofuels. Over the next three years, oil refineries will be required to add an increasing amount of biofuels — ranging from corn-based ethanol to fuels made from animal fats, methane and switchgrass — to their overall mix. On Monday, Reuters reported that the Biden administration may have delayed its decision on the EV-related component of the program due to pressure:
The EPA last year recommended adding EVs to the renewable fuel program when it proposed annual biofuel blending mandates from 2023 through 2025, but the administration has grown concerned that expected legal challenges to the EV measure will also block the routine quotas and are considering separating the two, the two sources said.
The annual quotas are required under a court order to be finalized in June and decoupling the two measures robs the EV effort of a definitive timeline and infuses the effort with uncertainty.
The EPA said it was considering comments on the proposed rulemaking from last year, but could not comment further.
“EPA staff are currently working to finalize the rule by the June 14 consent decree deadline,” EPA spokesperson Timothy Carroll said.
As you’d expect, the pitch was initially welcomed by groups that deal in renewable fuels but was shot down by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers lobby, which took issue with the suggestion of “yet another massive regulatory subsidy for electric vehicle manufacturers.” That lobby has some support in the House, which just parroted one of their talking points from late last year in a new letter to the EPA:
The House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee this week wrote to the EPA to challenge the EV program, arguing that the RFS was intended to center on liquid transportation fuels and not to electrify transportation.
The November proposal foresaw EV manufacturers could generate as many as 600 million credits in 2024 and 1.2 billion of them by 2025.
The delay for finalizing the EV program, however, opens up the possibility that volume mandates made available for it could be shepherded toward other renewable fuel pools, including blending mandates for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
That last point about sustainable aviation fuel shouldn’t be ignored. Even Delta has been operating a refinery of its own for the last decade, which recently became able to produce biofuels in an effort to make a little cash from selling credits on the side. Greenwashing: it’s not just for cars!
2nd Gear: Ford Makes a Quality Control Breakthrough
Another story from Reuters published today talks up a new “quality strategy” Ford is implementing at its Kentucky Truck Plant, where the Super Duty is made. Dearborn, as you may well know, has been dogged by recalls and quality-control gremlins in recent years, and even had a 3 million-vehicle campaign in 2022 over a roll-away risk. But the Blue Oval’s Super Duty facility is making inroads on putting this worrying trend behind it, by — get this — halting production to fix broken parts:
As part of a new approach to stamping out quality demons, Kentucky Truck Plant manager Joseph Closurdo said he stopped production for as long as three days earlier this year. The halts gave engineers and suppliers time to fix defective parts discovered as workers began building a new generation of Ford’s highly profitable heavy-duty pickups.
“We would shut the build down if we weren’t meeting one of the targets” for quality, Closurdo said on the plant floor last week.
Halting the assembly line rather than building trucks and fixing them later was just one element of a new approach to attacking quality problems that Ford is road-testing with the launch of the redesigned Super Duty trucks.
Out of context, it sounds like Ford is doing the most bare of the minimum here. In fairness, some of the new protocol is actually quite impressive — including a self-monitoring assembly line that automatically pauses if it detects a faulty connector, and 25-mile test drives of nearly 30,000 of the first run of the new Super Duty pickups the Kentucky plant churned out:
Kentucky Truck added 300 quality inspectors, and more engineers to chase down the root causes of defects and design new digital tools for catching problems before trucks rolled off the end of the line.
Workers now use a camera to feed images of electrical connections to software that can determine whether the connectors are properly connected.
Around the plant, engineers built command centers with more big screens than many sports bars, all displaying data from different assembly stations. One command center, with 16 screens, is known as Claire’s Corner because it was designed by process engineering manager Claire Yarmak.
“The complexity of this vehicle is huge,” Yarmak said. New comfort features, such as a front seat that reclines to create a sleeping bed, create new opportunities for trouble. When a sensor hooked into Yarmak’s screens detected a defective sensor in the sleeper seat, the line stopped.
The prevailing mantra at the facility is “if it’s got a button, touch it. Make sure it works.” Let’s hope the software engineering team is doing that for all the features that used to be buttons and now live in the giant touchscreen on the dashboard.
3rd Gear: Speaking of Trucks...
...if you begin to notice more of them at your local dealers’ lots, that’s not your eyes deceiving you. They’re really coming into stock fast and furious now, in these spring months. From Automotive News:
Among the nation’s 30 most popular nameplates, four of the five with the highest inventory relative to their sales are full-size pickups. Having some of the most popular nameplates no longer so tough to find could pay dividends for dealers entering the spring selling season.
The Ram 1500 is at a 108-day supply, the F-150 is at 97 days, the Chevrolet Silverado is at 82 days, and the GMC Sierra is at 78 days, Cox said. Already, General Motors has scheduled production downtime to keep its truck supply in check. And incentives, though still relatively low, are starting to rise — signs the industry could be returning to more normal business operations.
“We’re back to trying to turn inventory and gain market share again,” [President of Marcotte Ford in Holyoke, Massachusetts Mike] Marcotte said.
GM and Ford took issue with Cox’s data, saying it was too generous and in reality, their supplies are far lower than 80 days. Still, stock is healthier than it’s been in some time, and one of the reasons for that could be because the Big Three are hoping to have enough trucks stocked in the event of a United Auto Workers strike later this year. It also seems that the bulk of products are going to areas of the country where brands have the most market share to gain.
4th Gear: Mercedes Will Never Leave China
All we’ve heard as of late about the Chinese car market is that it’s become very inhospitable to foreign brands. Mercedes sang a different tune last week though, when its CEO said that it is the “undisputed leader” of luxury vehicles in the region, and that the segment still belongs to gas-powered cars. So the brand is seemingly content with the reality that it can’t give up on China, no matter how hard things might get in the years ahead. Courtesy Reuters:
Cutting economic ties with China is unrealistic, the chief executive of luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz told tabloid newspaper Bild am Sonntag, and said attempting to do so would put most of Germany’s industry at risk.
Europe is trying to reduce its dependency on China as the disruption of the pandemic and the Ukraine crisis have highlighted the dangers of relying on dominant suppliers and the fragility of supply chains.
But Ola Kaellenius said decoupling from China, the world’s second largest economy, was “unthinkable for almost all of German industry”.
“The major players in the global economy, Europe, the U.S. and China, are so closely intertwined that decoupling from China makes no sense,” he was quoted as saying.
German carmakers depend on the Chinese car market, the world’s largest, and Mercedes-Benz counts China’s Beijing Automotive Group Co Ltd and Geely Chairman Li Shufu as its two top shareholders.
China accounted for 18% of revenues and 37% of car sales at Mercedes-Benz in 2022 and Kaellenius predicted more to come.
It makes sense on the surface: no Western manufacturer can really compete with Chinese firms’ economies of scale, especially in the cheap EV department. But when it comes to high margins, a brand like Mercedes-Benz has an easier path to success, and remains aspirational for consumers around the globe. For now, at least.
5th Gear: Today in the Chip Shortage
Auto News has the latest numbers via AutoForecast Solutions, and General Motors is seemingly being hit the hardest by the ongoing scarcity of silicon:
The GM factories represent the top 11 spots on AutoForecast Solutions’ list of the plants most impacted by the semiconductor shortage so far this year. The industry forecasting firm put GM’s Fort Wayne, Ind., plant, which produces Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, at the top, with an estimated 46,250 vehicles cut from the plant’s schedule since the start of this year.
The 11 GM plants — seven in the U.S., three in Mexico and one in Canada — have cut 327,148 vehicles in total from their production plans in 2023, according to AutoForecast Solutions, which has tracked the disruption of the chip shortage since it began in 2020. That figure accounts for about 58 percent of all chip-related North American production losses in 2023, and about 29 percent of the global total.
Last week, AutoForecast Solutions added another 38,471 vehicles to its estimate of microchip-related production cuts worldwide, bringing the year-to-date tally to about 1.11 million units.
More than half of all vehicles lost to the chip shortage in 2023 and produced in North America are GM products. And while GM certainly is one of the biggest makers of cars the world over, you’d have to wonder what they’re not doing that everyone else is. Thank goodness for that GlobalFoundries deal.
Reverse: We Didn’t Have to Stop at Five
It was on this day in 1926 — 97 years ago — that Ford endorsed that once-radical idea of a five-day work week, down from the standard six. From History.com:
Neutral: Just GReat
Toyota says it’s making more GR-badged enthusiast cars. That’s cool and all, but maybe it could just build more than like 6,000 GR Corollas a year for the U.S., so that those of us that want them but don’t have a spare $30,000 lying around can get ours without being pointed to the secondhand market. Just a thought.
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