Tuesday, December 4, 2018

General Motors Cuts Back on Fuel-Burning Cars

We can add General Motors to the list of auto manufacturers scrambling to catch up with the changing car market. In a series of adjustments rumored in November and since confirmed, General Motors will close half of its car manufacturing plants in North America over the next three years, and the rest may last only a few years longer. Some observers see General Motors shifting car manufacturing to overseas factories, but that is a false picture created from mistaken assumptions. The factories that remain overseas will also have to cut back in the near term and are also at risk of being shut down in the coming years as demand for fuel-burning cars dries up.

I have seen complaints that say General Motors is cutting back too much, too soon, and politicians in both the United States and Canada have suggested that the company might be persuaded to reconsider or delay its cutbacks. This shows how poorly people remember history. It was just this mistake that brought the old General Motors to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008, leading into its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization that created the current General Motors. People, I think, forget the time scales that a major auto maker must deal with. General Motors has to plan out its designs, supply chain, and manufacturing capacity three years in advance. It is far more costly if such a large and cumbersome organization has to move faster than that. What will the demand for fuel-burning cars be three years from now in the 2022 model year? To be blunt about it, there is no assurance that anyone in the world will still be buying new fuel-burning cars at that point. By then, demand for fuel-burning cars will have fallen off so much that, in theory, the entire demand could be met with used cars. General Motors is betting that many of its wealthier customers will still be buying its new cars at that point, and it seems like a good bet to me, but when you look at how much money is at stake on what is essentially a consumer whim, it is understandable if the company is nervous.

As it closes factories, General Motors is eliminating many of its car models. The list notably includes the Volt, the ill-advised hybrid design that combined an electric drive with a gasoline-powered generator. It was a money-losing proposition from beginning to end, undertaken mainly as a public relations stunt. The Volt got the attention the company was looking for, but it never gained the credibility its designers had hoped for.

Some of the auto industry speculation is that people will be less interested in owning cars as new designs make them more reliable. We may become a nation of renters when it comes to cars. This doesn’t necessarily mean that drivers will drive less, but there will be fewer total cars, with fewer cars sitting idle on any given day. This would seem to imply less manufacturing and more maintenance in the future of cars, though it is hard to be sure. The important thing to note is that fuel-burning cars will not be cost-competitive whether people are renting or owning.

Consider the risks if manufacturers cut back capacity too quickly. Some of the remaining factories might have to work two shifts to make enough cars. There could be a shortage, prompting a few buyers to go for used cars instead. This is not so bad. Balance that against the risk if manufacturers keep more capacity than they need. There could be billions of dollars in unsold inventory in dealer lots and in rented parking lots in Detroit. The auto manufacturers could go bankrupt and all their factories could close. That is a bigger problem, and that is the scenario that General Motors is trying to guard against.

While the focus is on cars right now, light trucks will follow just a few years later as battery technology advances and scales up, and heavy trucks just a few years after that. What happens to cars will eventually happen to the rest of the industry.

The political rumor machine has it that the United States will eliminate all subsidies for efficient and low-emission vehicles. That move probably makes sense at this point. Subsidies may have a place as a way to get a new approach off the ground. It hardly makes sense to use them as a way to speed the old guard into bankruptcy.