Automakers Have A New Bad Obsession

Post-purchase software and subscription upgrades are our future. Thanks, Tesla.

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Photo: BMW

Tornadoes have stopped production of the Chevy Corvette, lithium prices are up because of EVs, Lancia, and over-the-air updates. All that and more in The Morning Shift for December 13, 2021.

1st Gear: Get Ready To Pay More For Over-The-Air Nonsense, If You Aren’t Already

It used to be in the old days that when you bought a car that was the end of things, unless you opted to mod it with aftermarket upgrades that surely increased its value substantially. (This is a joke, mods never increase a car’s value.) In the new days, or the current day, automakers are doing something similar in the offering of over-the-air updates, in that when you buy a new car now there is likely an option to upgrade it somehow over-the-air, or buy a subscription service to something or other. This isn’t good, really, but fits perfectly with automakers’ incentives, which is to separate you from your money. Worse, though, is that, now, not only are new cars expensive upfront, they are becoming expensive later too.

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Automotive News has taken stock:

General Motors projects up to $25 billion in annual revenue by 2030 from software and subscription services. Stellantis last week began a push to bring in $23 billion a year from such offerings by 2030, more than 50 times what it gets from the meager options available today.

“We intend to deepen the emotional bond between our customers and the brands they love,” Mamatha Chamarthi, head of Stellantis’ software business, said in a presentation to investors. “If the past was about increasing margins by moving customers north in hardware and trim levels, our future is about offering customers software-based services.”

But whether automakers can persuade customers to keep their wallets open long after taking ownership of a vehicle isn’t clear. Soaring transaction prices mean many buyers are stretching the limits of their budgets to afford their monthly payments, even as loans increasingly spread out the cost over seven years or more.

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In many ways, automakers are taking a cue from Tesla as they equip vehicles to receive over-the-air updates, years after the electric vehicle maker began doing so. They also have watched technology companies such as Apple use connectivity to produce recurring revenue streams and make customers fiercely brand-loyal.

Stellantis says the software and services market it’s eager to tap will amount to $225 billion by 2030, and doing so will produce the sizable margins that tech companies enjoy. Apple’s 29 percent operating margin in the third quarter is nearly triple the 10 percent that Stellantis projects for all of 2021.

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BMW is talking about subscriptions for basic features like heated seats. Stellantis has been vocal about making billions per year in its planned post-purchase fees. The business case for such things seems obvious, though I think at some point consumers will vote with their feet. I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to have fewer subscriptions in my life, not more.

2nd Gear: Corvette Plant Down Because Of Tornadoes

A deadly wave of tornadoes this weekend in Kentucky has halted production at the Chevy plant there in Bowling Green, where they make Corvettes, according to Automotive News.

General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Ky., will be down this week for repairs after a tornado started a fire at the plant early Saturday, the automaker said.

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The fire “has caused damage to the facility, including the roof and an employee entrance. The small number of employees that were onsite are all safe,” GM said in a statement Sunday. “Maintaining a safe work environment for plant employees is our top priority.”

GM said first and second shifts at the factory would be canceled the week of Dec. 13 as “as our trained teams work to get tooling, equipment, and the facility space up to standard.”

The plant employs about 1,200 hourly workers, represented by UAW Local 2164, along with about 180 salaried workers.

U.S. sales of the Corvette sports car nearly doubled in the first nine months of the year compared to the same period in 2020. GM sold 24,748 Corvettes through September, compared with 12,634 a year earlier, when production was paused for eight weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Images from the storm are quite incredible. Stay safe out there.

3rd Gear: Speaking Of Tesla Imitation

Volkswagen has been using the term “gigafactory” to mean “factory” for some time now, a term that it borrowed from Tesla, a term that is a ridiculous neologism that never had a purpose beyond marketing to begin with. Anyway, outlets like Reuters are now just running with it, and I hate it.

Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) said on Monday it was looking at locations for planned battery cell plants in Spain and eastern Europe and the exact sites for its third and fourth gigafactories would be determined in the first half of 2022.

“By 2030, Volkswagen plans to open two more cell factories in Europe,” the group added in a statement.

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Going all-in on EVs is the right strategy, but VW doesn’t have to debase themselves in so doing.

4th Gear: Speaking Of Imitation

I am impressed with Lancia’s CEO, who said recently that the marque — which currently produces a single car, the Ypsilon, and only for Italy — would be modeling itself after Mercedes, which is not the comparison I would’ve guessed.

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From Reuters:

Italy’s Lancia will pursue profitability over volume to secure a long-term home in the 14 brand Stellantis stable and try to emulate German carmaker Mercedes to do so, its boss Luca Napolitano told Reuters.

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Some analysts have regarded Lancia as one of the least strategic brands within Stellantis (STLA.MI), the world’s fourth largest carmaker, which was formed this year by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s PSA.

However, Napolitano has presented a 10-year plan to Stellantis Chief Executive Carlos Tavares to relaunch Lancia, based on three new models: the new Ypsilon in 2024, both hybrid and battery electric, and a compact crossover expected in 2026 followed by a compact hatchback in 2028, both fully electric.

“Clearly volumes are important, but our targets are about profitability,” Napolitano said in an interview on Friday.

Lancia, which alongside Alfa Romeo and DS was grouped in the pool of Stellantis brands cooperating in the premium market, needed to continue on this high-end path, he added.

“We still need to work and need to look at a benchmark... which for us is Mercedes (DAIGn.DE),” Napolitano said. “I don’t mean we want to fight against Mercedes, that would be naive, but that is an example of what we look at”.

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This is almost delusional, but makes more sense when you realize the intended audience is not you or me but Carlos Tavares, Luca Napolitano’s boss. Yes, boss, Lancia has a bright future and is just like Mercedes, for sure.

5th Gear: Elon Musk

He is Time’s Person Of The Year. Ford CEO Jim Farley found time to tweet about it.

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I’m old enough to remember when Elon was a joke and the established automakers all mocked him and said that what he was doing would never work. Now, he is their role model, in a turnaround that reminds me of when Steve Jobs did much the same thing in the ‘90s and ‘00s with computers, phones, and music-listening devices, though that was a more complete transformation in that space. With autos, it’s still very much to be seen.

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Reverse: Airbag Man Dead

From The New York Times:

Allen K. Breed, a pioneer in air bag technology for cars and founder of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of automobile safety systems, Breed Technologies of Lakeland, Fla., died Dec. 13 at a hospital in Orlando, Fla. He was 72.

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Allen Kent Breed was born on July 27, 1927, in Chicago. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and joined RCA. In the 1950's, he worked for the Gruen Watch Company and founded Waltham Engineering.

His work at the Breed Corporation in the 1960's focused on military safety devices. He later applied the technology to automotive air bag systems and created his first air bag sensor design for cars in 1968.

Last year, Breed was the third-largest supplier of automotive safety systems in the world, with sales of $1.4 billion, behind TRW and Autoliv. It has 400 employees in Lakeland and 14,000 worldwide. Last month, however, the company sought Chapter 11 protection in United States Bankruptcy Court, largely the result of buying AlliedSignal Inc.’s Safety Restraint Systems division for $710 million.

Mr. Breed was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich., in 1999 in recognition of his invention of an air bag set off by an electromechanical sensor, a forerunner of the electronic sensors popular today.

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Neutral: How Are You?

I’m still buzzing from yesterday’s Formula 1 finale. That was a ridiculous way to end the season, and Mercedes rightfully feels a little aggrieved, but, on the other hand, that was incredible entertainment.