Good morning! Welcome to The Morning Shift, your roundup of the auto news you crave, all in one place every weekday morning. Here are the important stories you need to know.
1st Gear: Who Even Cares About The Environment Anyway
The Detroit Free Press asked an important question: does anybody in the United States still actually care about fuel economy? Because two big driving forces sure make it look like we don’t.
The Trump administration has been openly hostile to any regulations set by the Obama administration, including automotive fuel economy standards and regulations aimed at promoting alternative fuels.
While allowing automakers to pump out less efficient vehicles in the United States may save them money in the short run, it could stifle economic growth in the long term and the cost of using more fuel will be passed on to consumers, as the Detroit Free Press notes:
In a recent report titled “The War on Energy Efficiency,” the Consumer Federation of America calls a full rollback of fuel economy standards a “$2-trillion mistake.”
That calculation takes into account the $1.2 trillion consumers have saved because of the standards in effect since 1975 and the $800 billion in economic growth tied to energy efficient technologies.
Yet American consumers don’t seem to mind this. We all know Americans have the long-term memory of gnats when it comes to buying larger, gas-guzzling vehicles. As long as gas is cheap, Americans all but abandon small cars for SUVs and crossovers. Gas is over a dollar cheaper per gallon in 2017 than the NHTSA projected it would be back in 2012.
This intense short-sightedness could end up shaping the auto industry for years to come, according to the Detroit Free Press. For one, electric vehicle production could very well move to China, where EVs are being pushed for hard by the government. But mostly, it’s a balancing act, as fuel economy targets are based on what kinds of vehicles are selling, the Detroit Free Press notes:
The 54.5 mpg target is already obsolete because of the shift from passenger cars to crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks.
The original standard was based on an assumption that passenger cars would account for 67% of total U.S. new vehicle sales, and light trucks (pickups, SUVs, vans and crossovers) would be 33%.
The marketplace has flipped that mix. In 2017 through November, light trucks were 63% of the market and passenger cars were 37% and falling.
While it’s always fun to write off my fellow countrymen as fun-small-car-hating dingbats, the fact that newer technologies are more expensive to produce is the big concern for automakers who are pushing back on the Obama administration’s fuel economy targets. The Detroit Free Press writes:
A 2016 technical assessment compiled by the EPA, NHTSA and the California Air Resources Board, estimated that automakers would have to spend between $1,100 and $1,300 per vehicle to comply with the original standard for the 2025 model year.
“It’s all a balancing act,” Bergquist said. “If the standards are too steep too soon, it can affect affordability. That’s why it’s so important to find the sweet spot.”
While lighter materials and electrified drivetrains are finding their ways into bigger cars, the big question for a company in the business of selling things is whether or not consumers will buy them. New technologies like electrics cost more money to develop and build—a point that was central to the EV tax credit debate.
So, while California and the 12 states that follow its lead may still care about emissions and fuel economy, it’s hard to tell if America as a whole actually does.
2nd Gear: Spark Plug Maker Prepares For The Death Of Combustion Engines
Spark plugs won’t be needed if we switch away from gas-powered engines to electrics, so spark plug manufacturer NGK is branching out into solid state batteries to prepare for that future, Reuters writes:
Japan’s NGK Spark Plug Co has for years leveraged its expertise in ceramics technology used in spark plugs to expand into sensors, semiconductors and other products mainly for automobiles.
Now, it sees a future in all solid-state batteries, which experts believe will be safer and more powerful than the lithium-ion batteries currently used in battery electric vehicles (EVs).
Regardless of what the U.S. buys and drives, other countries are still pushing hard for more EVs on the road. Industry experts estimate that 26 percent of the vehicles sold worldwide will be hybrids or EVs by 2030, Reuters notes. In 2010, when Nissan debuted the Leaf and Tesla unveiled its Roadster, NGK started to realize their main business might become obsolete.
They’re not the only automotive supplier looking into diversifying away from internal combustion engine components, either, as Reuters notes:
In Japan, Denso Corp has teamed up with Toyota Motor Corp and Mazda Motor Corp to develop battery EVs while transmission maker Aisin Seiki Co is developing hybrid transmission systems and EV-specific, four-wheel-drive units.
In the United States, powertrain products maker Borg Warner has expanded into hybrid and electric car parts, including transmissions and drive modules for electric cars.
Because NGK’s background is in high-tech ceramics, a move into solid-state batteries is one way to use their existing specialties to get ahead of the curve on developing lighter, safer and more efficient batteries.
3rd Gear: New Factories Aren’t Exactly Fulfilling Places To Work
The Trump administration has been pushing hard for more manufacturing jobs to come back to the United States, but what do those factories look like? A fascinating profile by Reuters says it’s not the kind of hands-on work that the American workforce expected:
Auto supplier Faurecia SA’s (EPED.PA) new plant - dubbed Columbus South to distinguish it from the older operation known as Gladstone - is glistening clean and the physical work is lighter. But the 57-year-old found her new job had long hours and was monotonous - loading parts onto conveyors that fed robots all day. She also missed the interaction with coworkers she had at Gladstone.
Other workers at the new plant complain that they do not get to fix machines when they jam. Technicians swoop in to do that.
Shifts can be long and brutal for workers at these newer plants, as glitches can sometimes push work days to 12 hours—often for more than five days a week.
New factories rely much more on automation to get things done, and finding American workers with the right skills to work with these robots and the willingness to move to where the auto industry is based is proving difficult to do. They need skills more often found in high-tech industries, which are in short demand in places like Columbus, Indiana, where Faurecia’s plant is based.
4th Gear: Your New Car Will Probably Have An Emergency Braking System
Good news for people who hate rear-ending stuff, via Automotive News:
Four of the 20 largest automakers committed to increasing automatic emergency braking made the feature standard on more than half of their 2017 model-year vehicles, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and NHTSA said Thursday.
Another five automakers that did not make the feature standard said 30 percent of their vehicles produced for 2017 were outfitted with the systems, the report said.
As with most new technologies, emergency braking tends to be standard on luxury cars, with Tesla and Mercedes offering it as standard kit the most.
It should save lives as well. A 2015 agreement between automakers and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation wants to make automatic emergency braking standard on all light-duty cars and trucks with a gross vehicle weight under 8,500 lbs by Sept. 1, 2022. Doing so is expected to prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries between 2022 and 2025.
5th Gear: This Again
Ford Ranger and Mazda B-Series trucks built between 2004 and 2006 are being recalled a second time for faulty Takata airbag inflators, the Detroit Free Press reports. The recall covers over 380,000 trucks that were previously given a temporary fix in a prior recall in 2015 and 2016. Now they’re getting fixed for good.
Like other faulty Takata airbags, the ammonium nitrate inside can burn too fast and explode the airbag canister itself into a bunch of potentially deadly shrapnel. Get that fixed ASAP!
Reverse: A Three-Pointed Star Is Born
Neutral: How Would You Like To Pay More For Your Cars?
1st Gear makes things sound pretty bleak. Either we pay more up-front for more efficient new cars that make use of more cutting-edge technology, or we pay more in gas when automakers aren’t feeling the need to pump out fuel-efficient vehicles. Either way, you’re bearing the costs. How would you prefer to pay up, sucker?
Correction [12/23]: Faurecia’s plant is in Columbus, Indiana, not Columbus, Ohio. This has been corrected above.