It's The Infrastructure, Stupid

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled It's The Infrastructure, Stupid
Photo: Nissan

Nationwide charging infrastructure is still in a woeful state (unless you own a Tesla), automakers are starting to vaccinate their assembly line workers and Japan just made a risky bet on autonomous cars. All that and more in the The Morning Shift for March 1, 2021.

1st Gear: All These EVs And Nowhere To Charge Them

It’s no surprise that America’s charging network isn’t yet where it needs to be, though a story from the Wall Street Journal puts into perspective the chasm that’s formed between the quantity of Tesla’s Superchargers across swaths of the country and charge points equipped to handle other automakers’ EVs.


As always, a combination of incompatible standards and an expected lack of profitability are to blame, per the WSJ:

Traditional car makers, with their sights set on a battery-only future, are aware of the charging problem. One effort to match Tesla’s superchargers has resulted in Electrify America, a nationwide network of fast-charging stations. Its creator, Volkswagen, agreed to invest $2 billion as part of the settlement with the U.S. government and California over its Dieselgate emissions-testing scandal. Other nationwide networks such as ChargePoint and EVGo, which primarily offer the slower sort of chargers, are now adding fast-charge technology. (The kind of charging that happens at home tops out at a maximum of 7.2 kw. Fast charging is 50kw and up.)

The result, for EV drivers who wish to take their vehicles on road trips—as well as the many city-dwelling EV owners who are unable to charge at home—is a patchwork of stations that many say is improving but still needs work.

In a survey of 3,500 EV drivers conducted in September and October 2020 by EV advocacy group Plug In America, more than half reported having problems with public charging. These problems were worse for respondents who drove non-Tesla vehicles; almost 60% of those reported issues. The most common complaint was a non-functional charger.


2nd Gear: Factories Are Vaccinating Their Workers — When They Have Vaccines To Give

Last month, 1,200 employees at a Jeep Cherokee plant in Belvidere, IL began receiving their first round of COVID-19 vaccines. It’s the first plant in the U.S. to roll out vaccinations, though short supply is affecting Stellantis and other automakers just as it’s affecting everyone else, as Automotive News reports:

“The biggest issue we’ve really had to date is just access to the vaccine overall,” Dolf Van Amersfoort, vice president of compensation and benefits in North America for Stellantis, told Automotive News. “And I think that’s probably going to be the case for the next few weeks and months until that becomes more available throughout most of the states where we operate.”

The Belvidere Assembly Plant clinic was allotted doses for 1,200 people, about a third of the work force, who received the first of two shots of the Moderna vaccine last month. The second round for those workers begins this week.

Meanwhile, workers at most other plants are still waiting for their chance. Many of them, weary of breathing through a stuffy mask for every long, arduous shift on the line, are hopeful some safety measures can be relaxed if enough of their colleagues get the vaccine. Despite speculation at some recent employee meetings, the automakers aren’t saying whether any changes to mask protocols could be on the horizon.


3rd Gear: The Microchips Are Still Missing (And Will Be For A While)

The global semiconductor shortage has put a bottleneck on everything from the new car production to computer graphics cards. As we approach the pandemic’s year anniversary, experts don’t seem to think chip stocks will be back where they need to be until the second half of 2021, as the Financial Times reports:

Jacques Aschenbroich, the chief executive of Valeo, one of the world’s largest car parts suppliers, told the Financial Times that the global microchip shortage was likely to last until at least the summer.

“The second quarter is going to be difficult . . . There should be a recovery in the second half of the year. That’s what the entire industry is thinking about,” said Aschenbroich, who has run Valeo since 2009.

Volkswagen, the world’s second-largest carmaker by volume, warned weeks ago that it would build 100,000 fewer cars in the first three months of 2021 owing to the bottlenecks.

That number has increased substantially, with some analysts predicting up to 400,000 fewer units.


France’s Renault has also warned that the shortages are likely to peak in the coming months, before conditions get better in the third quarter — it expects to build 100,000 fewer cars this year as a result, saying it would try to keep the damage to a minimum.


4th Gear: Japan Just Got Serious About Semi-Autonomous Cars

Honda expects to bring its level 3 Traffic Jam Pilot technology to its flagship Legend in Japan before the end of March, as we’ve reported in the past. To date, Japanese manufacturers haven’t made considerable headway in commercializing autonomous driving systems, due to local regulatory hurdles.


However, a key change in the Japanese government’s traffic legal code has enabled Honda to take a massive leap — for better or worse. What’s more, it surely won’t be the only automaker in the country to do so, as a report from Nikkei Asia highlights:

But both Honda and Japan’s government clearly see a major opportunity to reenter the game. The launch is the culmination of a six-year effort to modify the country’s road traffic legal code, regulatory framework and insurance industry in the service of commercializing level 3 self-driving technology at a national level — not to mention the tolerance of Japan’s citizens to be guinea pigs in an extraordinary experiment with robotics.

“The [Japanese] automobile manufacturers first threw the ball into the government’s court, because regulations made it impossible for them to commercialize the technology,” said Kazuo Shimizu, a motor journalist and former race car driver who is now a member of a government working group for automated driving. “But it was Tokyo which threw back the ball to industry by changing its laws ahead of anyone else in the world. And the player that caught that was Honda.”

The main obstacle to level 3 is not technology — the top hurdles are legal and regulatory. Germany’s Audi, for example, was the first to unveil its A8 sedans with “Traffic Jam Pilot” technology in 2017. But Audi so far has been unable to equip its level 3 functionality, due to regulatory reasons.


The report further notes that experts including Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson argue that systems requiring emergency hand-offs from car to driver are “very dangerous.” We’ve talked about the danger of the hand-offs in driver-assistance tech before, and it’s not clear how it’s going to get any better.


5th Gear: Nobody Cares That Nio Isn’t Making Money

The Chinese government has thrown so much weight behind electric vehicle production that Nio — a startup that was at death’s door little more than a year ago — is so overrun with demand that it can barely churn out cars quickly enough, despite never turning a profit to date. The New York Times explains how:

Nio is able to order parts inexpensively from China’s diverse array of electronics manufacturers and auto parts suppliers. And in November it bought out its minority partners and took full ownership of XPT, a company that designs and assembles battery packs and electric motors for Nio and other carmakers.

Nio has just 120 engineers to manage its assembly plant in Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province in central China. Nio then pays JAC, a state-controlled automaker also based in Hefei, to send 2,300 experienced assembly line workers to run the factory.

The approach has drawbacks. When demand surged last summer after China brought the coronavirus largely under control, Nio found some suppliers unprepared to increase output quickly. Buyers faced monthslong delays in getting cars delivered.


Extravagance and the pandemic slammed Nio’s finances. The company lost $11,000 for each car sold in the July-through-September quarter.

Government firms stepped up to help. State-owned entities in Hefei joined a national state-owned investment fund last spring in paying $1 billion in cash to acquire a 24 percent stake in the company. Then, on July 10, the state-owned China Construction Bank led a consortium of banks in extending $1.6 billion in credit to Nio.


Reverse: Venera 3 Probe Collides With Venus


On November 15, 1965, the Soviet Union launched Venera 3 to collect data surrounding Venus’ atmosphere. Little more than three months later, Venera 3 crashed on Venus. While it didn’t fulfill its mission (Venera 4 successfully retrieved those measurements a year later), in crashing it did become the first unmanned spacecraft to meet the surface of another planet.

Neutral: My Car Is Clean, My Mind Is Clear

I took my car to a car wash over the weekend to wash off all the salt and grime for a blissful moment before it all returns again. I feel vigorous!