Starkman: Ford and General Motors Won't Win the Electric Vehicle Race

June 13, 2023, 12:03 AM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter, blogs at Starkman Approved. This column first appeared on his blog. 

By Eric Starkman

Electric vehicle (Deposit photo)

Even when I was a kid I viewed the world differently, much to the chagrin of my parents and teachers. I was always questioning conventional wisdom and I was wary of authority, particularly those whose behaviors were at odds with their proclaimed lofty codes of conduct. The Starkman Approved Principle, which holds that organizations and individuals who publicly profess superior values and uncompromising ethics, invariably are exposed as frauds, was conceived when I was still a teenager.

Suffice to say, I was always encouraged to stifle my contrarian outlook and thinking.

“The whole army is out of step but you?” was my mother’s frequent refrain.

My worldview has never been so out of sync with conventional thinking as my perception of electric vehicles and my belief that China has put America’s political and automotive leadership to shame. If electric vehicles are the future, America must concede defeat as China has already developed a thriving and competitive automotive industry capable of manufacturing kick ass EVs at a profit.

As well, China controls the supply chain of minerals and metals required to manufacture EVs, an effort that was abetted by President Biden’s son, Hunter, which I also regard as a very big deal. China excels at compromising influential political and businesspersons by developing relationships with family members that ultimately could prove embarrassing and used as blackmail.

NYTimes, Dec. 7, 2021

Meanwhile, Ford and GM are slated to lose billions selling their problem plagued EVs, even with the billions in taxpayer money and benefits they receive to incentivize them to move their manufacturing operations to Mexico. A critical component of China’s EV success was a requirement that all EV manufacturing be done within that country’s borders. The U.S. Congress has no such wisdom.  

Although Tesla is nominally headquartered in Austin and its engineering operations in Palo Alto, I don’t regard Tesla as a company with U.S. loyalties or sensibilities. Elon Musk is a citizen of the world, a perception that’s shared by Xi Jinping, communist China’s leader. The Wall Street Journal reported Xi regards Musk as “a technology utopian with no political allegiance to any country.” Notably, Musk has repeatedly expressed his admiration for China’s leadership and accomplishments, while referring to President Biden as “a damp sock puppet.”

NBC News, June 2, 2023

While Musk is undeniably brilliant, I neither trust him nor believe anything he says. Musk claims he is opening up Tesla’s charging network to Ford and GM because he wants to help facilitate the widespread acceptance of EVs in the U.S.

The deal initially struck me as akin to Delta allowing coach passengers to use the bathrooms in first class. Upon further reflection, it strikes me as an opportunity for Musk to further weaken Ford and GM and accelerate their inevitable demise if EVs are the future.

Here’s why I’m seemingly a choir of one in my skepticism of the charging partnership Ford and GM have forged with Tesla.

One possible critical wrinkle to the partnership is whether Ford’s and GM’s electric vehicle customers will have full access to Tesla’s entire fast charging network. I’ve seen multiple stories, including this one in the Wall Street Journal, saying that Tesla has more than 17,000 fast chargers in the U.S. Yet the announcements Ford and GM issued regarding their Tesla partnerships say their customers will have access to more than 12,000 Tesla chargers.

Given the gushing coverage Ford and GM have received for their Tesla charging infrastructure surrender, it’s unfathomable to me that the entire media overlooked there are possibly some serious access restrictions. If by chance my concerns are correct, the auto press should be ashamed. What also isn’t clear is whether Ford and GM customers will have access to Tesla’s expanding network, which is supposed to double in size by the end of next year.

Most of the media coverage I’ve read created the mistaken impression that by simply attaching an adapter, Ford and GM electric vehicle owners will enjoy the same flawless charging experience that Tesla owners have come to expect. It’s not quite that simple.

The Biden White House in February announced with great fanfare that Tesla agreed to open 3,500 new and existing Superchargers along highway corridors to non-Tesla customers. Those who have utilized Magic Docks — Tesla stations with rival adapters — say there are issues because the Superchargers were designed to communicate solely with Tesla vehicles.  

A critical issue is that Tesla’s charging cables aren’t long enough to reach the charging ports of most rival vehicles.  This is especially an issue with Ford’s F-150 Lightning, which can require multiple Tesla charging lanes so the chord can reach the pickup’s port. Owners of Ford Lightnings practically have to camp out at charging stations in hot or cold weather because the real-world range of their vehicles is far less than advertised, particularly in extreme temperatures.  

Someone named Jed, who has a YouTube channel called Jetters Garage, made the accompanying video of the challenges and frustrations of charging a Ford Lightning at a Tesla Supercharging station. The video would discourage most persons from buying a Lightning unless they have the patience of Job and have nothing but time on their hands.

At some point, Musk will make good on his promise to launch his cybertruck (he initially said it would be available in 2021) but buyers of the truck will be able to utilize Tesla’s V4 Supercharging, which is designed for Tesla Semis and is three times faster than Tesla’s current Supercharging stations. Ford and GM have made no mention of their pickups having access to Tesla’s V4 chargers. It would be a marketing disgrace if Ford’s and GM’s pickups are relegated to Tesla’s little boys and girls charging stations.

That Ford and GM have opted to look to Tesla to overcome their managements’ poor vision and planning underscores the tragedy of these once proud companies. It borders on pathetic that these companies want their customers to utilize Tesla’s charging equipment and be routinely exposed to the company’s logo and other marketing messages that conceivably could be introduced. The decision also speaks to Ford’s and GM’s lack of faith in the Biden Administration’s ability to oversee the buildout of a reliable national charging network, despite committing $7.5 billion to the effort.

Helping Ford and GM sell more electric vehicles benefits Musk because the legacy automakers lose considerable money on every EV they sell. Ford and GM make most of their profits selling their climate destroying SUVs and trucks, which is why for all GM CEO Mary Barra’s talk about selling more electric vehicles than Tesla by the end of 2025, GM last week announced it would invest more than $1.5 billion to upgrade its gas engine truck factories.

That’s another flaw in the Biden Administration’s energy policies. Biden was prepared to declare a “climate emergency” if the Inflation Reduction Act failed to pass, yet Ford and GM are allowed to continue to sell their energy inefficient SUVs and trucks. If I went to the doctor and was advised that I was at great risk of liver and lung damage, I’d immediately discontinue drinking and smoking. A wiser energy policy would have been to support Rivian, whose CEO strikes me as an upstanding guy.

The media focuses on Tesla, Ford, and GM as being the inevitable leaders of the EV race in the U.S. Little mention is made that 12% of Mercedes’ sales are already electric, and knowledgeable people appreciate Kia’s impressive EV offerings. That would include my cousin Lorn, a brilliant technologist who was an early supporter of Tesla but switched to a Kia, and Joann Muller, the doyenne of auto writers who disclosed in March that she drives a Kia EV6.

Think about that: one of the most knowledgeable auto writers and a longtime Michigan resident opted for a Kia. When I worked at the Detroit News in the mid-80s, no auto writer would dare drive a foreign made vehicle.

There’s good reason why people in the know wouldn’t buy a Ford or GM electric vehicle. They are late to the EV game, and their limited money-losing offerings so far have been recalled multiple times. I’ve seen a couple of stories about buyers of Ford EVs unloading their vehicles in less than a year because the software reportedly isn’t nearly as responsive as Tesla.

If my late mother was still around, she’d tell you not to listen to me but rather an expert like Dan Ives, the equity analyst who is quoted in almost every legacy media story I read. Ives no doubt knows a lot more about EVs than I do, but it’s debatable that he knows what he’s talking about.

Ives last December declared Tesla’s stock a “train wreck” and declared on CNBC that he removed it from his “best ideas” list. Tesla’s stock has been on a tear this year and the company’s Model Y in the first quarter was the best-selling vehicle in the world.

Reach the writer at Confidentiality is assured.

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