Canada Declares All Cars Must Be Zero-Emission By 2035 And The Auto Industry Is Mad

The auto industry is undergoing a “transition” to zero-emission vehicles. That’s the term we use, too, but it’s kind of a weird one, when you think about it; it’s a transition with no agreed-upon end date and a constantly moving set of targets. Canada is the latest country to a unveil strict mandate in that regard, but will it take?

That leads off this Wednesday edition of Critical Materials, our morning news roundup. Also on today’s docket: another investigation into Tesla quality problems, and why China has to take a cautious approach to global EV expansion.

30%: Meet Canada’s New ZEV Rules

Canada is more than just a nation of 40 million people and unquestionably the world leader in poutine production: it’s also a vital part of North American auto production with numerous factories, parts suppliers and soon, battery plants. Meanwhile, that’s an industry that’s suddenly reckoning with how hard it is to pivot to batteries and software instead of engines and transmissions. 

You can see the challenge here in this Reuters story. First, here is what Canada is doing as part of its efforts to combat climate change:

Canada on Tuesday released final regulations mandating that all passenger cars, SUVs, crossovers and light trucks sold by 2035 must be zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), part of the government’s overall plan to combat climate change.

ZEVs must make up at least 20% of all cars sold by 2026 and at least 60% by 2030. Industry officials say electric vehicles (EVs) represented 12.1% of new vehicle sales in the third quarter of 2023.

Transportation accounts for about 22% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The rules are similar to those adopted by California, which says 100% of new cars sold in 2035 must be plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), EVs or powered by hydrogen fuel cell. A total of 17 U.S. states have agreed to adopt the regulations.

The Canadian government argues that these final rules give the auto industry the clarity it needs; this is an industry driven by regulations, and when they aren’t clear or uniform across multiple markets, things get messy and expensive. 

But the auto industry’s lobbying groups are already pushing back, as they have in other markets (including the U.S.):

The Canadian automobile industry says the regulations are too ambitious, noting the higher cost of electric vehicles. It also complains that the charging network is incomplete, especially in rural areas. Canada, the world’s second-largest country, has a population of just 40 million people.

“Achieving higher ZEV sales levels depends on favorable market conditions, stronger consumer purchase incentives … widespread charging infrastructure (and) expanded grid capacity,” said Brian Kingston, President of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association.

(By the way, when anyone says “ZEV,” that’s code for battery-electric vehicle; hydrogen cars have no tailpipe emissions either, but they’re more or less a non-starter in this conversation lately.) 

They’re tough rules for sure. Could they get pushed back? As that story notes, Canada has missed every emissions reduction target it has ever set, so the precedent doesn’t look good.

But it does raise a fascinating question: what is the “right” timeline to move new cars away from gasoline? From a climate perspective, the answer is probably “yesterday”; the auto industry and its policy arm, to say nothing of EV critics, take a different view.

60%: Chronic ‘Flaws’ And ‘Failures’ With Tesla Suspensions, Steering 

Speaking of Reuters, it’s done some excellent reporting on Tesla this year, digging into things like CEO Elon Musk’s secret team allegedly created to silence range complaints or how Tesla employees had illicit access to camera footage from cars. Now it’s back with another one: a look into part failures on low-mileage cars, specifically wheels falling off at speed and steering issues. 

Tesla has told the U.S. government the failures were caused by “driver abuse,” but this Reuters investigation dives into just how pervasive they were for brand-new cars:

Individual suspension or steering issues with Teslas have been discussed online and in news accounts for years. But the documents, which have not been previously reported, offer the most comprehensive view to date into the scope of the problems and how Tesla handled what its engineers have internally called part “flaws” and “failures.” The records and interviews reveal for the first time that the automaker has long known far more about the frequency and extent of the defects than it has disclosed to consumers and safety regulators.

The documents, dated between 2016 and 2022, include repair reports from Tesla service centers globally; analyses and data reviews by engineers on parts with high failure rates; and memos sent to technicians globally, instructing them to tell consumers that broken parts on their cars were not faulty.

Worth a read in full, for sure. I think it’s fair to say Tesla’s quality has improved since the early days of the Model 3 and Model Y, but at this point, we’re all pretty well-versed in Musk’s tactics around safety and facing criticism. 

90%: China’s EV Industry Needs To Expand, But It Can’t Afford A Trade War 

There’s this idea that Chinese cars—specifically, this new generation of homegrown EVs that seem to be very good—just “flooding” foreign markets and putting other countries’ automakers out of business.

In truth, companies like BYD are about to provide very tough competition, especially in Europe; stiff tariffs keep them largely out of America for now. But China also has to be cautious with expansions abroad because it could get nailed with more tariffs if it totally undercuts these existing players. At the same time, China’s auto industry is oversaturated and leveling off at home; it needs to expand, and that means going abroad.

This delicate balance is the star of this Bloomberg story today: 

While its manufacturers’ market share in Europe is still low, China’s dominance of in plug-in vehicle production has put the country in position to challenge Japan for the global lead in automotive exports.

“The Chinese would be shooting themselves in the foot if they were to retaliate and worsen relations with one of their biggest trading partners,” said Matthias Schmidt, an independent auto analyst near Hamburg. “China has arrived at a point where they need to start selling more cars outside of their borders.”

Keeping the door open to lucrative Europe matters now more than ever, with the US largely off limits because of a 25% import tariff and generous purchasing incentives only available for vehicles made in North America. At stake is the future of hundreds of unprofitable EV makers that have sprung up in the wake of sweeping government subsidies and inner-city driving restrictions.

But if China’s automakers go too fast, they risk accelerating trade penalties, like the EU’s own recent investigation:

The EU’s probe kicked off in earnest in October with investigations of BYD, SAIC and Geely, bringing the bloc more in line with the US in looking to protect an industry that employs millions of workers. While the EU is pursuing extra duties, the US is dishing out a swath of subsidies to attract investments with strict rules on local supply chains and EV making to qualify for incentives.

“The US and the EU are united in that they don’t want the transition to EVs to be a transition to Chinese EVs,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. “An amended Inflation Reduction Act in the US allowing European carmakers the same access would help with a coherent, combined response.”

As I’ve written before, China’s expansion into other markets, including the U.S., feels all but inevitable. But other countries and their auto industries won’t take it lying down.

100%: Let’s Talk ZEV Mandates

What’s the “right” way to transition off gasoline for new cars? Are the current targets proposed by some countries, including Canada now, actually viable or out of touch with reality? 





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