VW-Ford deal shows rivals making nice to fund new technologies

  • TECH
  • Monday, 15 Jul 2019

An Argo Ai self driving prototype vehicle is seen outside a Ford and Volkswagen joint news conference in New York City, New York, U.S., July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

To understand how much strain the world’s leading auto manufacturers face as they make the daunting leap to the electric and autonomous vehicle age, just listen to their leaders. 

“The business part of you wouldn’t do these things,” Ford Motor Co chief executive officer Jim Hackett said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Friday. That startling admission came after he had just inked a massive deal with German arch-rival Volkswagen AG to join forces to develop electric and self-driving cars. 

“This game will change, so economies of scale will be important,” VW CEO Herbert Diess said at a press conference Friday to announce the expanded tie-up with Ford. “Sharing tech and using standards will be important to succeed in the future.” 

The collaboration commits Ford to build battery cars on a VW platform, while the German automaker invests US$2.6bil (RM10.67bil) in the American company’s autonomous-affiliate Argo AI. That gives the startup an eye-popping valuation of US$7.25bil (RM29.77bil) – and the commercial launch of its robot rides is still two years off. 

The auto industry is being disrupted by increasingly stringent environment regulations mandating electric cars, while breakthroughs in driverless technology have the potential to upend the way humanity moves. That’s forcing carmakers to balance rivalry with survival. 

“The leadership part of you requires that you do it,” Hackett said of partnering with the competition. “You have to invest in things that are uncertain, before they are ready, because when they are ready you can’t catch up.” 

Ford’s one-upmanship with VW goes back decades – from the German manufacturer’s founding in the run-up to World War II, to America’s hippie-era love affair with the Beetle and fuel-sipping Rabbit model during the oil shock era, and now trade wars that threaten to further politicize commercial battles. 

But the shift to battery-powered cars and autonomous driving will require different tools than the ones carmakers have spent the better part of a century honing. It’s no longer just about building ever-more powerful engines and sculpting exterior sheet steel. 

The Ford-VW deal is a bet on a coming age of electric-powered robo-cars that will take fresh approaches to competition, marketing and planning. And it will take money – gobs and gobs of it. 

While the deal will result in a new electric passenger vehicle from Ford in 2023 and Argo joining with VW brand Audi’s autonomous operation to deploy self-driving test vehicles in Europe next year, it’s really about ensuring each company’s survival well into the future. 

“They’re looking at the longer term,” said Stephanie Brinley, auto analyst with IHS Markit. “These moves aren’t about 2025, these moves are about these companies trying to make sure they’re fully ready and capable for 2030 and 2040 and taking the steps you need to get that far down the road.” 

Electrification will cost carmakers US$225bil (RM924.18bil) through 2023, roughly equal to the industry’s annual total for capital expenses, research and development spending, according to consultant AlixPartners. Self-driving cars will soak up an additional US$85bil (RM349.13bil) through 2025. 

The partnership between Ford and VW shows how some companies are tackling the task with more urgency than others. 

So far buyers aren’t exactly swarming showrooms to pick up electric cars. High prices, patchy charging infrastructure, and, with the exception of Tesla Inc’s sleek models, unorthodox styling have made them a tough sell. 

Likewise, the payoff in self-driving technology is years away and drivers remain resistant to turning over the wheel to a robot. But consumer habits are changing, as people rely less on ownership and turn to sharing apps, e-bikes and scooters for more of their transportation needs. 

Cash-rich giants like Alphabet Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Apple Inc have turned industries from phones to cameras to television upside down, and auto executives fear they could be next as cars become increasingly high-tech and software-dependent. 

“The OEMs have to invest through this valley to get to the other side,” Mark Wakefield, a managing director with AlixPartners, said last month. “But investing – or partnering to invest – to get through that is a way to span the generational path.” 

Jim Farley, Ford’s president of new businesses, technology and strategy, said the partnership with VW isn’t only about cutting costs. This collaboration could help accelerate each automaker’s trip through the profit desert Wakefield warns of. 

“This is not only a capital efficiency play,” Farley said in an interview. “It’s absolutely leverage on our margins, especially in a place like Europe.” 

Other automakers are also reinventing themselves. General Motors Co’s acquisition of the self-driving startup Cruise in 2016 for US$581mil (RM2.38bil) has turned out to be prescient. The automaker has since attracted three major outside investments totalling US$6.15bil (RM25.26bil). As of May, GM Cruise was valued at US$19bil (RM78.04bil) when T. Rowe Price Associates Inc joined earlier backers, Honda Motor Co and SoftBank Vision Fund. 

VW’s backing of Argo AI – US$1bil (RM4.10bil) in cash and another US$1.6bil (RM6.57bil) for the value of its Autonomous Intelligent Driving unit that it’s contributing – should put that self-driving startup on a similar path to attracting outside investment. 

“Now that a valuation’s been set and with the potential of this relationship, it does set us up well for that,” said Bryan Salesky, Argo’s co-founder and CEO, a veteran of Google’s self-driving car programme. “I’m sure that’s in the cards at some point in the future.” 

Meanwhile, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV tried – though it failed – to build scale and gain access to electric-car technology through a merger with Renault SA, to make up for its dearth of battery-powered cars. Chairman John Elkann this week told Italian newspaper La Stampa that the attempt was “an act of courage” and would have allowed it to make better use of capital and more cars. 

On the other side of the spectrum sits the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, where tensions threaten to rip apart two decades of cooperation just at the moment it’s needed most. 

Lack of a decisive strategy on electric cars this month also cost BMW AG CEO Harald Krueger a second term as leader, after he couldn’t unite a bickering board behind him. And Daimler AG’s new CEO Ola Kaellenius will have to dig deep on leadership skills to steer the Mercedes-Benz maker that’s endured four profit warnings in just over a year. Those two German automakers have partnered on a self-driving project they vowed earlier this month would see robot-piloted cars on highways by 2024. 

Building a software stack for autonomous vehicles may cost a few billions of dollars, while maintaining it will cost billions more each year, VW’s Diess said in the joint interview with Ford’s CEO. “The times we are facing, we will get into resource problems” without the help of partnerships, he said. “Because it gets really, really expensive.” – Bloomberg

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