EVs Have Given Asian Suppliers Unrivaled Industrial Might

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Seen by some as a moral imperative, electrification is swiftly changing the dynamics of the automotive industry. While automakers spend billions of dollars developing EVs and securing the necessary partners, many are becoming dependent on a handful of companies in Asia for the all-important battery cells needed to power the damn things. It’s gotten so serious that the U.S. government has taken an interest following a December 2019 report from the Institute for Defense Analyses that claimed battery manufacturers had taken on an “outsized importance” in the automotive sector.

It also said the United States would be at a distinct disadvantage if there are supply shortages — which is something that has already happened and is presumed to worsen as more electric vehicles flood into the market over the next few years. The automotive industry is pushing hard into electrification as governments around the world attempt to plot out an elaborate plan to supplant the internal combustion vehicle with EVs. But there are concerns that this has stacked the deck for a small number of suppliers from China, South Korea, and Japan.

With rare-earth elements necessary for battery production difficult to come by, there will be a period where mining will need to be ramped up immensely to support the glut of new-energy vehicles the industry plans on delivering. But there have been shortages already and they’ve been causing production problems for automakers. Both Volkswagen Group and Jaguar Land Rover had to postpone assembly schedules on electric vehicles after confronting supply issues with LG Chem.

The battery supplier is currently in a legal dispute with SK Innovation over an intellectual property dispute as well. Depending on how that goes, the U.S. International Trade Commission is warning of a “catastrophic supply disruption,” according to an industrial review from Bloomberg. Even if everything goes smoothly, many analysts have suggested there simply won’t be enough batteries on hand to meet some of the bold claims automakers have been issuing. EVs may remain prohibitively expensive well beyond 2025 (when they were originally claimed to reach parity with internal-combustion vehicles) and take decades longer to become the dominant mode of transportation for average families.

This matters little to battery suppliers, however. They’ve got the industry over a barrel now and are really only in competition with each other to strike favorable deals with automakers desperate to gain access to its wares in an attempt to avoid government fines and sell new product.

From Bloomberg:

Suppliers of batteries are wary of over-committing to any one automaker and eager to recoup the billions of dollars they have spent on production lines around the globe. Many are hedging their bets by crafting agreements with more than one partner. This small club includes the two South Korean rivals, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. of China and Japan’s Panasonic Corp.

Battery suppliers can be very picky with their OEMs,” said Nathalie Capati, a former battery engineer at General Motors and Apple Inc. who now runs the Battery Lab, a consulting firm in San Francisco. “There are only a few cell suppliers who can meet their quality and volume. The automakers are at the mercy of cell suppliers these days.”

Even businesses that seem quite chummy are experiencing a semi-strained relationship. Tesla has been working with Panasonic at the Nevada Gigafactory for years. But CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly expressed frustrations that the company cannot meet production demands allowing him to build automobiles at a quicker pace. There’s little to be done about it. Panasonic claims it’s already operating near maximum capacity the world over and is not beholden to Tesla — it has a partnership with Toyota. Meanwhile, Musk has struck deals with CATL and other suppliers to maintain a steady stream of cells until it can finish building its own battery factories.

Other automakers might not be as fortunate, however. While many have gone out of their way to procure the raw materials necessary for battery production, few are in any position to manufacturer cells of their own and the clock is ticking. Loads of European locales have decided to ban the sale of internal combustion vehicles between 2030 and 2040. In the United States, California has sworn itself to uphold environmentalism at every turn and recently promised to ban gasoline-powered cars in 2035.

“A new arms race has begun,” Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), said in the announcement. “It’s an electric race to get to cheaper and more powerful batteries, and it’s one that manufacturers around the world are competing in.”

California is keen to export its environmental ideals to other states but there are a lot of questions on how feasible rampant electrification will be across the whole country. Many states still lack the charging infrastructure necessary to support EVs and range is not improving at a pace that makes us feel confident that can be gotten around without large tax-backed expenditures on advancing the national infrastructure. That’s likely to slow progress immensely, which is fine for the handful of battery suppliers that are already building batteries as quickly as possible and presumably happy to be courted by the automotive industry for the foreseeable future.

[Image: Sergii Chernov/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Oct 26, 2020

      Thanks. Interesting this MY17 Leaf is priced the way it was and the 18s I saw were significantly more. That Soul has body damage reported, and the 500e in MA (when only sold in Cali) is hilarious. I wonder if the MA market is part of the reason for these prices? Not sure what the degradation is in sub 20F, but unless something changed the range does drop. For your purposes it probably wouldn't matter much so yes at 10K for a child's safe runabout it doesn't look too bad.

  • Mopar4wd Mopar4wd on Oct 26, 2020

    Sorry not the starter on this just another bargain hunter. 18 Leaf was redesigned, I assume that accounts for the difference. Soul would be my choice but most are more like 13k with a clean carfax. On the 500E Mass is a CARB state and I think in the last couple years they did expand 500E sales to all 7 CARB states, as they are fairly common here in CT.

  • Leonard Ostrander We own a 2017 Buick Envision built in China. It has been very reliable and meets our needs perfectly. Of course Henry Ford was a fervent anti-semite and staunch nazi sympathizer so that rules out Ford products.
  • Ravenuer I would not.
  • V8fairy Absolutely no, for the same reasons I would not have bought a German car in the late 1930's, and I am glad to see a number of other posters here share my moral scruples. Like EBFlex I try to avoid Chinese made goods as much as possible. The quality may also be iffy, but that is not my primary concern
  • Tsarcasm No, Japan only. Life costs by Rank:#1 - House (150k+)#2 - Education (30k+)#3 - Automobile (30k+) why waste hard earned money in inferior crap => Korean, Chinese, and American cars are trash. a toyota or honda will last twice as long.
  • Tassos In the 90s we hired a former PhD student and friend of mine, who 'worked' at GM "Research" labs, to come work for us as a 'temp' lecturer and get paid extra. He had no objection from GM, came during the day (around 2 PM), two hours drive round trip, plus the 1.5 hour lecture, twice weekly. (basically he goofed off two entire afternoons out of the five) He told me they gave him a different model new car every month, everything (even gas) paid. Instead of him paying parking, I told him to give me the cars and I drove them for those 90 mins, did my shopping etc. Almost ALL sucked, except the Eldo coupe with the Northstar. That was a nice engine with plenty of power (by 90s standards). One time they gave him the accursed Caddy Catera, which was as fun driving as having sex with a fish, AND to make it worse, the driver's door handle broke and my friend told me GM had to pay an arm and a leg to fix it, needed to replace almost the whole damned door!