A ‘tail’ of two news services (as seen through news of China’s fossil fuel car ban)

In Part 1, I compare the reporting of the recent news of China’s move to ban fossil fuel in automotive vehicles by the pay-to-view Australian Financial Review and the free Bloomberg News service.

In Part 2, I consider the merits of Australian Financial Review’s ‘Lex Column’ argument on the future of China’s electric vehicle (EV) industry.


Part 1

Yesterday’s headlines read like the tale of two publications: One, the pay-to-read Australian Financial Review, and the other, the news service, Bloomberg. Whilst both were founded pre-World Wide Web (AFR in 1951, Bloomberg in 1990), the quality of journalism was on stark display.

Yesterday’s (12th of September, 2017) pay-wall protected article from The Lex Column (herafter ‘Lex’)  in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) made the bold claim ‘China’s electric vehicle ambitions a tailpipe dream for now’.  In contrast, Bloomberg’s headline read ‘China deadline shifts focus to electric car race.’

Lex’s claim came in response to China’s vice-minister of industry and information technology, Xin Guobin’s, public announcement that the Chinese (PRC) government is working with industry on a timetable to end production and sales of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Lex’s claim rests on the assertion that a shift to electric vehicles (EV’s) will require massive scale that Chinese automakers cannot achieve: “China’s automakers are not yet big enough to make electric cars profitably.”

Besides being a slightly irrelevant claim – China and the Chinese Diaspora all over the World have demonstrated on several occasions that a) they are prepared to operate on much lower profit margins than many in the West and b) they are frequently prepared to participate in industries even where they aren’t profitable (steel anyone?) – Lex wanly support their claim with one meager data point; that Great Wall, a Chinese auto company, recently failed to raise capital to buy Fiat Chrysler – as if somehow outbound Chinese foreign investment capabilities are germane to foreign investment inbound to China. It’s a point contradicted by the Bloomberg article’s mention of the much-documented fact that Warren Buffet (the world’s most famous and successful investor of the past 50+ years) has invested heavily in BYD, China’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer. And if you think that BYD doesn’t have scale in electric vehicles? Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLo3Pn4KC3w

Lex’s sweeping statement is hedged in the time honoured teleological error of conservatives: It is a ‘tailpipe dream for now.’  In other words, ‘It will never happen … until it happens’.

In stark contrast to the (pay-to-view) AFR’s op-ed comes the (free) Bloomberg article based on the same announcement. Bloomberg’s article is entitled ‘China Fossil Fuel Deadline Shifts Focus to Electric Car Race’. Contrary to Lex’s one data point and numerous assumptions, Bloomberg makes a far more contained assertion (but still a bold one) and they support their argument with loads of data and sound reasoning. For example: Recent 7 month sales data for two large Chinese automakers in the tens of thousands, and a comparison to GM’s paltry electric vehicle sales figures in China; two very strong policy reasons for China to support EV’s – reduced oil dependency and reduced pollution (everyone knows how bad China’s pollution problem is, not least of all the Chinese!); public comments from foreign motor car companies on their intentions to bring their latest EV’s to China; as well as news that Nio, a Chinese EV start-up is working with Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group which is partnered with Volkswagen AG to introduce an electric SUV next year. Additionally, the Bloomberg article reports that “Tesla said in June that it’s working with the Shanghai government to explore local manufacturing, a move that would allow it to achieve economies of scale and bring down manufacturing, labour and shipping costs.” So much for Lex’s claim that “(W)estern producers … have been reluctant to push battery and hybrid cars (in China). They fear losing valuable intellectual property to their (Chinese) joint-venture partners.”

Last but not least, the Bloomberg article doesn’t simply assume economies of scale will be required, it quotes somebody from the sector who might actually know better than they do – a senior executive from one of China’s largest car companies, Chery – to make this assertion for them: “’Chery’s Liu said as newer technologies are developed in the meantime, the strongest among the manufacturers with better resources will adapt to the market and continue to dominate. Those who currently are outrunning the others in EV’s will not necessarily continue to stay ahead,’ he said.”

Point-for-point, by my reckoning, the Bloomberg article is in every way superior to the AFR’s, pointing to another disruption that is occurring besides the two alluded to above. The disruption here though is not that of electric vehicles over I.C.E’s and China’s economic ascension, but that of media.

Bloomberg is a media service, and in the past, depended upon the traditional media’s means of distribution to reach its audience. With the coming of the Internet, Bloomberg is able to go directly to its audience. Looking to the future (and perhaps the present day) why does it need a legacy print media institution like the AFR when its content is superior and free and its reputation is as good as – if not better – than the AFR’s in the global marketplace? If the latter were not true, why does the AFR refer to Bloomberg? (E.g. Just one of many examples http://www.afr.com/news/cheap-wind-solar-will-make-australia-a-magnet–bloomberg-20170615-gwrwat ) The only reasonable answer I can come up with is that the AFR has a strong local reputation, providing local financial news (and I’m open to hearing others). Yet in an increasingly globalized economy (something that was occurring before the Internet, but has been accelerated by it), where global trends affect local trends more than vice versa, it makes me wonder if I should continue subscribing to the AFR.


Part 2: More than just a drubbing by Bloomberg – Lex is probably wrong

Even over-and-above the drubbing Lex’s column receives in comparison to Bloomberg’s, the thing that piqued my interest in the first instance is the complete lack of insight into two very important facets of financial news by the Lex column: 1) The future of the automobile industry and 2) The Chinese economy.

The article starts with two assertions, both of which may yet prove to be false: i) “China may learn techniques from the west (sic) …”, ii) “ … but adapt these for the local culture. So it is with electric vehicles.”

Let’s start with assertion i), ‘China may learn techniques from the West’:

Firstly, in the case of EV’s, it may not be the case that China has much to learn. When looking at EV’s, one should understand that EV’s, by their nature, are actually simpler than ICE vehicles. Some reports suggest that the Tesla drive-trains use as few as 20 moving parts, when compared to 200 for an ICE: https://forums.tesla.com/en_AU/forum/forums/model-s-vs-ice-how-many-moving-parts .

The main issue with electric vehicle adoption was not the motor technology, which was developed predominantly by the pioneers of electricity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has remained essentially unchanged. The main technological hurdle has been with the battery technology. The power-to-weight ratio (or roughly, the ‘energy density’ and more precisely, the ‘specific energy’) of lead-acid batteries prohibited their usage in all but the most niche applications – e.g. to power the starter motor for the ICE. Lithium ion batteries improved that power-to-weight ratio markedly, but for a long time have been too expensive. The Lex article cites Bernstein to point out that a mid-size combustion vehicle costs $US15k to produce compared with $US24k for a comparable EV. The differential is down to the battery, which accounts for half of an EV’s cost. A combustion engine is just 15 per cent of a traditional car.”

So much is not in dispute – even though it ignores the rapidly decreasing price of lithium ion batteries: https://electrek.co/2017/01/30/electric-vehicle-battery-cost-dropped-80-6-years-227kwh-tesla-190kwh/ . Notwithstanding this short-sighted view of EV production costs, Lex goes on to conclude (Western car makers) ‘do at least have the scale to finance the necessary investment (in battery production). The clear implication being that the Chinese do not. This last point is in direct contradiction to the fact that a) numerous Chinese Gigafactories are coming online in the coming years http://fortune.com/2017/06/28/elon-musk-china-battery/ and b) Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla Motors) is looking to invest in a Chinese-situated Gigafactory https://electrek.co/2017/06/22/tesla-gigafactory-china/ . Yet another nail in the coffin for Lex’s claim above that Western companies will be reluctant to invest in China.

So if anything, the heavy investment in ICE technology by Western car manufacturers can serve as a disadvantage, compared to those who have less invested – like the Chinese. This is one of the key lessons from Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail, in which he coined the term ‘Disruption’ in its much over-used meaning in technology circles. Namely, it is because these (once) great firms were optimized for a past paradigm tends to mean they are less optimized for the new firm that takes into account the new paradigm.

A second line of reasoning relates to the widely acknowledged fact that Chinese manufacturers tend to disregard Western intellectual property (IP) laws has led to a vibrant and cut-throat technology scene: http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/made-china-what-maker-movement-means-china-and-world; https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/13/inside-shenzen-china-silicon-valley-tech-nirvana-pearl-river . Note, not only are they stealing from the West, but they are stealing from each other. As a result, they are much more dynamic in many areas of technological advancement than their counterparts in the West and in some cases are leaders.   It is likely this will be increasingly the case in many areas in the future. But which areas? This leads me to my next point …

ii) “The Chinese adapt techniques they learn from the West for the local culture”

This claim again may have firm roots in the past, but as every wise investor knows (one would presume, one of the AFR’s core readership segments?), the past is not necessarily an indicator of the future.

Is this the case for electric vehicles in China? My assertion is that the past habit of Chinese adapting techniques from the West for the local culture may prove to be incorrect in the context of EV’s. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, car ownership is much lower in China than in most First World nations. Just as the Chinese are more ‘mobile first’ than Westerners (something reported over 30 months ago in this free ABC article: http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2015/03/27/4206067.htm ) it is possible that China will lead in electric vehicle adoption and technology.

To understand this claim, one needs to understand how China came to be more ‘mobile first’ than Westerners, despite still lagging behind most G20 nations in per capita income and many other ‘quality of life’ measures. If you’re still grasping with this idea, check out this article here: https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/michelleevans1/2017/04/12/how-china-won-the-race-to-being-considered-a-mobile-first-commerce-nation/ .

My potted version is as follows:  In the recent past, China’s telephony infrastructure and logistics infrastructure were not as robust as what we were used to in First World nations. This is a natural consequence of having an entirely state-controlled economy for a large part of the 20th century, with its inherent lack of capital, lack of responsiveness to consumer demand and susceptibility to corruption (although I admit, the Eastern European public transport systems I witnessed soon after the Berlin Wall came down were well ahead of Sydney’s and many other Western public transport systems). The mobile boom occurred as China was opening up and as it adopted aspects of Capitalism in what was famously referred to as ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ This meant its mobile telephony infrastructure was simply more convenient to use, and could be used to leapfrog or bypass many of the annoyances that came with the old Communist-era infrastructure as well as the many intermediaries keen to take their slice from the consequent scarcity of distribution.

In addition to this, their mobile economy is much less fragmented than in the West. Where the free market prevailed in the West, leading to different players in different aspects of social media e.g. Facebook for long-engagement social media, Snapchat for transient social media, Google for search, Paypal for payments etc, many of these services are dominated by just one player in China; TenCent’s WeChat. This allows for a much smoother e-commerce experience than we have in the West. How WeChat came to dominate – whether by market forces, or by government intervention – is debatable, but it appears it is at least partly due to both: the superiority of its offering as well as being aided by the so-called Great Firewall of China and other Chinese requirements inhibiting the success of foreign entrants. See these articles for some commentary on these issues: https://stratechery.com/2015/aggregation-theory/ ; https://stratechery.com/2017/apples-china-problem/ ): https://www.ca.com/us/rewrite/articles/application-economy/wechat-a-do-it-all-app-thats-everything-to-millions-of-chinese-u.html ; http://exponent.fm/episode-113-wechat-china-and-apple/ )

But what has this to do with EV’s?

The automobile industry has similarities to the mobile market, in that China has started way behind the West in car ownership although unlike in mobile, it still lags. It is so far behind that its market will have stronger incentives to accommodate the next automotive disruption. No, I’m not talking about electric vehicles – technically a technological evolution and not a disruption (see this article for why: http://www.asymco.com/2015/02/23/the-entrants-guide-to-the-automobile-industry/ ).

The ‘next automotive disruption’ I’m referring to is self-driving vehicles (SDV’s). There is strong evidence that the introduction of truly self-driving vehicles that completely replace the driver, will eventually lead to a different business model, known as ‘transport-as-a-service’ (TAAS). Yes, it’s like Software-as-a-service (e.g. Salesforce, and Adobe’s Creative Suite has moved to that model as have most other desktop applications), Cloud services such as Dropbox, OneDrive and Amazon Web Services etc (a.k.a. ‘memory-as-a-service’). Behind the fancy jargon, it will be just like a taxi service – but for virtually every automobile trip you make – and without the driver.

The following research suggests how price-competitive a self-driving taxi service would be compared to car ownership, in a city as small as Austin (population around 1 million: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin,_Texas ): http://www.caee.utexas.edu/prof/kockelman/public_html/TRB15SAVsinAustin.pdf

In short – ‘Very competitive’. Since most research shows that the average car owner only uses their vehicle for 4% of the day (e.g. http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/122502/CarShareEconomicAppraisalFINALREPORT.pdf ) a predominantly self-driving fleet of cars can be far less numerous than present-day car ownership quantities.

Not only will this mean less scale is required by TAAS ‘cab’ makers, than traditional auto-manufacturers (since there will be fewer cars), so too, with less car ownership, the average Chinese consumer has stronger incentives to adopt a TAAS model, in place of buying a car outright.

On top of this, the prospect of nearly 1 billion more cars on the road is enough to make even the stony faced apparatchiks of the CCP quail. The Chinese government (and most Chinese citizens and residents I’ve spoken to) probably doesn’t want each citizen to own a car for the aforementioned reason of pollution, as well as over-crowded road infrastructure. The Chinese government, thus has an incentive to legislate change for a TAAS model to occur. You think they won’t? They just announced their intention to ban I.C.E vehicles, remember? One advantage of their ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ economic model is that the State has great power to force through change regardless of what a vocal minority or ‘swinging voter’ would dispute. Suffice to say, there is very little ‘NIMBY’ism’ (“Not In My BackYard!”- ism) in China.

The above paragraph is important in the context for the TAAS future, because it resolves the most difficult question we in the West face in coming to such an outcome. Nobody ‘in the know’ about self-driving vehicles doubts that TAAS will occur. How and when we get there is the big question.

For example, when will the (Western) government be satisfied that self-driving vehicles are safe enough to allow on the road in self-driving mode?

Note that this question is mainly a social question. Technically at least, 80% of daily trips could probably be covered by the autopilot systems available in cars such as those made by Tesla today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VG68SKoG7vE . Highway driving is easy for the most sophisticated autopilot systems of today, and if everyone had autopilot in their car, it would be a lot safer too! This is because the hardest parts of self-driving are a) dealing with the unpredictability and fallibility of human drivers and b) ‘The last mile’ problem of transportation. In getting from A to B, it’s the first and last portion of the journey (e.g. from the winding suburban roads onto the highway, or from the home to the public transport hub; and then the bit from the highway to the car park or office, or the train station to the office) that tends to present the biggest problem for self-driving software. Take away these obstacles and the software doesn’t need to be as ‘bleeding edge’ as that being developed by the likes of Waymo (Alphabet/Google’s self-driving arm) or Tesla Motors.

A powerful government could easily make a legislative change that bans all but self-driving vehicles on highways, and organizes pick-up and drop-off points for passengers at transport hubs to cover the last mile of their journeys. And all of this is possible with today’s technology and a government as powerful (relative to its citizenry) as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

So just as China is not ‘learning techniques from the West’ in mobile, I suspect, China is likely to lead the way in terms of TAAS and the self-driving future.

So that’s my 2 Yen’s worth.  What’s yours?