The ever-expanding Toyota (NYSE: TM ) debacle got its share of attention this week, so today we'll look past that drama and to Europe, where March sales numbers have revealed an interesting change in the landscape. We'll also look at a subject that is going to be getting a lot of attention -- automotive battery technology.
But first, we raise our Foolish eyebrow at a dubious move by a company we have often admired.
Is Ford really No. 1 in Europe?
That was Ford's (NYSE: F ) claim this week. But it turns out that the claim depends on your definition of "Europe." (And of "Ford," for that matter.)
Ford's European press office dropped a release on Thursday claiming that Ford was "Europe's top-selling brand in March". This led to a flurry of headlines here in the U.S. proclaiming that the resurgent Michigan company -- a perpetual also-ran in Europe -- had apparently defeated the vaunted Europeans on their home ground.
Those stories didn't ring true to me, and it turns out that Ford's PR crew has engaged in some careful -- and dubious -- parsing. While Ford did in fact move up in the European automaker standings in March, it wasn't into first place. Volkswagen remains Europe's top automaker, with a 19.8% market share. PSA is second with 13%, and in third, moving up a notch, is Ford, having passed by Renault with an 11.8% share to the French company's 9.9%.
So what is Ford's press office talking about? Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars did a nice bit of dissection on Ford's numbers, and apparently, if you look just at specific brands of cars, not totals by automakers, and if you look just at European Union countries, not counting Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland, one could in fact claim that Ford-brand cars did in fact outsell VW-brand cars by a very slight margin.
Given that the VW Group sells significant quantities of cars in Europe under other brands -- Audi, SEAT, and Skoda, for instance -- this is a distinction without substance, one that nobody -- including Ford's PR crew -- should find worthy of note.
Get ready for a lot of battery talk
Mass-market electric cars are coming. This isn't news. It'll be a long time before electric vehicle power completely replaces internal combustion, but with mileage requirements heading sharply up in coming years, the world's automakers are scrambling to get cleaner and greener technologies out of the labs and onto dealer lots.
The big obstacle to affordable, practical electric cars has long been battery technology. Vast resources have been thrown at this problem in recent years, and results are finally at hand. Nissan's all-electric Leaf should be on the market by the end of this year, with the electric version of Ford's Focus following a few months later.
But it's the batteries that will make these cars -- and many, many more -- possible at affordable prices. The state of Michigan has provided incentives for electric-car-battery manufacturers, hoping both to spur mass production and to become a center for battery technology. Already, several companies -- including Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI ) , A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) , and Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW ) , which is based in Midland -- are taking advantage of the offer to build battery plants in the state, and more investment is expected.
Living with an EV
A lot of work is being done on making these cars easy to live with, as well. AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV ) , best known for its military work, has partnered with Nissan to create in-home car chargers that operate on 220-volt circuits, speeding up recharging time significantly. The chargers will be made to a new global standard, and should work with any brand of electric car. Installation costs should be around $2,200, the company says.
But there are still many questions about the (massive) demands that electric cars will make on the nation's energy grid. Charging an electric car will double many households' energy consumption, according to some estimates, and while some thought has been put into managing that energy consumption on a household level -- Ford and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) are pairing up to utilize the software giant's "Hohm" system in upcoming vehicles -- the larger-scale questions will be occupying a lot of brainpower as these cars move toward mass adoption.