This week's big headlines in the land of autos included Tuesday's surprising profit from Toyota (NYSE: TM ) and Ford's (NYSE: F ) annual meeting on Thursday. But as always, there's a lot more going on. Here are a few of the stories you might have missed.
Is China's car frenzy slowing down?
Automakers are counting on the hotter-than-hot Chinese auto market to drive sales growth -- but it may be cooling down. April sales rose roughly 34% year over year, which sounds impressive … until one remembers that recent year-over-year increases have been much higher. Indeed, compared to March, April's sales were down more than 10%.
Part of the "slowdown" simply stems from the maturation of the market, of course. And part of it owes to the Chinese government's taxes on new cars, which has risen from 5% last year to 7.5% now. But sales are definitely slowing -- dealer inventories are rising, according to some reports -- and China's domestic automakers are getting the worst of it, with their combined market share falling 3% in April.
BYD, the battery maker/car company partially owned by Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) , still sells China's best-selling car, the F3. But there's reason to believe the Chinese are moving away from small domestic models, toward larger cars from foreign nameplates. Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) Camry now ranks among the 10 top-selling cars in the country.
If anything, this is likely to spur further consolidation among China's domestic automakers, with smaller makers falling by the wayside as heavyweights like BYD and Geely -- Volvo's new owner -- continue to hold their own against foreign bigwigs like Volkswagen and General Motors.
GM's former finance arm, GMAC (NYSE: GJM ) , completed its name change to the more generic "Ally Bank" on Monday. Almost as if on cue, word arrives that GM may be planning to reenter the captive finance business -- possibly through a reacquisition of the GMAC name and portfolio, possibly through the creation of a new entity.
According to a Bloomberg report, GM CEO Ed Whitacre wants to establish this new in-house finance arm before the company's IPO, which could happen late this year. Most automakers have such financing units, which can provide their dealers with better terms on leases and auto loans -- and allow them to provide financing-related incentives at lower cost. Having a captive finance unit within GM would improve the automaker's competitiveness on the retail level -- which would certainly enhance the company's appeal to potential shareholders.
GM sold control of GMAC to private-equity firm Cerberus in 2006, when the former company was scrambling to raise cash. Cerberus subsequently merged Chrysler's financial unit into GMAC -- which could complicate a reacquisition, since Chrysler continues to use GMAC for auto lending. But it seems likely that one way or another, GM is headed back into the lending business.
You can't escape your email now
Until recently, driving offered a respite from BlackBerry-fueled email compulsion -- except for those addicted enough to unwisely try driving and thumb-typing at the same time. But this sad gap in the lives of email junkies hasn't escaped the automakers, who are working to bring the BlackBerry's functionality -- and other smartphone apps -- to info-starved drivers in a (relatively) safe way.
Ford has already announced that SYNC, the acclaimed in-car "infotainment" system it co-developed with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , will incorporate voice-activated Twittering in the near future. The automaker's upcoming Fiesta will pioneer a new iteration of SYNC that will allow voice-command operation of some apps on BlackBerries and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android-powered devices.
That's cool, but if you're a CrackBerry addict, the news gets even better. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) and BMW recently announced a collaborative effort to bring some of the device's functionality to the German automaker's iDrive system. Future iDrive-equipped BMWs will sync to your BlackBerry via Bluetooth and read your email messages to you as you drive. Yep, out loud.
All of this is cool technology, but am I the only one who thinks that having one's car read one's email out loud is one feature we might be better off without? It certainly beats driving while typing, but the proposed function still seems to me like one more distraction that drivers don't need.
Is voice-activated CrackBerry functionality a good idea -- or an accident waiting to happen? Scroll down to leave a comment and let me know.