Every Friday, we round up a few key developments you might have missed as the global auto industry's historic transformation continues to unfold. This week, we read the sales tea leaves, bring you an update on Silicon Valley's favorite carmaker, and check in with a Chinese company's continuing push to become a global household name.
More evidence that the U.S. economy is heading south
June's U.S. auto sales numbers looked good on the surface -- up 15% year over year -- but there are troubling trends brewing. June 2009 was one of the worst months in U.S. automotive history, with both General Motors and Chrysler filing for bankruptcy, making this year's modest gain look even more modest. And given that June's sales were down some 10% from May's, it does appear that the economic recovery is losing steam.
Along those lines, solid-looking top-line numbers from GM and Ford (NYSE: F ) proved largely fueled by big year-over-year gains in fleet sales. Fleet sales -- and automakers' "dependence" on them -- get knocked by analysts because they tend to be lower-margin than retail sales. In many cases, they're made to more-or-less-captive buyers like auto-rental companies, and thus they aren't reflective of the automaker's true competitive position.
That said, fleet sales are profitable sales, and (any) profitable sales are better than no sales. In addition, recent increases in fleet sales are probably driven largely by pent-up demand from corporate and government entities, rather than anything the automakers might be doing to puff up sales numbers.
Elsewhere in June's sales figures:
- Toyota (NYSE: TM ) seems to have settled into a solid third place, well behind Ford.
- Honda's (NYSE: HMC ) Civic was the best-selling compact car in June.
- Chrysler continues to struggle while it waits for new products. (More on that next week.)
- Jaguar -- which had all but vanished from U.S. buyers' radar screens since its sale to India's Tata Motors (NYSE: TTM ) -- is finally showing signs of life, with sales up an impressive 73% year-over-year.
Toyota testing Tesla tie?
Toyota's investment in Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) continues to draw speculation over the Japanese automaker's true intentions. This week produced evidence that Toyota has begun to focus on its newly public Silicon Valley partner. Speaking with media on Friday, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda mentioned that the automaker is now building an electric-car prototype with a Tesla battery pack.
The automaker is apparently interested in comparing Tesla's battery arrangement to its own. Like most automakers, Toyota uses large-format lithium-ion batteries developed specifically for vehicle use, in this case via a joint venture with Panasonic. Tesla, on the other hand, uses packs of commodity lithium-ion cells like the ones used in laptop batteries, cramming nearly 7,000 of them into each of Tesla's Roadsters.
Tesla's approach got the automaker to market at a time when large-format batteries weren't available, and they've have shown good range in real-world conditions. (Provided your real world involves driving a $100,000 sports car, anyway.) But the company's battery packs haven't been extensively tested through the kind of everyday four-season year-after-year use that Toyota and other large automakers expect from their products.
I'll be interested to see how Toyota proceeds after it's hammered on Tesla's technology for a while.
Tesla's surprising retail model
Speaking of Tesla, here's a stunner: The automaker plans to model its factory-owned dealerships on Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) retail stores. That's not really news, but the company's hire of a former Apple vice president this week takes those plans one step closer to reality.
On Thursday, Tesla announced that it had hired George Blankenship, formerly Apple's vice president of real estate, and the man credited with establishing the distinctive look and feel of Apple's factory-owned retail stores, as its vice president of design and store development. Blankenship's first task will be to oversee the opening of new Tesla dealerships in Tokyo, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. as the company continues to prepare for the 2012 rollout of its Model S sedan.
BYD's international expansion continues
Another component of BYD's plan for global domination came to light this week. The Chinese auto-and-battery-maker (and electric car specialist), part-owned by Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) , hopes to begin assembling cars in Russia in partnership with Russian firm TagAZ.
TagAZ recently parted ways with Hyundai, its longtime partner, making it a perfect fit for BYD's aggressive international expansion plans. TagAZ's plant in Taganrog has apparently tooled up to produce BYD's F3 sedan, and the partners hope to turn out 10,000 of the cars by the end of this year.