It was another interesting week in the global auto business, as General Motors continued its march (back) to the stock market and Ford (NYSE: F) shrugged off worries about fleet sales. Here are a few of last week's highlights.

Is this the double dip?
Get ready for some ugly auto sales numbers: According to industry-watchers at both and, things are looking grim. TrueCar predicts that August U.S. light-vehicle sales will be down nearly 20% over last year's levels, a major reversal after months of year-over-year increases.

Of course, last August's numbers were inflated by the U.S. government's Cash for Clunkers incentives program, but even when compared to last month, the predictions for August look grim. Only Honda (NYSE: HMC) is expected to show month-over-month gains, with Edmunds predicting that Ford's August sales will be down 2.4% from July, and sales at Toyota (NYSE: TM) off a sobering 6.2%. Despite the drop, TrueCar expects Ford to gain a bit of market share, largely at the expense of Toyota and General Motors.

Overall, TrueCar expects August sales to be off 3% from July's totals. Edmunds' guess isn't much rosier, forecasting a 1.4% decline. And keep in mind that even 2010's good months have reflected historically low sales rates: A widely watched U.S. auto sales indicator currently suggests that total 2010 sales will be under 12 million, a far cry from the 16 million-17 million that was considered typical as recently as 2007.

This can't be a welcome trend for GM, with its IPO looming. And with new-car sales being a key indicator of consumer spending, it's not looking good on that front, either -- but we'll know for sure when the automakers release official sales figures later this week.

Toyota gets green(er)
Toyota released its latest "Environmental Action Plan" last week, and while there weren't too many surprises, its key points are worth a look:

  • Plug-in hybrids: Green-car enthusiasts have been hoping for a plug-in version of the Prius for some time, and it looks like they might finally get their wish: Toyota said it will introduce its first plug-in hybrid ("PHEV" in industry-speak) by 2012, and expects to sell "tens of thousands" annually. Toyota indicated that this car will be a hybrid with electric drive "for daily use," suggesting an arrangement similar to the upcoming Chevrolet Volt's powertrain, where the gasoline engine is used for recharging rather than propulsion.
  • Battery-powered car: Toyota also expects to sell a fully electric car, one powered entirely by batteries like the Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA) Roadster and Nissan's upcoming Leaf. This car will be marketed for short-distance use and is expected in 2012, though it's not clear (at least to me) whether it'll be sold in the U.S.
  • Regular ol' hybrids: They want to sell a million hybrids a year worldwide. Given the strength of Toyota's hybrids to date, I doubt that'll be a problem.
  • Fuel cells. Toyota hasn't forgotten fuel cells, which convert a fuel -- generally hydrogen -- to electricity with benign emissions and which were once thought to be key to the auto's future. While the automakers and key suppliers like Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI) and Lear (NYSE: LEA) have invested heavily in electric and hybrid-electric solutions, Toyota will cover its bases and "develop a next generation FC vehicle and market it for mid-long distance use." Perhaps tellingly, no timetable is given.

BYD walks it back, again
A year ago, China's BYD Auto, the battery-and-auto-maker partly owned by Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B), issued a daring proclamation: It aimed to be no less than the world's No. 1 automaker by 2025. The company had ambitious plans to storm the world's markets, setting up an outpost in Germany and announcing that it would introduce an all-electric car to the U.S. later this year.

To the surprise of approximately nobody, BYD walked that prediction back a wee bit in an interview with China's Global Times last week. The company hasn't come close to meeting its 2010 sales targets, and while it has a long list of semi-plausible explanations for its sales struggles, the overall impression is one of disarray: Dealers have pulled out of agreements, the company is in trouble with China's Ministry of Land Resources over factories that may or may not have been built illegally on farmland, and the much-vaunted (or at least much-hyped) F3DM plug-in hybrid car sold a whopping 18 (yes, 18) units in the first half of 2010.

All eyerolling aside, BYD is still on track to sell some 600,000 cars this year, and expects to follow through on plans to bring its E6 electric sedan to Europe and the U.S. in the near future.

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