BEIJING — Covid-related restrictions have increased production costs for Chinese electric car start-up WM Motor, even as existing chip and battery shortages are driving up costs, CEO Freeman Shen told CNBC.
“Adding all these things together, this industry is a fast-growing industry, but the cost part of the equation is also going to be a challenge,” Shen, also founder and chairman of WM Motor, said Wednesday.
Sales of new energy vehicles — which include battery-only and hybrid-powered cars — more than doubled last year in China, the world’s largest automobile market. The country has become a hotbed for electric car start-ups and a launch pad for many traditional auto giants making the shift to electric.
China quickly controlled the local spread of the coronavirus in 2020 by imposing swift lockdowns on cities and neighborhoods. But after the emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant, some analysts started to question whether the costs of the zero-Covid policy now outweigh the benefits.
The impact is already being felt by factories. A Chinese ministry overseeing manufacturing said this month the lockdowns would be a drag on industrial production in the first quarter.
Shen laid out the impact of Covid-related restrictions on his start-up:
A chip manufacturer in Malaysia had production problems and stopped delivering to Bosch China, which then stopped delivering to WM Motor.
Within China, after Covid cases emerged in Nanjing, one of WM Motor’s battery cell suppliers stopped deliveries.
In the last few months, similar disruptions affected two of the company’s suppliers in the Shangyu district of Shaoxing city, near Hangzhou.
Covid-related restrictions on the Ningbo port area also stopped delivery from three suppliers there.
“So, all these things were killing us,” Shen told CNBC.
Automakers around the world have cut production due to a shortage of semiconductors. Geopolitical tensions and overwhelming demand for chips in the wake of the pandemic contributed to a shortfall in supply that has lasted for more than a year.
Shen said he expects the chip shortage to improve in the second half of this year, based on conversations with his start-up’s 11 chip suppliers.
Electric car battery shortage
However, he pointed to another looming problem that could get worse: Rising raw materials costs for batteries.
Battery-grade lithium carbonate prices were up more than 500% year-on-year as of earlier this month, according to S&P Global Platts. The firm’s survey of industry insiders released this week found that 80% of respondents expect those lithium prices to remain high this year — about four times higher than the start of 2021.
The battery shortage will likely worsen as demand for electric cars in China picks up in the second quarter, Shen said. For 2022, he expects electric car sales in the country to nearly double from last year to about 5 million vehicles.
The surge in electric car sales comes despite an overall decline in passenger car sales in the last several months as China’s consumer spending slumped.
WM Motor said it delivered a quarterly record of 15,114 vehicles in the last three months of 2021, bringing cumulative deliveries to 88,686 since the start-up handed over its first car to a customer in 2018.
The companies are still far smaller than Tesla, which in China sells two of the market’s five best-selling electric cars. Elon Musk said in a tweet the automaker reached the far higher milestoneof producing 1 million cars in March 2020.
Shen said supply chain challenges affected the company’s delivery volumes last year more than consumer interest. Tesla also blamed supply chain issues for its 2021 performance in its earnings release this week.
Reassessing a Japanese manufacturing model
One of the reasons the pandemic disrupted the supply chain is that factories have historically used a longstanding Japanese model of “just-in-time” or lean manufacturing, in which factories only purchase parts as needed to reduce costs and increase efficiency, Shen pointed out.
But now, the strategy is changing.
“In order to make sure you can deliver your car, you probably will start thinking: We have to waste some of our money to keep some stock,” he said. “For a car company, the biggest loss would be losing the sales to your customer.”
Part of WM Motor’s sales strategy is to work with property developers to open test drive sites in more residential neighborhoods, while building up the cars’ autonomous driving capabilities such as in parking, Shen said.
He said the company will need to raise prices to cope with rising costs, as others in the industry already have.
For one, Tesla raised the price for its Model Y in China by 21,088 yuan ($3,300) in December to 301,840 yuan ($47,450), after subsidies. WM Motor’s cars are about half that price.
Travel restrictions affect business
Economists say China’s Covid-related travel restrictions affect consumer spending more than factories.
Cities frequently change Covid testing requirements for travel, while flights and train tickets can get cancelled based on newly reported Covid cases.
These restrictions have also affected WM Motor, Shen said. The company has research and development, factory and other business-side operations in Shanghai, Chengdu, Zhejiang province and Hubei province, in addition to about 500 brick-and-mortar stores across the country.
He said the company has had to use more technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality to help employees and customers communicate despite travel restrictions.
“We have to use this kind of technology, because if not, the user experience is going to be terrible, and the efficiency is going to be very bad. And we sometimes cannot even get things done,” Shen said.
Asked if he had any IPO plans, Shen said there was no news to announce on the listing front, and cited the pressing delivery issues.
“Obviously people had a lot of expectation, our investor had a lot of expectation, but we are very busy these days to deliver our product,” he said. “Hopefully we can get something to announce in the near future.”