The Paris Motor Show is in full swing, and for the first years, Chinese automakers such as BYD are front and central. The full capabilities of China as a technology leader are now on full display, and incumbents in the West are starting to feel queasy.
It's disturbing, I root for Europe. I want it to be us taking the leadership. Chinese carmakers have an advantage over us, and the Chinese government has been betting on the EVs for 15 years. - Laurens van den Acker, director of design for Renault group.
You bet they were. Not to mention that the memo was sent regularly every quarter since 2008, and it seems that very few EU automakers did care.
Now don't get me wrong, the problem is not so much facing a decade of jet lag with a 1.4B people market now fully geared to normalize electric vehicles and (obviously) importing them. No, the problem is deeper.
The problem is that EU automakers are still largely talking about the car whereas no one on the other side is competing on the car. Just like Apple doesn't compete with smartphones, Chinese automakers compete as platforms. Platforms with a hardware layer (robust industrial skateboard solutions, among other things), a full software layer (including mapping and payments), an energy layer, and a data layer (including open-source level 5 self-driving). And yes, years of experience in the EV industry and full-on governmental support.
If anything, Tesla is another symptom of this ongoing product vs. platform unculture. Mapping Tesla's competitive advantage is not so much about their EV range or the dashboard's sleekness. It was about seeing them as an energy platform with battery Gigafactories fully operational since 2016. For nearly a decade, Tesla controlled 1/5 of worldwide car battery production. The missing 4/5? They were in China.
Where was Europe, you ask? Good question.
Crying foul on this massive head-start is very disingenuous, as both the US and EU have been abundantly sponsoring automakers and trying to help them transition from many crises. An entire generation of vice presidents and managers simply chose to ignore the electric transition, assuming that someone else would eventually deal with this thorny challenge. Ignore a problem long enough and it will disappear (not). As such, the "China crisis" is a crisis of their own making. And if I'm not rooting for China, it's just a market that I know well and that I've learned to respect as a formidable and worthy competitor.
The competitive intensity is increasing. It's the most fun time to work in automotive since 1886. It's also the most uncertain time. - Ola Kallenius, Mercedes-Benz CEO
I'd like to believe that the EU still has a few strategic cards to play that don't involve imposing tariffs or blocking imports. Although now an official challenger, the EU car manufacturers can comeback in this fierce competition. Remembering where's their DNA while now genuinely facing a transformed market could be a start.
To get there; they will have to stop driving by looking in the rear mirror and doing a few things. Like killing the SUV or getting good at software.