Battery bottleneck stalls electric car sales

Most car makers now likely to miss their EU emissions limits this year

Volkswagen has kicked off the building of batteries at what will become its own ‘Gigafactory’ for electric vehicle (EV) power sources in the next five years

Production of electric cars in Europe is stalling due to a lack of battery supply. Meanwhile, and not entirely unrelated, it looks as if the majority of Europe's car makers will overshoot their fleet carbon emissions limits this year, and be subject to major fines.

Audi is the latest car maker to slow down, or even pause entirely, production of major electric models because it cannot get its hands on sufficient batteries. Production of the company's e-Tron quattro electric SUV has stopped, temporarily, with the German car maker quoting "bottlenecks in the parts supply" as the reason.

Batteries have not been specifically mentioned, but it seem the most likely cause. Jaguar has also stopped production of its I-Pace electric SUV, which is built in Graz, Austria, saying battery supply was causing problems. Jaguar sources its batteries for the I-Pace from a Polish factory owned by South Korean battery giant LG Chem. The same factory is also due to start supplying batteries to Ford for its new Mustang Mach-E this year.

The moves mean that Audi now estimates it will build 4,100 e-Trons this year, down from a projection of 5,700. Jaguar (or rather is Austrian contractor, Magna Steyr, which builds the I-Pace under licence) built 17,355 I-Paces last year. It's not yet known how much the current slowdown will affect total I-Pace production.


Another car maker being affected by LG Chem supplies is Mercedes-Benz. A report in German publication Manager Magazin has cut forecasted production of its EQC electric SUV by half - from 60,000 this year to just 30,000. Mercedes has denied the report, but the EQC has been dogged already by reports of poor sales performance. Against expectation of some 25,000 global sales last year, Mercedes actually sold just 7,000 EQCs around the world, and sales in Germany fell as low as 55 units in December.

The problem for European makers of electric cars is that 80 per cent of global battery production capacity is in the Far East, in China, Korea, and Japan. Worse still, these slowdowns and capacity shortfalls were already biting before the full effects of the coronavirus outbreak was felt. The economic fallout associated with the Covid-19 virus is likely to further restrict parts and battery supplies in the coming months.

Made in Europe

Europe has resolved to start making its own batteries, with German deputy economy minister Thomas Bareiss saying: "If we let China own the battery, then we lose out on the centrepiece of electric cars, I'm not sure that's the best approach for our auto industry." With electric car-sales expected to balloon in Europe to some 7.7 million units in the next 10 years, that's going to take a lot of batteries.

Volkswagen has kicked off the building of batteries at what will become its own "Gigafactory" for electric vehicle (EV) power sources in the next five years. The new plant at Salzgitter (about an hour southwest of VW's home plant in Wolfsburg, in Germany) won't start mass-producing EV batteries until 2023, but a pilot line has already opened up to start work on figuring out the best ways to build lots of batteries, and build them fast.

The VW Gigafactory, which will be built in co-operation with Swedish battery-maker Northvolt, will have 700 employees with a further 300 to be employed on the battery project at VW's development centre

Northvolt already has its own Gigafactory in Sweden, where it makes batteries for both VW and BMW, with a capacity of as much as 16 giga-watt-hours (gWh) of manufacturing capacity every year, that's enough to make batteries for roughly 250,000 electric cars, assuming each car uses a 62kWh battery pack.

The new VW-Northvolt Gigafactory will equal that production rate when operating at full capacity in 2023. Volkswagen is investing €1 billion in the project, €100 million in its own development and pilot plant work, and a further €900 million in the Gigafactory.

That extra battery capacity can’t come soon enough for Europe’s car makers, who are betting on increasing sales of EVs to trim their fleet CO2 emissions to meet 2021 legislation. If car makers don’t hit an average of 95g/km (which can vary according to the size of a company’s sales footprint) then they’ll have to pay massive fines of €95 per g/km over their targets, multiplied by the number of vehicles sold. For some car makers, that will add up to billions of euro in fines.

According to a new report by PA Consulting, only Toyota and – oddly – Jaguar Land Rover are actually anywhere near meeting their 2021 targets. The slight oddity of Land Rover reflects the fact that as a relatively small-scale manufacturer, Jaguar Land Rover's target CO2 emissions are actually 130g/km, and PA Consulting reckons it will hit 135g/km on average by 2021. That still means a hefty €93 million fine, though.

Toyota is the best performer and is expected to be at 95.1g/km by next year, which would lead to an €18 million fine.

The likes of Renault-Nissan and PSA Groupe are staring down the barrel of €1-billion (or thereabouts) fines from next year, and that in spite of heavy investment in electric vehicles. Hyundai-Kia, too, looks set for a €1 billion fine according to PA Consulting, as is Daimler-Benz, while BMW might have to pay out €750 million. Ford is on track for a €1.4 billion.

Worst hit are the Volkswagen Group which on current trends is going to have to fork out a massive €4.5 billion in fines, and Fiat-Chrylser Automobiles, which in spite of having bought CO2 credits from Tesla is in line for a €2.4 billion fine.

Responding to the figures, Eric-Mark Huitema, director general of ACEA, the umbrella group that represents Europe’s car makers at government and EU level, said, “Mobility must remain affordable for all Europeans, regardless of where someone lives or how much they earn. Moreover, if Europe really wants to make a major leap forward with the Green Deal, this occasion should also be used to strengthen the global competitiveness of the EU auto industry. Not just for the manufacturers represented by ACEA, but especially for the 13.8 million Europeans employed by our sector.”

Others, though, say that the car industry is still hiding behind excuses when it comes to bringing electric cars to the market.

Julia Poliscanova, e-mobility director of lobby group Transport & Environment (T&E), said that: "Even before the EU CO2 standards for new cars kicked in in January, the electric car sales in the last quarter of 2019 reached an all-time high. This shows that the demand is there and is growing, and the reason for low sales until now has been a poor supply of models by car makers.

Jens Müller, air quality manager at T&E, said car makers should be put under ever-greater pressure to perform: “The EU’s air pollution laws must drive zero-emission mobility and not leave the door open for laggard car makers to go on polluting.”