Shanghai and Changchun, two of China’s major auto hubs, have been swamped by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. The outbreaks, coupled with China’s strict epidemic control measures, have resulted in a huge blow to April auto sales. Now auto executives and analysts say that the impact could cripple the whole industry if the lockdowns remain unchanged.

“All Chinese car manufacturers will have to stop production in May, if there is no way for those in Shanghai and suppliers nearby to restart operations and production,” He Xiaopeng, chief executive of Xpeng Motors, said Thursday on his Weibo microblog (our translation).  

The Xpeng leader is not the only boss to express deep concerns about the consequences of China’s current wave of lockdowns. Richard Yu, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group and smart car solution unit, said on Friday that technology and manufacturing businesses linked to suppliers in Shanghai could “stop altogether” in May if a solution is not found soon. “This is especially the case for the auto industry, and the economic loss could be huge,” Yu wrote on his WeChat Moments feed, according to a report by Chinese media Sina Tech (our translation). 

Auto giants are already feeling the pain of lockdowns that began in Changchun early in March and were extended later that month to Shanghai. Auto sales in Shanghai and Changchun, the capital city of northeastern Jilin province, have ground to a halt. The Shanghai outbreak could lead to a sharp 20% drop in vehicle sales, the China Passenger Car Association said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s auto sales in China tumbled 23.9% year-on-year to 754,000 units for the first quarter, which the company’s China CEO Stephan Wöllenstein on Thursday attributed to lockdown measures and chip shortages.

Tesla has been forced to halt assembly lines in its Shanghai factory since late March. General Motors is eking out some limited output with partner SAIC in Shanghai by asking workers to sleep on factory floors, while multiple major auto suppliers such as Bosch and Aptiv have suspended production, Reuters reported. 

China’s auto industry is now enveloped in a “perfect storm” with lockdowns added to the existing problems like semiconductor chip shortages and raw material disruptions due to the Russia-Ukraine war, said Stephen Dyer, a managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners. 

“The bottom line is that unless China can stamp out COVID completely, this uncertainty will hover over the entire sector like a dark cloud,” said Tu Le, managing director of consultancy Sino Auto Insights.

Both Dyer and Le expressed confidence that the industry can be on a path toward recovery if lockdown measures loosen soon, but the industry will see major losses if lockdowns continue in the long run.   

He Xiaopeng’s Thursday Weibo post noted that some of the related government officials are now “working hard to coordinate” reopening activities. Nio on Thursday also said that it is restarting operations in its plant in the eastern city of Hefei as the supply of key components improves slightly, without revealing details.

“The silver lining is that it is still only April so any lost production from late March can be made up via overtime in the rest of the year,” said Le from Sino Auto Insights. A similar sentiment is being expressed by AlixPartners’ Dyer, “If production halts are relatively short, it is possible for vehicle production and sales to quickly make up for production stoppages so that annual sales are less affected, as was the case in 2020.”

In addition, auto companies are now doing everything in their power to minimize damage and prepare for a rebound. SAIC-Volkswagen is reportedly (in Chinese) working 24 hours a day to track their shipments of components and is in contact with more than 500 suppliers to ensure supply. Volvo’s parent Geely has been assigning its employees to guard the highway junctions to transport goods from Shanghai with its own fleet, according to an April 11 report by Chinese media Caixin.

The immediate focus is on business recovery rather than profit. “Profit margins will be squeezed but their priorities right now should be to get production back online the second they get that thumbs up,” Le said.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen