Top automakers such as Tesla and SAIC (Volkswagen’s partner in China) are slowly rolling towards a restart after weeks of shutdowns of their plants in Shanghai, China’s worst coronavirus outbreak site, in two years. Baidu and self-driving unicorn Pony.ai received permits to offer fully autonomous rides to the Beijing public in late April, the first service of its kind in the country. Domestic battery suppliers saw profits plunge in the first quarter amid rising raw material costs, thanks to a strong demand for electric vehicles (EVs) that utterly outstrips supply.

Shanghai’s Covid outbreak continues to weigh on auto production through May

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As Tesla and Volkswagen’s plants in Shanghai slowly resume production, China’s auto industry is struggling to regain the momentum lost during a citywide lockdown that has dealt a significant blow to local businesses over the past two months. Government officials said on May 13 that employees from 95% of the companies on a whitelist of 666 firms prioritized for business resumption are now getting back to work, with automakers and suppliers accounting for more than a third of the total.

China’s biggest automaker SAIC said on May 13 that its joint facilities with Volkswagen and General Motors have restarted production in mid-April in a single shift rather than their usual two shifts, with each plant assembling at least 2,000 vehicles every day. As a result, Tesla shipped out another 4,000 locally-made vehicles to Europe on May 15, four days after its first shipment of 4,767 cars set sail from the Port of Shanghai – the first to do so since the start of the sweeping lockdowns in the city, Chinese media reported.

Supply chain hurdles: Disruption related to labor and supply chains continues to impact auto firms, as many workers can’t return to their workplaces due to inflexible Covid-19 control restrictions in many parts of the city. Tesla’s Shanghai facility reportedly idled most of its production lines for a few days earlier this month due to insufficient supplies, when Aptiv, one of its key parts suppliers, halted shipments of some parts due to new Covid cases at its local plant.

Auto supplier giant Bosch has only experienced a partial recovery with output at around 30%-75% of its pre-pandemic levels at several manufacturing sites, a result of worker shortage and supply chain crunch, its China president Chen Yudong said at a May 11 press conference, while also calling for the easing of Covid restrictions. 

The auto firms that have resumed operations represent only a fraction of the 20,000 parts suppliers, big and small, located in Shanghai and nearby regions, state-owned media outlet China Newsweek reported on May 11, citing several experts.

Weak Q2 guidance: Analysts expect output to slightly recover in May but believe a full recovery is still some way off, as the industry struggles with massive uncertainty caused by Covid lockdowns. Li Auto, which has a production base in the eastern city of Changzhou, was among the automakers hit hard by the lockdown, releasing poor second-quarter revenue guidance on May 11 due to a likely disruption to parts supplies.

And yet, there is still a chance to make up for lost sales in China during the rest of the year if automakers can ramp up car output, given that a growing number of consumers feel safer traveling alone than taking public transport, experts say. In April, Tesla maintained its forecast of at least 50% annual growth for vehicle deliveries this year, despite saying that production volume could take a hit of 8% in the second quarter due to a month-long production halt at its Shanghai facility. The China Passenger Car Association predicted that total passenger vehicle sales may face zero growth to remain at 20.1 million units this year, compared with 2021’s growth rate of 4.4%.

Driverless cars get a push from China’s capital

In a rare step, Beijing authorities announced on April 28 that Baidu and Pony.ai have been authorized to participate in the country’s first pilot program to provide driverless rides to the public in test vehicles. Following the move, Baidu and Pony.ai began by operating 10 and four autonomous vehicles, respectively. The vehicles operate without safety drivers on public roads in an area of 23 square miles in the city’s southeast Yizhuang district. However, each vehicle has a company employee overseeing the journey in a passenger seat, and the firms are not allowed to charge a fee for now.

Chinese self-driving car companies have faced a long and arduous reality check since a wave of early hype and hopes of scaling the technology. Now, regulators are giving the industry a boost by permitting the offering of autonomous services to the public in the country’s capital city – with no human safety driver at the wheel. Concurrently, the race to prove robotaxis are a viable business is intensifying among the top contenders.

AVs undergo reality check: Despite the milestone in Beijing, few of China’s self-driving car startups are making any money, and venture capitalists have been cooling on the companies over the past year, particularly those with little to show commercial prospects. Total investment activity for robotaxi companies fell by 22% annually to $8.4 billion in much of 2021, data compiled by startup data platform PitchBook and obtained by Reuters showed.

Major players are working hard to live up to their promises. WeRide became China’s first self-driving company by testing completely driverless cars in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in July 2020. In January of this year, its fleet of 300 autonomous vehicles had logged 10 million kilometers after four years of testing. For Baidu, that number is more than double, and the tech giant said that it provided more than 320,000 autonomous rides in eight domestic cities as of last year, with plans to expand the service to 65 cities by 2025. 

Chinese battery makers’ profits slump amid supply chain issues

Drops in Q1 profit: Despite being buoyed by strong demand for electric vehicles in the country, Chinese battery makers are facing a profit squeeze as the global supply chain continues to buckle under the pressure of rising costs, limited raw materials, and manufacturing disruption. On April 29, CATL reported a year-on-year profit tumble of 41% to RMB 977 million for the three months that ended in March, which came in far below expectations of a RMB 5 billion profit from multiple analysts. It was CATL’s first quarterly decline in net profit since 2020. Meanwhile, profits of the Volkswagen-backed Gotion declined 33%, while Sunwoda, a lesser-known supplier invested in by EV maker Li Auto, also saw a 26% decline in profits despite double-digit revenue growth.

Q2 easing expected: Margins for battery makers have been dragged down by surging raw material costs made worse by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and a global pandemic. An index for battery-grade lithium prices increased by 127% in the first quarter of this year, after a 280% surge in 2021, according to data provider Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. The costs of nickel and cobalt also exploded during the first three months of this year, which hit battery suppliers hard since many of them had negotiated quarterly price terms with automakers for the period up to last December.

Analysts estimate that the supply shortage of raw materials will slightly ease starting in the second quarter of 2022 as battery suppliers step up efforts to secure minerals and expand production capacity. Margins are also expected to improve as most battery makers increased the prices of their products in March by at least 15% for the second quarter, China Securities Journal reported on April 28, citing company sources. This rally in material costs has been reflected in the recent price increases for EVs, ranging from RMB 2,000 to RMB 30,000, although analysts expect that EV sales will maintain their growth momentum this year, boosted by inflated oil prices.

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