ICE car values plummet in China and it is the canary in the coal mine

A looming crisis is brewing in China, as hundreds of thousands of unsold, polluting gas-powered vehicles may be rendered unsellable due to incoming emissions rules. It’s another sign that the global auto industry isn’t ready for the shift to EVs and will be caught unawares if it doesn’t ramp EV production fast enough.

The new Chinese emissions rules were announced all the way back in 2016 and are set to go into effect in July. This gave automakers almost seven full years of notice to get it together and prepare to produce and sell less-polluting vehicles, more than enough time to bring a new model fully from original conception to production.

The rules don’t ban all gas cars, but they do set stricter emissions standards on several pollutants released by internal combustion vehicles. Carbon monoxide, Nitrogen oxide, particulates, and other pollutants must all be reduced by a half or a third.

Automakers seem to have planned to continue selling polluting vehicles up until the deadline, but then COVID hit. This affected the production of vehicles but also affected purchases. Auto sales dropped, and while sales have started to recover somewhat, most of that recovery has been in EV sales, while ICE sales are still depressed.

Dealership foot traffic is high, but customers simply aren’t buying. This has left dealers with a huge glut of polluting vehicles and a ticking clock that will make them unsellable in July.

China was originally somewhat slow to adopt EVs – in 2015, EV market share was less than .84%, similar to the US market share of .66% and well below California at 3.1% at the time. But in 2022, US market share had risen to only 7.2% and California to 18.7%, whereas China’s EV market share is now a whopping 30%, leapfrogging several countries in the process. So China was a little late at the start but has advanced much more quickly in recent years, catching companies by surprise.

As a result, dealers have been offering massive discounts on polluting inventory vehicles, but this hasn’t been enough. Even the government has stepped in, with provincial governments adding additional subsidies to reduce the price of locally-produced vehicles.

Rapidly dropping prices have resulted in a “wait-and-see” attitude among Chinese buyers. Given that prices are already falling, customers think that they can wait longer and that these prices will fall even further.

Given the dealers and manufacturers are confronted with a situation where their cars will soon become valueless and that there simply aren’t enough customers interested in buying the number of cars they have in inventory, any price they can get for the cars that’s greater than zero may be worthwhile come July.

But the problem most harshly affects foreign automakers in China. Chinese companies have been faster to adopt EVs than foreign ones, so automakers from Europe, Japan, and the US will be most affected by this glut of vehicles. Sales from Chinese brands are flat year-over-year, but sales from US brands are down 12%. German and Korean brands are down 22%, and Japanese and French brands are down more than 40%.

China’s car dealership associations are scrambling for a fix. The China Auto Dealers Chamber of Commerce (CADCC) asked that the emissions rules be delayed six months, until January 1, to help clear the backlog. This is not an unexpected request from a Chamber of Commerce – organizations which so often take the side of polluters over people – but the CADCC also requested that automakers stop production of new cars that don’t meet the upcoming standards immediately, rather than continuing their production plans up until July.

But that’s just China – the same will happen around the globe

China’s turnaround on EV adoption may be an exceptional case. It has gone from a relative laggard to one of the global leaders and now stands only behind Northern Europe in current EV market share. The timing of COVID, the rapid shift to EVs, and new emissions rules have created somewhat of a perfect storm in the country.

But make no mistake – similar trends will play out elsewhere in the world in the coming years, and many automakers simply are not ready.

It takes time to design, build, and distribute vehicles, as these companies know well. But the inability to project trends seven years into the future will prove to be the downfall of laggard companies that don’t take EVs seriously.

I don’t say this in an attempt to function as some sort of oracle of the automotive industry, but from simple observation of events happening now.

We’ve seen other regions shift to EVs faster than expected. Even Norway, long known to be a standout in EV adoption, has taken many by surprise. The country planned to end gas car sales in 2025, but it’s already basically there. This has resulted in some brands hastily withdrawing their gas cars from the Norwegian market – Hyundai only gave a few days of notice that they would stop selling gas cars in the country at the start of this year.

This sort of thing is possible in a country that’s part of a large economic bloc where cars can be shifted around to other nations, but when the entire bloc goes electric, what then? We get a situation like China’s, with stranded vehicles that may end up being worth nothing or close to it.

We’ve also seen some drivers, not even high-mileage ones, realize that renting, fueling, and maintaining an EV is cheaper than the continued running costs of using a paid-for gas car. When that happens, the value of the gas car is effectively zero – it’s worse to continue driving it than it is to get a whole new EV.

It doesn’t take much to see that these trends could result in a full-on “bank run” to abandon gas cars and buy EVs, depending on how unbalanced the supply-demand equation becomes.

Tesla as a case study

Tesla started selling cars in 2008, and 100% of those cars were electric. But it only really got into “mass production” in 2012-2014 with the Model S. At the time, one could look at a chart of sales trends of the Model S versus competing models like the BMW 7-series, Mercedes E- and S-class, Lexus and Audi offerings, etc., and see a strange dip in all of them which coincided with the rise of Model S sales. Tesla wasn’t creating a new market, it was eating the market that existed – and fast.

And these trends continued with other models. It was clear that EVs – as long as they were designed to take advantage of the inherent benefits of electric drive and sold with purpose rather than as compliance vehicles – were going to take market share from gas cars.

The company making these moves loudly proclaimed that in order to make EVs work, one needed to ensure that they had enough batteries to manufacture these cars, enough dealers who cared to sell and knew how to sell these cars, and a suitable charging network for owners to get around in a transparent manner. So it did those things. All around a decade ago.

This wasn’t a secret; other automakers could see it happening. I had this discussion with executives from various automakers around the mid-2010s, many of whom saw it happening but couldn’t get their organizations to act with proper urgency. Meanwhile, most of them thought that they would easily overtake the newcomer with their superior manufacturing expertise – with VW famously claiming they’d reach that point by 2018 (spoiler alert: they still haven’t).

And now, we’re still hearing CEOs say that “batteries are the constraint,” while Tesla outsells every other brand’s EVs combined, twice over, in its home country. Tesla also happens to have a battery factory that broke ground nearly ten years ago now, while some manufacturers are just starting to break ground or announce investments this year.

This is not even a case of Tesla being uniquely right in these prognostications. It is the pure EV company that started first (which is to say, the only one that started at the right time), had enough funding to get off the ground in time (a difficult task), and was confronted with a blue ocean, a market that refused to build EVs in any significant number.

Tesla thus became essentially the only game in town. People want EVs, and everyone else just isn’t bothering to make them yet. This didn’t need to be inevitable. This happened due to intransigence from the major players in the industry. And this case study shows that it was not impossible to see these signs coming, nor impossible to act on them. Other automakers just…. didn’t.

The signs were there from the start

We, the EV faithful, have been trying to shout this from the mountaintops since the beginning. In fact, Electrek exists largely because of this tweet from our publisher Seth Weintraub, ten years ago this year:

We’re a few months out from Seth’s deadline, and look at what’s happening in China. In the next three months, potentially hundreds of thousands of cars are under threat of becoming valueless because they don’t meet the emissions guidelines that were announced long ago. Buyers could buy them now for a song but still aren’t interested.

In 2018, we saw the same thought make its way into “mainstream” car media when WSJ’s Dan Neil said the same. That was five years ago now, and even then he said that he would be stupid to buy a gas car at the time, because by the time he was ready to sell that car, ICE car values would likely drop to zero.

Meanwhile, the EV deals of the past (which we catalog here on Electrek) have largely dried up (well, except for the Chevy Bolt, which is a screaming deal). Automakers don’t need to give deals on EVs – everyone wants them. They’re going to sell out regardless. Heck, you can barely even find one for MSRP these days.

This mismatch of supply and demand is because automakers have consistently underestimated EV demand for a decade now. We heard for so long that the demand wasn’t there, and all of a sudden, now we’re hearing the opposite. But if you wait to react until after the demand is too high for you to fulfill, you’ll still have years worth of prep to do before being able to meet that demand.

At this point, it could be too late already for some automakers. Even the largest on Earth, Toyota, seems likely to suffer from their obstinacy (along with other Japanese automakers and perhaps the entire country of Japan). Toyota’s new CEO, Koji Sato, has given some indications that he wants to turn things around, but it’s very late in the game already.

And going back to China, this is part of what the China Automobile Circulation Association warned about in a March 24 note. It recognized that auto manufacturers got demand drastically wrong and that those companies’ underestimation of EV popularity is what has led to this situation. It called on all levels of the auto industry – government, manufacturing, and dealerships – to shape up and embrace change in a way that these entities have not yet done.

We need to see the same in the rest of the world, lest the same fate happen elsewhere. You’ve been warned.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.



About Author

You may also like


Putin attempts to undermine oil price cap as global energy markets fracture

  • December 28, 2022
Russia’s announcement of an oil export ban on countries that abide by a G-7 price cap is the latest sign

European natural gas prices return to pre-Ukraine war levels

  • December 29, 2022
A worker walks past gas pipes that connect a Floating Storage and Regasification Unit ship with the main land in