Rumble Seat: Frankfurt 2017: China, EVs, and Dieselgate -- WSJ
By Dan Neil
This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (September 23, 2017).
Two weeks ago (Sept. 11), the night before the IAA Frankfurt International Motor Show opened to the press, I strolled through the doors of Daimler Mercedes-Benz' vast, lighter-than-air pavilion thinking I knew the story. I even had a headline: Daimler AG's Stuck Throttle.
The oldest of the German automaking giants, Daimler's recent financials have rocked. Group revenue was up 3% (153.3 billion euro) in 2016, with record profits (8.8 billion). Mercedes-Benz Cars in particular has come roaring back to retake the title of world's number-one premium luxury brand. Sales were up 9% in Q2 2017 alone. Product design is killing it.
Even the Formula One team is winning. Lounging on stage, an Amazonian creature in a windswept carbon-fiber negligee: the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE, a street-legal hypercar built around the +1,000-hp hybrid powertrain of a Formula One car. Each of 275 copies costs $2.7 million euros. The engine revs to over 11 grand. That should be lively.
But Daimler's solemn commitment to eternally high returns, what it calls a "sustainable" 10% net profit to shareholders, means it can't let off the throttle, ever. And it's heading for a wall. A Great Wall. In China.
See? I even had catchy phrases at the ready.
Two days before Daimler's pep rally, on Sept. 9, industry ministers in China confirmed that, like France, the U.K., Norway and the Netherlands, the world's largest vehicle market (24.4 million in 2016) would phase out fossil-fuel vehicle sales in favor of widespread, state-sponsored vehicle electrification.
Because of climate change? Sort of, sure. But with its cities shrouded with deadly tailpipe smog, China's air-quality concerns are more regional than global. The nation of 1.37 billion souls is also trying to kick the imported-oil habit. China has already outlined tough electrification mandates for automakers, with costly penalties behind them, that have left the German automakers crying for mercy. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel's help, they got the start date pushed back to 2019.