Zac Estrada is a reporter covering transportation, technology and policy. A former reporter for The Verge and Jalopnik, his work has also appeared in Automobile Magazine, Autoweek, Pacific Standard, Boston.com and BLAC Detroit. A native of Southern California, he is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston. You can find him on Twitter at @zacestrada.
After two years away from the spotlight, the Los Angeles Auto Show is plotting a comeback — and a reinvention with the changing climate.
In the aftermath of pandemic restrictions that started 18 months ago, the upcoming Auto Show — one of Los Angeles' largest events and a major draw for international visitors —will focus not only more on electric vehicles, but on an education on rapidly changing automotive technology.
"This is the decade for the electric car," said Lisa Kaz, owner and CEO of the LA Auto Show. "We're seeing all these new brands enter the market. It's the perfect storm because California leads the market in electrification."
Automakers have in the past used the L.A. show to reveal new car concepts to the public, or to gauge reaction before they're even produced. But the 2021 L.A. Auto Show, scheduled for November 19-28, has more than just the usual automotive hype on its shoulders.
After New York Auto Show organizers canceled their event last month (a result of rising Covid cases), the L.A. Auto Show is now in line to become the first major U.S. auto show since the start of the pandemic. (The Chicago Auto Show held a scaled-down event over five days in July, but only about half the space typically allotted was used and fewer automakers participated.)
The show organizers and auto companies are rethinking the traditional stands and polished array of new vehicles. This year, there will be a 45,000 square-foot indoor track to drive EVs, which will join an expanded slate of outdoor offerings, including driving courses — led by Ford, Jeep and VW, among others — and street-level test drives of certain vehicles.
There's other departures from past shows. Many automakers are moving away from the big splashy media events of past years where they talked up their latest models. And they also are using more outside space to introduce consumers to the latest bells and whistles including smartphone and media integration systems, advanced driving assistance systems and other emerging technologies.
The L.A. Auto Show may well look overseas for inspiration amid pandemic-era restrictions and corporate belt-tightening. Despite that, the International Motor Show of Germany held earlier this month in Munich seemingly went off without a hitch, attracting international media and prominent manufacturers like Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Renault. The widely spaced and masked-up event may serve as a template for such large-scale gatherings as vaccination mandates increase amid the discovery of new variants of the virus.
Still, automakers are keeping their plans for the L.A. show closely guarded for now. Some are still picking up the pieces from planned press conferences in New York, unwilling to commit to anything more than smaller, regional events.
Among the companies expected at the L.A. Auto Show is Manhattan Beach-based Fisker Inc., which plans to showcase its $38,000 Ocean electric SUV — a crucial product for the startup automaker as it tries to capture the mainstream EV market. In a conference call in August, company founder and CEO Henrik Fisker said there were contingency plans if the show were to be canceled again — including a smaller event at another time in November. But a November debut was critical to the car and company's success.
But, given the uncertainty around event planning, not every company is waiting for the biggest stage to unveil their newest vehicles.
Though Irvine-based Karma Automotive initially signed up to participate in the 2020, then 2021, L.A. Auto Show, it chose to unveil its latest product separate from a major auto show and through a virtual presentation for the media.
"We'd fully planned on attending in 2020 and then the pandemic hit," said Jeff Holland, public relations director for Karma. "That changed our planning. You have to stay on it week by week with these shows."
Holland said he saw signs traditional automotive shows are starting to fall back into place, but as the cost and logistics of shipping cars and setting up elaborate stages is weighing on some companies — especially during a global pandemic.
"It's not just the cost to exhibit, but the lighting and materials," Holland said. "And if we have a press conference, there's hosting and scriptwriting and other logistics."
As for consumers, though, Kaz said the L.A. Auto Show still serves as an important introduction to people shopping for a new car with the most up-to-date equipment. She said the show skews towards younger attendees and represents a way car shoppers can learn about advances in vehicles like electrification and advanced driver assistance systems.
"It seems like for most people when they feel like they experience a vehicle it changes perceptions," Kaz said. "We see technology changing so fast and it's been two years since the show has demonstrated it."
Kaz sees the L.A. Auto Show as an event that can lift up the city, even in times of transition. With only about three cancelations in its century-long history, the auto show celebrates this year 50 years at the Los Angeles Convention Center, when the center first opened in 1971.
But if the show doesn't go on, Kaz said she's learned to adapt to the times. More virtual events during the pandemic means a consistent rethink about how large auto shows can thrive when companies are more carefully spending money and the public is doing more shopping from home.
"We're in such unprecedented times now I think we're having to learn to adapt more," she said. "We're fortunate we're in November and not in August."
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A series of battery fires in GM cars have dented America's largest automaker's plan to go electric. GM announced a recall last week for all 2017 through 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV models citing concern over faulty batteries.
The-now $1.8 billion initiative could include the replacement of all five battery modules in more than 140,000 cars around the world. It expands a recall from last fall that included just 2017 through 2019 models and a software update.
Battery fires are nothing new to the EV industry, and electronic giant LG, among the largest manufacturers of batteries for electric vehicles. Regulators have recently expressed concern over the danger they pose to first responders.
Hyundai recently withdrew its Kona Electric from South Korea after battery fires. Tesla has been under investigation from the NHTSA over fires in its vehicles.
But the recall hovering over every Chevy Bolt is a potential gut-punch as GM transitions to an electric vehicle company by 2035 and the new car market is pushed increasingly to plug-in vehicles.
While GM is recalling every Bolt, the defect involves two rare flaws in the battery manufacturing process at plants in Michigan and South Korea. Five fires have been connected to the problem. One involved a legislator in Vermont, whose Bolt was involved in November's software update and had the fix performed. Another event occurred this summer was with a Bolt model in Arizona that was built with the new battery chemistry.
"I don't think it's a huge problem for EVs, I think it's a huge problem for GM," said Bill Soule, managing partner of TorqueEVs.com. "And that's going to be a problem going forward as [EVs] are being bought at an increasing number."
The recall comes just as GM was set to launch their Cadillac and GMC electric vehicles in California.
The Bolt, which went on sale in California at the end of 2016 as a relatively inexpensive long-range EV, and outsold by the Tesla Model S by only a few thousand cars in California in 2017. It received a new type of battery, with a new chemistry and increased range in 2020 and styling changes on the 2022 model that went on sale this summer.
GM spokesperson Daniel Flores said the original November recall was restricted to the first three years of the Bolt. Those that had battery cell defects detected by the software update received the new modules, which upped the estimated range from the original 238 miles to 259.
"We don't think every vehicle has defective cells," Flores said. "But right now, we don't have the tech that can look at the granulated cells. For the newer vehicles, when we have a repair, we'll start out replacing all the modules. But if we can develop software to determine where the cells are, we will probably be able to replace just the defective cells."
The software update on earlier Bolt cars was supposed to alert GM if a vehicle had a defective battery module. But it can't yet determine which modules are affected and prone to malfunction and fires.
Although widespread, the Bolt recall pales in comparison to the Takata airbag scandal that has involved tens of millions of vehicles from various companies across the world. And GM didn't wait for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to force it to recall cars.
"There are ways we can monitor what's happening in the field. That includes warranty data, if the customer goes into the dealership," said GM spokesperson Daniel Flores. "The service department files to the company to get paid and what the work was and the parts that were needed.
GM has faced issues with its vehicles catching fire in garages before. Earlier this summer the NHTSA warned that certain battery packs could smoke, ignite and potentially catch fire posing a threat to structures. Its solution has been to not charge the vehicle overnight and indoors, such as in an enclosed garage. It's also asking owners to change the vehicle settings to not let it charge over 90% capacity and not running it to fewer than 70 miles left on the charge. That may require an education that few owners will listen to.
"The clear benefit of an EV is that you never have to go to the gas station," Soule said. The dirty secret about vehicles is that they burn. Tesla photos get crazy hits on Reddit."
Over the last 10 years internal combustion vehicles have as much as 10 times as many complaints over fires as EVs, according to NHTSA.
"Many will see it as an automaker being proactive to address an issue with a new technology," Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics for Agoura Hills-based J.D. Power, said. "Most EV intenders are already familiar with the many Tesla fires so a legacy automaker having similar troubles could lead to a few more Tesla sales."
Southern California is a place where many EV drivers live in multi-unit dwellings without EV chargers, and therefore rely on public charging. Soule doesn't think there's an issue EV charging companies need to worry about. But it could create another problem.
"This gives a landlord all the ammunition they need to say, 'no,' to adding a home charging station," he said.
All Bolt models are still based on GM and LG's older battery technology that is about to be superseded by its new Ultium electric platform. Also co-developed with LG, the GM Ultium platform will first be used next year on the Cadillac Lyriq SUV and GMC Hummer EV, and followed in 2024 by SUVs from Acura and Honda.
Flores says the Ultium battery pack is effectively "two generations" ahead of the Bolt's pack in terms of the manufacturing process. It will have more advanced software that can detect and diagnose problems in the battery pack more precisely than the Chevy's software update currently can.
And in a year or two when more new EV models go on sale, the Bolt's hiccups will be forgotten among electric car customers and the transition to plug-ins.
"That leaves only the non-EV intenders in today's market and how it might delay their transition to EVs," Jominy said. "Battery fires from many years ago, from one automaker and in a segment they aren't considering probably won't register too much."
"In short, not even Tesla has been slowed by fires and I don't expect this to slow down the EV transition much," he said.
As Manhattan Beach-based EV maker Fisker Inc. continues to develop its more affordable and U.S.-built vehicle offering, its manufacturing partner is moving forward with plans to assembly factories in at least one other country.
Taiwanese manufacturing company Foxconn, which is partnering with Fisker on an EV project, told investors Thursday it's still evaluating three U.S. sites to produce a car. In a separate move, it's also looking to build another manufacturing plant in Thailand to produce up to 200,000 cars per year, according to Nikkei. Foxconn chair Young Liu said the Thailand factory will be part of a joint venture with PTT Public Company Limited, a state-owned oil and gas company.
Liu added that Foxconn, which is best known for assembling iPhones and iPads, is also evaluating possible sites in Europe for EV production.
In the U.S, Fisker's focus is still on its sub-$30,000 EV, codenamed Project PEAR, which will be the first American-made product. A Fisker spokesperson told dot.LA on Thursday that it and Foxconn are still reviewing U.S. sites together, including an existing Foxconn facility in Wisconsin, to determine which will be the best to produce the small EV. The auto company will make a decision on the location in the coming weeks; the spokesperson would not comment on further collaborations with Foxconn or production locations for Project PEAR other than prospective sites in the U.S.
Project PEAR will be Fisker's second vehicle project, scheduled to launch in 2023. In March, company founder Henrik Fisker told dot.LA it will be a radically designed compact car aimed at drivers in dense cities or who do not want a large vehicle, similar to a Mini Cooper. Plans for the car were announced in February, along with the deal with Foxconn.
In its second quarter earnings call on Aug. 5, Henrik Fisker said progress on the car with Foxconn was moving more quickly than anticipated and it was applying the software developed for its upcoming Ocean EV SUV for the new small car, as well its own testing procedures to make sure the vehicle launches on time.
The company also said in the earnings call that after sales begin in the U.S. and Europe, it will look at expanding into markets in Asia, including China.
Fisker has also said it will launch two additional EV models by 2025 and plans a "climate neutral" vehicle by 2027.
Its first vehicle, the $37,500 Ocean, is set to be revealed in production form in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show before production starts towards the end of 2022. The Ocean will be built by contract manufacturer Magna Steyr in Austria.
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