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Carmakers face a crossroads as they work to fit auto dealers into their EV plans



Customers wearing protective masks looks at the interior of a vehicle for sale at a Ford Motor Co. dealership in Colma, California, Feb. 1, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

DETROIT — As automakers chase Tesla-like profits on new electric vehicles, they face an existential question: how best to bring franchised auto dealers along with them as they transition to EVs.

Some, such as General Motors, are asking luxury dealers to go all-in on EVs or get out of the business. Others like Ford Motor are offering dealers different “EV-certification” levels, while most other carmakers, or OEMs, know they need to change the sales process to fit the evolving industry, but are still trying to figure out how to do it.

“I think we’re all building this airplane as we fly,” Michael Alford, president of the National Auto Dealers Association, a trade association that represents more than 16,000 U.S. new franchised dealers, told CNBC. “Depending on the OEM, the level of engagement or the intensity of the engagement varies.”

Automakers and franchised dealers have a complex relationship that is backed, in many states, by laws that make it difficult, if not illegal, to bypass franchised dealers and sell new vehicles directly to consumers. (Tesla and other newer EV startups have worked around such regulations to cut costs.)

Both automakers and franchised dealers want to maximize profits, but they’re separate businesses that heavily rely on one another to succeed. Dealers rely on automakers for product to fill and move off lots, and the carmakers in turn rely on dealers to sell and service vehicles as well as serve as concierges for customers. 

How that historical relationship fits into an all-electric future is expected to be at the forefront of discussions between automakers and dealers at the National Auto Dealers Association Show occurring through Sunday in Dallas. The event attracts thousands of franchise dealers annually to hear from their respective automotive brands.

For dealers — from mom-and-pop shops to large publicly traded chains — EVs will mean new employee training, infrastructure and substantial investments in their stores to be able to service, sell and charge the vehicles. Depending on the size of the dealer, those upgrades could easily cost hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars. Of course, they want to make sure their investments will pay off.

“The tone and tenor of this subject matter has evolved, and I think it’s very, very clear this year that our legacy OEMs absolutely realize that we are essential going forward,” said Alford, who runs Chevrolet and Cadillac dealerships in North Carolina.

Competing with Tesla

As more automakers introduce EVs, they’re rethinking the sales process, including selling new vehicles largely, if not fully, online. Tesla was among the first automakers to embrace online sales for a large portion of its business, though it still has physical dealerships, information sites and service shops.

A greater shift online may limit the role of dealers to strictly processing, maintenance and as delivery centers going forward and eliminate the need for large lots of cars that they then sell to consumers.

“By and large, the franchise system remains in place even for EVs by traditional automakers, although they all seem to be looking at ways to tweak it to be more competitive, so they say, with the Teslas of the world,” said Michelle Krebs, Cox Automotive executive analyst.

Automakers believe doing so will provide consumers a more streamlined and cohesive sales process, but they also consider the dealers to be their partners and to offer “strategic advantages” when it comes to other sales and maintenance issues.

A Tesla dealership in Colma, California, on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Honda Motor has said it plans to move more sales online, including 100% online sales for its luxury Acura brand for EVs. Mamadou Diallo, American Honda vice president of sales, said the plan is to facilitate the ordering process online, but with the vehicle being picked up or delivered by dealers. Those procedures are still being worked out, though, he said.

“We want to proceed with ensuring that we provide convenience with what customers are looking for, with no intention of bypassing our dealer body,” Mamadou said Tuesday during a media call.

Jay Vijayan, who assisted in building out Tesla’s digital and IT systems, doesn’t believe selling EVs exclusively online will pan out. He said a mix of sales points is best, which is why Tesla and newer EV startups are selling online as well as opening new showrooms and service centers.

Apple still opens new stores, right? And every company you think is going to go direct is also opening new stores in the automotive space,” said Vijayan, founder and CEO of Tekion, a cloud-based dealer service provider.

Wall Street analysts have largely viewed direct-to-consumer sales as a means to optimize profit. However, there have been growing pains for Tesla when it comes to servicing its vehicles.

Ford CEO Jim Farley has said he wants the automaker’s dealers to cut selling and distribution costs by $2,000 per vehicle to be competitive with Tesla’s direct-to-consumer model.

Automaker approaches

Ford is among the automakers receiving the most pushback from dealers for its EV push, which includes EV-certification tiers that could cost more than $1 million per store, depending on the size of the dealership.

The Detroit automaker is facing legal challenges to the certification program from dealers who argue that the plan violates franchise laws. A group of 27 dealerships in Illinois filed a protest with the state’s motor vehicle review board, and four dealers in New York filed suit against the automaker last month, according to Automotive News.

Ford dealer Marc McEver said he signed on for the highest EV-certification tier at his dealership near Kansas City, Kansas, but he worries about the cost and timing of the program.

“I think we’re all concerned that what they’re having us put in now, by the time we really get some vehicles, will be outdated and need to be upgraded or replaced,” McEver, who also owns a Lincoln dealership, said.

Aside from the investments, dealers who opt into selling Ford EVs will need to abide by five standards to stay within good standing: clear and nonnegotiable pricing; charging investment; employee training; and improved vehicle purchasing and ownership experience for customer, both digitally and in person.

Ford on Saturday plans to outline some changes to its EV-certification tiers, according to two people familiar with the plans. The changes, as first reported by Automotive News, would narrow the differences between the program’s two tiers. The bottom tier comes with lower capital investment but also a smaller allocation of EVs from Ford.

Ford, though, unlike archrival General Motors, is allowing dealers to opt out of selling EVs and continue to sell the company’s gas-powered cars.

GM has offered buyouts to its Buick and Cadillac dealers that don’t want to shell out to sell EVs. About 320 of Cadillac’s 880 retailers took buyouts. Buick’s buyouts are ongoing, according to a spokesman.

Toyota Motor, for its part, has no plans to overhaul its franchised dealership network as it invests in electrified vehicles, CEO Akio Toyoda told dealers to resounding applause in September.

“I know you are anxious about the future. I know you are worried about how this business will change. While I can’t predict the future, I can promise you this: You, me, us, this business, this franchised model is not going anywhere. It’s staying just as it is,” said Toyoda, who will step down as CEO to become chairman in April.

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Lucid to cut 1,300 workers amid signs of flagging demand for its EVs



Lucid Motors CEO Peter Rawlinson poses at the Nasdaq MarketSite as Lucid Motors (Nasdaq: LCID) begins trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange after completing its business combination with Churchill Capital Corp IV in New York City, New York, July 26, 2021.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Struggling EV maker Lucid said in a regulatory filing on Tuesday that it plans to cut about 18% of its workforce, or roughly 1,300 employees, as part of a larger restructuring to reduce costs as it works to ramp up production of its Air luxury sedan.

Lucid said it will incur one-time charges totaling between $24 million and $30 million related to the job cuts, with most of that amount being recognized in the first quarter of 2023.

News of the job cuts was first reported by Insider earlier on Tuesday. Lucid’s shares closed down over 7% on Tuesday following the Insider report.

In a letter to employees, CEO Peter Rawlinson said the job cuts will hit “nearly every organization and level, including executives,” and that affected employees will be notified over the next three days. Severance packages will include continued healthcare coverage paid by Lucid, as well as an acceleration of equity vesting, Rawlinson wrote.

Lucid ended 2022 with about $4.4 billion in cash on hand, enough to last until the first quarter of 2024, CFO Sherry House told CNBC last month ahead of the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report. But there have been signs that demand for the high-priced Air has fallen short of Lucid’s internal expectations, and the company may be struggling to convert early reservations to sold orders.

Lucid said that it had more than 28,000 reservations for the Air as of Feb. 21, its most recent update. But it also said that it plans to build just 10,000 to 14,000 vehicles in 2023, far fewer than the roughly 27,000 that Wall Street analysts had expected.

With Lucid’s factory currently set up to build about 34,000 vehicles per year, the company has warned of continuing losses.

“As we produce vehicles at low volumes on production lines designed for higher volumes, we have and we will continue to experience negative gross profit related to labor and overhead costs,” House said during Lucid’s earnings call on Feb. 22.

Lucid hasn’t yet announced a date for its first-quarter earnings report.

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Virgin Orbit extends unpaid pause as Brown deal collapses, ‘dynamic’ talks continue



NEWQUAY, ENGLAND – JANUARY 09: A general view of Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, as final preparations are made at Cornwall Airport Newquay on January 9, 2023 in Newquay, United Kingdom. Virgin Orbit launches its LauncherOne rocket from the spaceport in Cornwall, marking the first ever orbital launch from the UK. The mission has been named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones hit. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Matthew Horwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Virgin Orbit is again extending its unpaid pause in operations to continue pursuing a lifeline investment, CEO Dan Hart told employees in a company-wide email.

Some of the company’s late-stage deal talks, including with private investor Matthew Brown, collapsed over the weekend, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

Hart previously planned to update employees on the company’s operational status at an all-hands meeting at 4:30 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon, according to an email sent to employees Sunday night. At the last minute, that meeting was rescheduled “for no later than Thursday,” Hart said in the employee memo Monday.

“Our investment discussions have been very dynamic over the past few days, they are ongoing, and not yet at a stage where we can provide a fulsome update,” Hart wrote in the email to employees, which was viewed by CNBC.

Brown told CNBC’s “Worldwide Exchange” last week he was in final discussions to invest in the company. A person familiar with the terms told CNBC the investment would have amounted to $200 million and granted Brown a controlling stake. But discussions between Virgin Orbit and the Texas-based investor stalled and broke down late last week, a person familiar told CNBC. As of Saturday those discussions had ended, the person said.

Separately, another person said talks with a different potential buyer broke down on Sunday night.

The people asked to remain anonymous to discuss private negotiations. A representative for Virgin Orbit declined to comment.

Hart promised Virgin Orbit’s over 750 employees “daily” updates this week. Most of the staff remain on an unpaid furlough that Hart announced on Mar. 15. Last week, a “small” team of Virgin Orbit employees returned to work in what Hart described as the “first step” in an “incremental resumption of operations,” with the intention of preparing a rocket for the company’s next launch.

Virgin Orbit’s stock closed at 54 cents a share on Monday, having fallen below $1 a share after the company’s pause in operations.

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Virgin Orbit developed a system that uses a modified 747 jet to send satellites into space by dropping a rocket from under the aircraft’s wing mid-flight. But the company’s last mission suffered a mid-flight failure, with an issue during the launch causing the rocket to not reach orbit and crash into the ocean.

The company has been looking for new funds for several months, with majority owner Sir Richard Branson unwilling to fund the company further.

Virgin Orbit was spun out of Branson’s Virgin Galactic in 2017 and counts the billionaire as its largest stakeholder, with 75% ownership. Mubadala, the Emirati sovereign wealth fund, holds the second-largest stake in Virgin Orbit, at 18%.

The company hired bankruptcy firms to draw up contingency plans in the event it is unable to find a buyer or investor. Branson has first priority over Virgin Orbit’s assets, as the company raised $60 million in debt from the investment arm of Virgin Group.

On the same day that Hart told employees that Virgin Orbit was pausing operations, its board of directors approved a “golden parachute” severance plan for top executives, in case they are terminated “following a change in control” of the company.

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Historic UAW election picks reform leader who vows more aggressive approach to auto negotiations



Supporters wave signs during an address at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, 2012 on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC).

Mladin Antonov | AFP | Getty Images

DETROIT – United Auto Workers members have ousted their president in the union’s first direct election, ushering in a new era for the prominent organized labor group ahead of negotiations later this year with the Detroit automakers.

The union’s new leader will be Shawn Fain, a member of the “UAW Members United” reform group and local leader for a Stellantis parts plant in Indiana. He came out ahead in a runoff election by hundreds of votes over incumbent Ray Curry, who was appointed president by union leaders in 2021.

Fain, in a statement Saturday, thanked UAW members who voted in the election. He also hailed the election results as a historic change in direction for the embattled union, which he says will take a “more aggressive approach” with its employers.

“This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result, we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said.

Curry, who previously protested the narrow election results, said in a statement that Fain will be sworn in on Sunday and that Curry is “committed to ensuring that this transition is smooth and without disruptions.”

“I want to express my deep gratitude to all UAW staff, clerical support, leaders and most of all, our union’s active and retired members for the many years of support and solidarity. It has been the honor of my life to serve our great union,” Curry said.

More than 141,500 ballots were cast in the runoff election that also included two other board positions, a 33% increase from last year’s direct election in which neither of the presidential candidates received 50% or more of the votes.

The election was overseen by a federal monitor, who did not immediately confirm the results. The election results had been delayed several weeks due to a run-off election as well as the close final count.

Shawn Fain, candidate for UAW president, is in a run-off election with incumbent Ray Curry for the union’s highest-ranking position.

Jim West for UAW Members United

Fain’s election adds to the UAW’s largest upheaval in leadership in decades, as a majority of the union’ s International Executive Board will be made up of first-time directors who are not part of the “Administration Caucus” that has controlled the union for more than 70 years.

Fain and other members of his leadership slate ran on the promise of “No corruption. No concessions. No tiers.” The last being a reference to a tiered pay system implemented by the automakers during recent negotiations that members have asked to be removed.

The shuffle follows a yearslong federal investigation that uncovered systemic corruption involving bribery, embezzlement, and other crimes among the top ranks of the UAW.

Thirteen UAW officials were convicted as part of the probe, including two past presidents. As part of a settlement with the union in late 2020, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the union and the organization held a direct election where each member has a vote, doing away with a weighted delegate process.

For investors, UAW negotiations with the Detroit automakers are typically a short-term headwind every four years that result in higher costs. But this year’s negotiations are anticipated to be among the most contentious and important in recent memory.

Fain has said the union will seek benefit gains for members, advocating for the return of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, as well as raises and job security.

The change in the UAW comes against the backdrop of a broader organized labor movement across the country, a pro-union president and an industry in the transition to all-electric vehicles.

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