It's a cold, snowy day here in my northeastern slab of the U.S., which means that EV owners are probably experiencing a bit of decreased range in the blistering weather today. Too bad we don't have the benefits long-promised by solid-state batteries, am I right?

Well, that might not be as important as the industry originally thought, at least not according to Mercedes-Benz. Welcome to Critical Materials, your daily briefing on all things EV and tech. Today, we're talking about those solid-state batteries, plus Tesla's absolutely hellacious first few weeks of 2024, and Fisker's federal probe into the 2023 Ocean. So put on your sweater and crank up the heat, because we're getting ready to sweat this one out.

30%: Mercedes-Benz questions the need for solid-state batteries

Mercedes-Benz Charging Stall With EQS SUV

Solid-state batteries are all the rage right now. Every automaker is working to commercialize the fast-charging tech by making it more energy-dense—but that investment might not be worth it, at least not according to Mercedes-Benz.

Markus Schafer, the Chief Technology Officer at Mercedes, discussed this very topic in a recent interview with the UK's Autocar. According to Schafer, the advancements in lithium-ion batteries, namely the energy density, have put the two opposing battery technologies in "a head-to-head race."

Toyota and other automakers have been dumping money into solid-state tech in hopes of having a breakthrough in the commercialization of the tech. That includes Mercedes' most direct competitor, BMW. On paper, it seems great: charge quickly, hold lots of power in a lightweight package, and potentially less battery degradation over time. But the faster charging, specifically, has become a moot point, according to Schafer:

[Consumers] think about the one trip they have to do each year [that requires more range] and this is not rational. People think only of their one winter ski trip or summer drive to Italy.

Automakers and charger manufacturers have been vastly improving charge rates. In fact, most modern Hyundai EVs capable of utilizing 800-volt charging architecture can recharge from 10% to 80% in about 18 minutes. Essentially, enough time to step out of the car at a convenience store, stretch your legs, use the bathroom, and grab a snack. And that's without a solid state battery.

Schafer says that this tech still has a "long, long development time" while battery suppliers are improving the density of lithium-ion cells in real-time. But that doesn't put solid-state out of the question. The winner of this race is something that Schafer, admittedly, cannot predict.

60%: The market gives Tesla a harsh reality check: competition is here

Tesla Model 3 Highland charging

Tesla's stock price has been on a steady decline since the start of the new year. To the automaker's credit, however, 2023 was great for investors, with the share price more than doubling in just a few months.

But 2024 is an entirely different beast, and Tesla is now facing its worst start to any year—a 12% hit—in its history since it went public in 2010. It is what Bloomberg is calling a "reality check," and boy, is it early in the year to get one of those.

Specifically, Tesla has lost more than $94 billion in market valuation in just 16 days. And it's no secret why that's happening—there's been a slurry of less-than-stellar news for the brand in that time too. Hertz is dropping a ton of Teslas onto the used market for cheap after it actualized higher than anticipated repair costs, certain trims and models have lost the federal tax credit, plus, competition is mounting and the race to the bottom has seemingly accelerated.

Tesla also lost the global EV crown to BYD for the final quarter in 2023. The American automaker warned in Q3 2023 that it expected EV sales to slump, a time when it was already in a level race with BYD to take the worldwide throne for most EV sales. As it turns out BYD ousted Tesla the following quarter, with its year-over-year sales soaring by more than 60%. Granted, Tesla still beat BYD in total sales for the year, but that single quarter is all BYD needed to make a statement clear across the industry: competition is here.

But it's not just about cars. Tesla has long staked its long-term financial success in autonomous tech, like its Full Self-Driving software suite, robotaxis, and (most recently) robots.

 

The problem is that Tesla hasn't delivered on this tech. FSD has been a continual beta and even lost some key features when it stripped the ultrasonic sensors from its cars. Tesla has also been promising a fully autonomous, cross-country drive since 2017. If it happened, the company hasn't been vocal about it. CEO Elon Musk also boasted about the company aiming to have one million robotaxis on the road... by the end of 2020. But, hey, Optimus can fold a shirt (just not autonomously).

The market loss is a subtle reality check for Tesla. Competition is coming for the EV space, and, like the rest of consumer goods, it's innovate or stagnate. Consumers are going towards bright-and-shiny, while Tesla is losing its customers from a combination of an aging fleet and poor service experiences.

90%: Fisker Ocean under federal investigation for braking loss complaints

2023 Fisker Ocean

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) has opened a probe into Fisker after nine braking-related complaints were filed with the agency.

According to NHTSA, the feds have received nine consumer complaints about braking performance in the 2023 Fisker Ocean. Specifically, the investigation says that the Ocean will display a partial loss of braking when it hits low traction surfaces, and the vehicle doesn't alert the driver that the loss is occurring.

An excerpt of the investigation's text is below:

The complaints allege a partial loss of braking over low traction surfaces, without alerting the driver. This results in a sudden increase in stopping distance. Some complaints allege that while braking over a low traction or bumpy surface, the vehicle may exhibit an intermittent loss of blended braking function (a combination of the service brake system and regenerative braking). One of the complaints alleged a crash and injury.

The nine braking complaints represent about half of all grievances lodged with NHTSA for the 2023 Ocean. Other complaints include a door failing to open, a hood unintentionally opening on the road, and issues with the car's gear shifter. The braking complaints make up more than 0.2% of delivered vehicles in the U.S. (approximately 4,000 of the 4,700 total deliveries), which is a fairly large representation of a problem percentage-wise for NHTSA—hence the investigation.

Fisker is already in a hard spot financially. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal identified Fisker as one of seven EV startups that had just "weeks" of cash left on hand. While this investigation is just preliminary, it could lead to a potential recall, which isn't great news for a company not well-off financially.

100: Did automakers bet too much on self-driving?

GM Ultra Cruise Image

Just like Tesla's slow progress on FSD, General Motors appears to be struggling with autonomy as well. It's no secret that Cruise, GM's self-driving arm, has had its struggles, but now that appears to be spreading to the brand's hands-off partially-automated driving assistance feature, Ultra Cruise.

A recent report by CNBC suggests that GM is planning to shutter the Ultra Cruise platform and instead fold its more advanced automated driving features under one umbrella (Super Cruise). While that makes sense from a branding and marketing perspective, one has to question if the lack of progress was one reason for the change.

Have automakers bitten off more than they can chew for automated driving? Or have the timelines been just way too aggressive to solve the problem safely? Let us know in the comments.

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