The shift to electrification in America is moving fast. Politicians are pushing a speedy transition, tax incentives have made the move easy(-ish), and infrastructure revamps are poised to make public charging less of a hassle. Still, the fire under consumers seems to still be a bit lackluster. Car dealers think that they know why.

Welcome to Critical Materials, your daily roundup of all things EV and auto tech that you want to know. Today, we're covering General Motors' dealer push for more hybrids, a desired probe into Ford's new battery plant, and new complaints about Tesla's new Autopilot recall. Let's jump in.

Update: On GM's earnings call today, the automaker announced that it will in fact get into the hybrid market. This story has been updated accordingly. 

30%: GM Dealers Say Buyers Want Hybrids, Too

Chevy Volt, Bolt EV Sales: Q1 Totals and March Breakouts

Some of GM's most influential dealers have warned the automaker that it's taking a big risk by going all-in on EVs. As a reminder, the American automaking giant has vowed to go all-EV by 2035, but it is controversially skipping over hybrid cars on its path to full battery power. While GM used to make hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt and even the Tahoe Hybrid, those have all since been phased out. 

That decision hasn't gone over well. Instead, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal, customers are looking for that sweet middle ground between combustion-only and electric power. The dealers issuing the warning to GM serve on one of GM's advisory committees. As such, they provide input to the automaker on the current state and direction of the company, among other things.

But now, GM has since heard their dealerships' input and, as of the company’s year-end earnings call held on Tuesday, has decided to bring back hybrid powertrains to “select vehicles” in North America.

"Our forward plans include bringing our plug-in hybrid technology to select vehicles in North America," said GM CEO Mary Barra. "Let me be clear: GM remains committed to eliminating tailpipe emissions from our light-duty vehicles by 2035. But in the interim, deploying plug-in technology in strategic segments will deliver some of the environmental benefits of EVs as the nation continues to build its charging infrastructure."

Through the public eye, it's clear that GM CEO Mary Barra has put her chips all-in when it comes to full battery power. Barra has shown a strong commitment to new technology—both automation and propulsion tech—across GM's brands, and has received a bit of pushback as a result.

It’s not immediately clear which particular segments GM will target with hybrid power moving ford, but one thing is certain: Barra is pushing forward towards battery-electric, and hybrids are just a train stop.

Much like GM's about-face, in late 2023, Ford CFO John Lawler acknowledged that hybrids will be a larger part of Ford's business as EV sales growth have stagnated across the industry in recent months. Some automakers have even cut back on production of the battery versions of their vehicles as a result. And while Toyota is often accused of being a laggard on full EV power, it had a phenomenal year of hybrid sales in 2023, and soon appears poised to hybridize basically its entire lineup of gas-powered cars. 

In reality, consumers want a mix of EVs, hybrids, and gas-powered cars. State of mind aside, the infrastructure we have in 2024 does not match up to every consumer's driving habits. The fact that GM has chosen to forego a stopgap between next-generation EVs and current-gen battery tech in the U.S. via hybrids is a bit perplexing, especially since GM already sells hybrid platforms in other markets where EVs are popular, like China. Moreover, it's certainly done the hybrid thing before; this would hardly be new ground for GM. 

It's also hard to ignore that dealers could have an incentive to push hybrids over a full battery-electric car. It gives them something to sell with an ownership experience that is remarkably similar to all-gas cars, and allows them to eschew pricey investments into on-site chargers. Hybrids also still allow for a myriad of gas-car-like service and repair intervals, whereas electric cars remove that factor almost completely.

An EV-heavy future means uncertainty for dealerships in the coming years, especially since automakers have been pushing for direct-to-consumer sales where allowed

60%: Ford Probed

Ford Mustang Mach-E Rally

Lawmakers that chair two U.S. House committees have asked the Treasury and State Departments to launch a probe into four Chinese companies they say are directly involved in Ford's new $2 billion BlueOval Battery Park in Michigan.

According to letters seen by Reuters, these companies are involved with the "facility's design, construction, and information technology (IT) processes." The letters also claims that the companies have direct links to the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese military, the North Korean government, and alleged human rights abuses of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang, China.

The names of these companies are currently being kept from the public eye, as the committee reviewed confidential documents supplied by Ford prior to penning the request to the Biden administration and were not permitted to make the company names public at this time.

"It is indefensible for Ford to use the same cloud integration and data provider that is linked to North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs sanctions evasion activity," the letter said.

Ford has previously received criticism for the planned use of tech supplied by Chinese battery supplier, CATL, at this plant. Last year, these same lawmakers demanded that Ford turn over documents related to the CATL partnership as part of a congressional investigation.

Eventually, they threatened to call Ford CEO Jim Farley to testify before Congress over the failure to comply with the request.

This has led to a nearly year-long investigation by lawmakers over concerns that U.S. tax subsidies could be funneled overseas. Moreover, it could leave Ford dependent on Chinese battery technology, despite being "wholly owned and operated" by Ford, at a time when protectionism-like tariffs are being placed on battery materials sourced from Countries of Particular Concern.

The letters penned by the lawmakers have asked the two departments to conduct a formal investigation into possible sanctions evasion activities by all four companies named in the letter. It's not currently clear if a formal probe will be initiated, or if Ford could receive any repercussions over the matter if malfeasance is determined.

90%: NHTSA Hit With Complaints Over Tesla Autopilot Recall Being 'More Unsafe and Distracting'

Tesla Model 3 Highland: Autopilot

As part of Tesla's holiday update, it rolled out a fix as part of a recall aimed at squashing driver misuse to satisfy an investigation into the safety of Autopilot by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It appears that the fix has seemingly backfired, resulting in backlash from drivers who claim that the fix is actually more distracting and, as a result, dangerous than ever before.

Presently, Tesla uses two methods of determining driver attentiveness. Fix, the in-car camera to ensure that the driver's attention is fixed on the road. If the software believes that the driver is looking away from the road when Autopilot is engaged, it will alert the driver to pay attention. If it cannot use the camera due to it being occluded, it will sense torque applied to the steering wheel.

With the new update, the system becomes hypersensitive. If the camera-based detection determines that the driver looks away from the road too long—including looking at the infotainment screen where the Tesla's controls are located or checking the side mirrors—the car will alert the driver and eventually disengage Autopilot. If a driver receives five "strikes" for improper use, the vehicle will suspend the ability to engage Autopilot for two weeks.

As a result, drivers have flocked to NHTSA to file complaints over Tesla's fix. More than 30 drivers have filed complaints since the update went live, nearly all of which cary the same tone:

The latest update has introduced a wheel detection system that’s overly sensitive and disruptive. With this mandated update, I’m forced to make frequent, forceful adjustments to the steering wheel.

[...]

I can’t look away from the front of the car even briefly to check my surroundings. This constant intervention and forbidding drivers from looking around to check for safety is distracting and dangerous, leading to abrupt autopilot disengagements and brief rapid ways in which the car behaves as the car disengages and throws you into manual when you weren’t expecting it. This isn’t just about inconvenience; it’s a safety hazard.

While some owners criticize Tesla for responding with an overzealous fix, many fans are pointing the blame directly at drivers for improper use and at NHTSA for how the fix was implemented. However, NHTSA says that it does not pre-approve the methods in which automakers determine to remedy recalls, meaning that Tesla's fix was likely Tesla's decision.

"NHTSA does not pre-approve recall remedies," wrote the NHTSA is a comment to PCMag, "But will evaluate the effectiveness of recall remedies, including on actual vehicles, and closely track their performance using field data.

Tesla was not able to be reached for comment or to confirm specifics, as the automaker dissolved its PR team in 2020. And despite Tesla's "fix," NHTSA's investigation is still ongoing.

Expect more coverage of this soon at InsideEVs. 

100%: How Do You Feel About the Autopilot Recall?

Are you a Tesla owner who happened to get the Autopilot recall as part of the Holiday update? Being in a two-Tesla household, one of my cars received the holiday update, whereas the other (my Model 3 Performance) did not. I can confidently say that I share the same sentiment as some of the owners who have complained to NHTSA over the update—the new "in your face" approach is certainly distracting, and even the slightest glance to adjust any of the infotainment controls has resulted in an alert.

What has your experience been with the update? Let me know down in the comments.

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