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Governments tie auto industry stimulus packages to cleaner mobility

In a rerun of stimulus packages deployed during the post-2008 recession, a number of governments worldwide have unveiled or are considering new cash subsidies toward the cost of cars in the hope such big-ticket purchases will breathe life into floundering economies.

The big difference this time is that the first movers, which include Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have all made this conditional on the purchase of a low or zero-emission vehicle. But while using the disruption caused by the global pandemic may help accelerate the shift toward hybrid and battery-electric cars, it may not be enough to provide an immediate boost to embattled automakers, who are facing myriad operating challenges and potentially several years of reduced sales.

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Germany's government subsidy for such cars has been doubled to €6,000 with automakers contributing a further €3,000. It is part of a €130 billion recovery program that seeks to address a number of green issues, including reducing electricity prices and building more EV charging stations.

In France, subsidies for new electric vehicle purchases have been increased to up to €7,000, with up to €2,000 available for plug-in hybrids and a further €5,000 for the trade-in of older, more polluting cars. Italy's proposal, still in debate, and Spain's renewed program also offer extra incentives for the trade-in and recycling of older models.

While the U.K. offers a £3,000 subsidy toward the cost of a new car, it is yet to respond to industry calls for additional help, which analysts say reflects the urgency of support across multiple sectors hit by the global pandemic, in particular tourism and hospitality. In the U.S., there are calls for a re-run of the "cash for clunkers" trade-in and scrappage scheme that propped up its auto sector a decade ago. Subsidies for low-emission cars vary by state.

A key roadblock in nudging consumers towards hybrid and electric cars in the midst of an impending recession is their much higher cost. The Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, which blazed a trail with their European launch early in the last decade, cost close to double the equivalent-sized and specification cars from the same makers.

"In terms of cost, the majority of electric vehicles are bought on a finance package, so it's not so much about the ticket price but the monthly cost," said Peter Stephens, head of U.K. external and government affairs at Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., on a webinar hosted by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, or SMMT, the U.K.'s auto industry trade body.

"When you take into account the lower running costs and reduced taxation, you find that electric vehicles are a very competitive option for most consumers and we find that once people switch to electric vehicles, they don't switch back," Stephens added.

Glenn Schmidt, vice president of government and external affairs at Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, was similarly bullish about consumers' appetite to make the change.

"We are seeing robust demand. As we have incentive schemes in place in many of our markets, charging infrastructure becoming more accessible, there certainly is more and more demand," Schmidt said. Press reports suggest BMW is preparing to double output of its all-electric i3 hatchback if higher demand is sustained.

In Europe, the incentives not only mark a step toward meeting international climate goals, but also new EU car emissions targets that were introduced for 2020 and will get stricter again in 2021, That could imply an additional, indirect financial benefit to automakers from a subsidy focused on electrified powertrains if it helps them avoid the fines that come with missing those targets.

"We have said that we are quite committed to reaching the 2020 and 2021 CO2 targets that we have on a European level despite the crisis, and we wouldn't be able to make that statement if we didn't see that type of demand for electric vehicles. That's the real incentive that we have from the supplier side," Schmidt said.

While these measures may accelerate the transition to future technologies, whether they are sufficient to counter the economic downturn facing automakers is dubious given most manufacturers still generate the vast majority of sales from gasoline and diesel models.

In response to the German government's approach, industry trade body VDA said it regretted that its proposals for broader stimulus for the industry were only partially adopted. "In order to remain competitive and to think about climate protection and the economy together, we still need a mix of offers that also include modern and efficient combustion engines," the VDA said in a statement.

The SMMT has warned that one in six automotive industry jobs in the U.K. could be lost without a dedicated support package that includes access to emergency funding, tax breaks, changes to employment structures.

China's approach to revitalizing its auto industry post-coronavirus suggests a broader set of measures may be more effective in boosting demand, at least in the short term.

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In addition to extending subsidies for hybrid and electric cars, various local governments in China offered cash incentives for all classifications of vehicles. By April, auto sales in the country had returned to year-over-year growth.

S&P Global Ratings expects Chinese auto sales to fall 9% in 2020, a much less severe contraction than the 25.3% and 19.8% declines it has forecast in the U.S. and Europe, respectively.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a more V-shaped recovery than in China," said Pete Kelly, managing director at consultancy LMC Automotive, during a recent webinar.