Threat 1. Technological Leadership
The European automotive cluster developed deep expertise in complex internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Their defining features—high performance, fuel efficiency, durability, vehicle handling, and design—made it possible for European OEMs to starkly differentiate their cars on the market, raising their reputations. But the advantages that European OEMs had in ICE design and high-quality engineering are increasingly losing their importance as the changeover to electric and software-defined vehicles accelerates.
In the electric vehicle (EV) realm, the European auto sector is having difficulty keeping up with other global players in battery cell design, power electronics, extending battery range, and innovative rapid charging technologies. Moreover, the shift to software-defined vehicles adds another layer to this challenge for legacy OEMs. As software becomes the distinguishing feature of automobiles—powering infotainment, performance, connectivity, autonomous driving, in-cabin experiences, and continuous vehicle updates—companies skilled in designing software first and hardware second are increasingly poised for market leadership.
Indeed, over the last two decades a teeming competitive field populated by many vehicle startups, especially in the US and China, has already emerged. These companies have had the chance to engineer their cars from scratch, building substantial capabilities in battery and other EV technology. Names like X-PENG, NIO and BYD in China and US BEV companies Tesla, Lucid, and Rivian are viewed as serious new competitors. At the same time, some EV startups have stumbled, failing to keep up with the crowded marketplace, comprised of so many rivals. Still, we believe more new entrants will follow as barriers to entry are lowered in the shift to EVs, which are significantly less complicated to manufacture than ICE vehicles. Cases in point: Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Poland, and Turkey are seeing the establishment of their own EV automotive companies.
Threat 2. Cost
European automotive companies, especially German OEMs, have prided themselves on having excellent industrial operations with a highly skilled workforce, substantial automation, and economies of scale. Combined with low energy costs in Europe, industrial exceptionalism has enabled the production of vehicles at globally competitive prices in local plants.
These advantages are in danger, as US and Chinese factories rapidly adopt robotics, moving closer to more sophisticated automation. Moreover, many of these companies have more flexible cost structures because their labor outlays are lower due to little or no unionization at their plants. And energy price volatility is likely to be a permanent fixture, the result of geopolitical conflicts and resource scarcity, which will affect European automakers more than such companies in other regions.
Threat 3. Brand
European OEMs have long benefited from enormous brand popularity, some of it the result of decades-long sponsorships with iconic international sporting events. Premium European brands are seen as status symbols in the US, and Western car brands are also popular in China. Indeed, VW, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi together command one-fifth of unit sales in the Chinese auto market.
But a change of sentiment began with the diesel emissions scandal in 2015. As it continued with the fast pace of technological advance leaving traditional OEMs slightly behind, European carmakers risk being viewed as old world and corporate, not as hip, dynamic, young, modern, or sustainability-oriented like the new EV OEMs. In a huge strategic push, China is promoting its technological independence and breakthroughs while upgrading the Made in China reputation to no longer stand for cheap production. The result is a growing appreciation for high-quality, technologically advanced Chinese EV brands in China. With European OEMs still drawing more than 70% of their business from ICE sales, this EV-related sales spurt in China will be difficult for companies with an old-fashioned and staid brand image to navigate.
That sense of traditional companies living in yesterday’s business model also extends to how vehicles are sold. New manufacturing competitors across the globe are introducing direct sales models to replace dealerships. These direct manufacturer-to-consumer, e-commerce sales efforts, arguably pioneered by Tesla, are being mimicked by other EV makers, including Lucid and Rivian in the US and Vinfast in Vietnam. It is worth noting, as well, that some Chinese EV companies—Great Wall and BYD, among others—are piggybacking on existing dealer networks in Europe to quickly introduce their brands to local consumers, hoping to replace European OEMs in their home markets.
Threat 4. Geopolitics
The rise of globalized supply chains and value creation engendered by free trade agreements and stable political environments benefited European OEMs. Materials and supplies imported from developing countries, which welcomed the business from Western automakers and quickly adopted just-in-time delivery methods, were a boon for European companies to maintain relatively low vehicle prices and production efficiency.
Those heady days are fading into the past as the political winds turn towards de-coupling and de-risking. Planned deglobalization is more the norm now to guard against political uncertainties and disruption. Supply chains are shrinking as automakers in developed countries are encouraged to source parts and materials locally. A case in point: the US Inflation Reduction Act offers industry rebates and consumer tax credits worth up to $7,500 if a majority of a vehicle is manufactured in country. All of this, in turn, is creating cost headwinds and impeding overseas value creation for European OEMs.
Threat 5. Chinese Sales Market
Accelerated economic growth in China over the past thirty years lifted many residents into the middle class and beyond—and many chose to display their new-found wealth by owning a premium European car. For a long time, no local automaker could produce vehicles that matched Europe’s in quality or appeal. For some European OEMs, this halcyon period was highly lucrative; at some automakers, Chinese sales accounted for more than 50% of company-wide profits.
But the rise in China of local EV makers that can build vehicles with digital and design features specifically targeted at what Chinese consumers want has placed European OEMs back on their heels. Many top EU companies have been forced to cut prices in China because they are no longer able to sell as many units there as planned. As the Chinese competitors improve and Made in China sentiment grows, the Chinese sales market becomes more problematic for European OEMs.
Three Future Scenarios
Clearly, Europe’s car industry is under pressure. The challenges it faces contain high levels of uncertainty and could evolve in different directions. But this does not mean it must inevitably succumb. To assess what is at stake, BCG modeled three scenarios based on how automakers, suppliers, and policy makers respond (see Exhibit 2). The scenarios are Gradual Decline, Maintaining Pace, and Securing the Lead.