Volvo Is Going Electric Just Like Bob Dylan

Volvo said starting 2019 all of its cars will have an electric motor.

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- Say what you like about Volvo, whose vehicles are famously safe but boring, its staff certainly know how to write a press release. On Wednesday, the Swedish auto-maker declared the end of the “solely combustion engine-powered car” and trumpeted how from 2019 all of its cars will have an electric motor.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean Volvo -- owned by China's Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. -- is about to do away entirely with petrol or diesel engines, nor will it sell only fully electric cars, a la Tesla Inc.

While Volvo does plan several battery-electric models, many of its vehicles will still have a combustion engine. The difference is that, from 2019, all will be assisted by an electric motor to make them more fuel-efficient. So-called "mild-hybrid systems" use an electric motor to support propulsion from a combustion engine, whereas "plug-in hybrids" let a car run fully in electric mode for a while. Volvo will sell both. 

Volvo’s announcement is environmentally pleasing, but its suppliers are probably the biggest winners. Cars that need both combustion engines and electric motors are a win-win for the autos supply chain because there’s potential to contribute a lot more technology in each vehicle.

Take France's Valeo SA, which thinks the stuff it supplies for the powertrain  of a high-voltage, plug-in hybrid is nine times more valuable than in a regular car. For pure electric vehicles, it's just seven times as much. That’s not bad either, but it suggests hybrids -- which last year made up about 2 percent of Europe's car sales -- are the supplier sweet-spot.

This extra sales opportunity is one reason Valeo shares trade on almost 14 times earnings and Germany's Continental AG fetches almost 12 times. In contrast, prestigious customers such as BMW AG and Daimler AG trade on barely half that.

Volvo Is Going Electric Just Like Bob Dylan

There’s a catch, though. While a few golden years beckons for suppliers, the plug-in hybrid era probably won’t last too long. From a cost perspective, it’s a bit daft to have both an electric motor and a combustion engine in the car. 

Berenberg analysts think electric powertrains could be priced the same as hybrids by about 2021 and will be as cheap as combustion engines by 2025. Indeed, Volkswagen AG says as many as one-quarter of its sales will be fully electric by 2025. That's when some of the hybrid magic might wear off. Suppliers could face new rivals and carmakers may decide to bring more powertrain work in-house, if only to give employees who built combustion engines something to do.

Technologies like fuel-injection and exhaust systems, which suppliers build for petrol and diesel vehicles, will become obsolete too (see my recent piece on Germany's Schaeffler AG).

So hybrids look destined for a far shorter lifespan than the world-changing combustion engine. Suppliers may look back at Volvo's announcement as the very best of times.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

  1. A catch-all term for things like the engine and transmission.

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