What Scares Healthcare Like EVs Scare Detroit – The Health Care Blog


By KMI BELLARD

I’m thinking about electric vehicles (EVs)…and healthcare.

Now, mind you, I don’t own an EV. I’m not seriously thinking about getting one (although if I’m still driving in the 2030’s I expect it will be in one). To be honest, I’m not really all that interested in EVs. But I am interested in disruption, so when Robinson Meyer warned in The New York Times “China’s Electric Vehicles Are Going to Hit Detroit Like a Wrecking Ball,” he had my attention. And when on the same day I also read that Apple was cancelling its decade-long effort to build an EV, I was definitely paying attention.

Remember when 3 years ago GM’s CEO Mary Barra announced GM was planning for an “all electric future” by 2035, completely phasing out internal combustion engines? Remember how excited we were when the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022 with lots of credits and incentives for EVs? EVs sure seemed like our future.

Well, as Sam Becker wrote for the BBC: “Depending on how you look at it, the state of the US EV market is flourishing – or it’s stuck in neutral.” Ford, for example, had a great February, with huge increases in its EV and hybrid sales, but 90% of its sales remain conventional vehicles. Worse, it recently had to stop shipments of its F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck due to quality concerns. Frankly, EV is a money pit for Ford, costing it $4.7b last year – over $64,000 for every EV it sells.

GM also loses money on every EV it makes, although it hopes to make modest profits on them by 2025.  Ms. Barra is still hoping GM will be all electric by 2035, but now hedges: “We will adjust based on where customer demand is. We will be led by the customer.”

In more bad news for EVs, Rivian has had more layoffs due to slow sales, and Fisker announced it is stopping work on EVs for now. Tesla, on the other hand, claims a 38% increase in deliveries for 2023, but more recently its stock has been hit by a decline in sales in China. It shouldn’t be surprising.

As Mr. Meyer points out:

The biggest threat to the Big Three comes from a new crop of Chinese automakers, especially BYD, which specialize in producing plug-in hybrid and fully electric vehicles. BYD’s growth is astounding: It sold three million electrified vehicles last year, more than any other company, and it now has enough production capacity in China to manufacture four million cars a year…A deluge of electric vehicles is coming.

He’s blunt about the threat BYD poses: “BYD’s cars deliver great value at prices that beat anything coming out of the West.”

The Biden Administration is not just sitting idly.

Last December the Administration proposed rules that would limit Inflation Reduction Act subsidies going to materials from China – it doesn’t just make cheap EVs, it makes cheap batteries – and last week warned that internet-connected Chinese vehicles, including EVs, could pose a threat to national security: “China’s policies could flood our market with its vehicles, posing risks to our national security…Connected vehicles from China could collect sensitive data about our citizens and our infrastructure and send this data back to the People’s Republic of China. These vehicles could be remotely accessed or disabled.”

And, of course, underprice American-made vehicles.

Mr. Meyer identifies the core problem for at least Ford and GM: “Specifically, Ford’s and GM’s earnings rest primarily on selling pickup trucks, S.U.V.s and crossovers to affluent North Americans…In other words, if Americans’ appetite for trucks and S.U.V.s falters, then Ford and GM will be in real trouble.”

He believes that President Biden will need to impose trade restrictions, but not blindly:

Mr. Biden must be careful not to cordon off the American car market from the rest of the world, turning the United States into an automotive backwater of bloated, expensive, gas-guzzling vehicles. The Chinese carmakers are the first real competition that the global car industry has faced in decades, and American companies must be exposed to some of that threat, for their own good. That means they must feel the chill of death on their necks and be forced to rise and face this challenge.

It’s the 1970’s all over again, when American was selling over-priced, gas-guzzling sedans while Japan and South Korea were offering cheaper, more energy-efficient, higher quality compacts. Now it is China and EVs versus our internal combustion pickups & SUVs. Look how that turned out for Detroit.

The “chill of death” indeed.

———–

When I think of the Detroit Big Three analogy for healthcare, I think of hospitals (30% of all spending), clinicians (20%), and pharmaceutical companies (9%). When I think about the affluent Americans buying the big SUVs/pickups, I think about the small percent of the population who account for most of spending: the top 1% accounts for 24% of spending, the top 5% for 51%, and the top 10% 67%. The bottom 50% of the population accounts for 3%.

The healthcare system is designed around the big spenders, and price is seemingly no object for them (although, of course, unlike the affluent and their big vehicles, we all pay for the big healthcare spenders through our premiums and taxes). If we magically made them healthy (which seems like a good thing), the healthcare system would collapse (which seems like a bad thing).

Fifteen or so years ago one might have hoped that EHRs and the digitalization of healthcare generally might be the equivalent of EVs hitting the automotive industry. That didn’t happen; as it is wont to do, healthcare just absorbed them and kept making things more expensive. Today one might hope that AI will make everything more efficient, more effective, and, goodness knows, less expensive, but I’m not holding my breath. Right now, I don’t see anything that will “deliver great value at prices that beat anything coming out of the West.”

I want the US to be a leader in EVs, and other clean energy technologies. I want us to be a leader in all the 21st century technologies, including those, AI, quantum computing, robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and materials science, to name a few. And I want our healthcare system to be a 21st century leader too; as I like to say, I want it to be more familiar to someone from the 22nd century than to someone from the 20th century, as I fear is still true today.

Unfortunately, I’m still not sure what the thing is that will give healthcare “the chill of death” and force it to be better.



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