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The Age of Electric Cars Is Dawning Ahead of Schedule

FRANKFURT — An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris.

As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines.

At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164.

Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2 percent of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5 percent. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9 percent in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin.

As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.

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Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla’s “Battery Day” event on Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight.

The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or start-up succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what’s known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range.

“We’re seeing energy density increase faster than ever before,” said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant which recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024.

Some industry experts are even more bullish. Hui Zhang, managing director in Germany of NIO, a Chinese electric carmaker with global ambitions, said he thought parity could be achieved in 2023.

Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who closely follows the industry, is more cautious. But he said: “We are already on a very accelerated timeline. If you asked anyone in 2010 whether we would have price parity by 2025, they would have said that was impossible.”

This transition will probably arrive at different times for different segments of the market. High-end electric vehicles are pretty close to parity already. The Tesla Model 3 and the gas-powered BMW 3 Series both sell for about $41,000 in the United States.

A Tesla may even be cheaper to own than a BMW because it never needs oil changes or new spark plugs and electricity is cheaper, per mile, than gasoline. Which car a customer chooses is more a matter of preference, particularly whether an owner is willing to trade the convenience of gas stations for charging points that take more time. (On the other hand, owners can also charge their Teslas at home.)

Consumers tend to focus on sticker prices, and it will take longer before unsubsidized electric cars cost as little to drive off a dealer’s lot as an economy car.

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Credit…Samuel Zeller for The New York Times

The holy grail in the electric vehicle industry has been to push the cost of battery packs — the rechargeable system that stores energy — below $100 per kilowatt-hour, the standard measure of battery power. That is the point, more or less, at which propelling a vehicle with electricity will be as cheap as it is with gasoline.

Current battery packs cost around $150 to $200 per kilowatt-hour, depending on the technology. That means a battery pack costs around $20,000. But the price has dropped 80 percent since 2008, according to the United States Department of Energy.

All electric cars use lithium-ion batteries, but there are many variations on that basic chemistry, and intense competition to find the combination of materials that stores the most power for the least weight.

For traditional car companies, this is all very scary. Internal combustion engines have not changed fundamentally for decades, but battery technology is still wide open. There are even geopolitical implications. China is pouring resources into battery research, seeing the shift to electric power as a chance for companies like NIO to break into the European and someday, American, markets. In less than a decade, the Chinese battery maker CATL has become one of the world’s biggest manufacturers.

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Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

The California company has been selling electric cars since 2008 and can draw on years of data to calculate how far it can safely push a battery’s performance without causing overheating or excessive wear. That knowledge allows Tesla to offer better range than competitors who have to be more careful. Tesla’s four models are the only widely available electric cars that can go more than 300 miles on a charge, according to Kelley Blue Book.

On Tuesday, Mr. Musk could unveil a technology offering 50 percent more storage per pound at lower cost, according to analysts at the Swiss bank UBS. If so, competitors could recede even further in the rearview mirror.

“The traditional car industry is still behind,” said Peter Carlsson, who ran Tesla’s supplier network in the company’s early days and is now chief executive of Northvolt, a new Swedish company that has contracts to manufacture batteries for Volkswagen and BMW.

“But,” Mr. Carlsson said, “there is a massive amount of resources going into the race to beat Tesla. A number, not all, of the big carmakers are going to catch up.”

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Credit…Felix Odell for The New York Times

The traditional carmakers’ best hope to avoid oblivion will be to exploit their expertise in supply chains and mass production to churn out economical electrical cars by the millions.

A key test of the traditional automakers’ ability to survive will be Volkswagen’s new battery-powered ID.3, which will start at under €30,000, or $35,000, after subsidies and is arriving at European dealerships now. By using its global manufacturing and sales network, Volkswagen hopes to sell electric vehicles by the millions within a few years. It plans to begin selling the ID.4, an electric sport utility vehicle, in the United States next year. (ID stands for “intelligent design.”)

But there is a steep learning curve.

“We have been mass-producing internal combustion vehicles since Henry Ford. We don’t have that for battery vehicles. It’s a very new technology,” said Jürgen Fleischer, a professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in southwestern Germany whose research focuses on battery manufacturing. “The question will be how fast can we can get through this learning curve?”

Peter Rawlinson, who led design of the Tesla Model S and is now chief executive of the electric car start-up Lucid, likes to wow audiences by showing up at events dragging a rolling carry-on bag containing the company’s supercompact drive unit. Electric motor, transmission and differential in one, the unit saves space and, along with hundreds of other weight-saving tweaks, will allow the company’s Lucid Air luxury car — which the company unveiled on Sept. 9 — to travel more than 400 miles on a charge, Mr. Rawlinson said.

His point is that designers should focus on things like aerodynamic drag and weight to avoid the need for big, expensive batteries in the first place. “There is kind of a myopia,” Mr. Rawlinson said. “Everyone is talking about batteries. It’s the whole system.”

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Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

When Jana Höffner bought an electric Renault Zoe in 2013, driving anywhere outside her home in Stuttgart was an adventure. Charging stations were rare, and didn’t always work. Ms. Höffner drove her Zoe to places like Norway or Sicily just to see if she could make it without having to call for a tow.

Ms. Höffner, who works in online communication for the state of Baden-Württemberg, has since traded up to a Tesla Model 3 equipped with software that guides her to the company’s own network of chargers, which can fill the battery to 80 percent capacity in about half an hour. She sounds almost nostalgic when she remembers how hard it was to recharge back in the electric-vehicle stone age.

“Now, it’s boring,” Ms. Höffner said. “You say where you want to go and the car takes care of the rest.”

The European Union has nearly 200,000 chargers, far short of the three million that will be needed when electric cars become ubiquitous, according to Transport & Environment, an advocacy group. The United States remains far behind, with less than half as many as Europe.

But the European network is already dense enough that owning and charging an electric car is “no problem,” said Ms. Höffner, who can’t charge at home and depends on public infrastructure.

Price and infrastructure are closely connected. At least in theory, people won’t need big, expensive batteries if there is a place nearby to quickly recharge. (Charging times are also dropping fast.)

Lucid’s first vehicle is a luxury car, but Mr. Rawlinson said his dream was to build an electric car attainable by the middle class. In his view, that would mean a lightweight vehicle capable of traveling 150 miles between charges.

“I want to make a $25,000 car,” Mr. Rawlinson said. “That’s what is going to change the world.”

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What to Expect From White-Collar Prosecutions in 2020

The new year promises to be an interesting one in white-collar crime.

Goldman Sachs is negotiating with the Justice Department to pay a penalty of about $2 billion for its role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, known as 1MDB.

Accounting fraud became a particular focus of the Justice Department toward the end of 2019. In December, federal prosecutors indicted executives from Outcome Health and MiMed, and opened an investigation into whether BMW, the German automaker, manipulated its sales figures. Here’s a look:

The Malaysian authorities have indicted 17 Goldman Sachs executives on allegations that they played roles in siphoning off about $2.7 billion of the $6.5 billion raised for the 1MDB fund. How that case will be resolved is an open question because the Malaysian authorities are looking to recoup all of the money raised on behalf of 1MDB.

In the United States, federal prosecutors are looking at possible money-laundering and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations by Goldman. A settlement could include a guilty plea by its Asian subsidiary, which Goldman would then most likely put out of business.

Any settlement Goldman reaches with the federal authorities is unlikely to hamstring the bank. The Securities and Exchange Commission has shown a willingness to waive its “bad actor” rules, which bar financial institutions from offering securities to the public. And the large fines and guilty pleas that Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS agreed to in 2015 for manipulating foreign currencies did not cripple those banks.

Any settlement with the Justice Department and the S.E.C. is likely to require Goldman to have an outside monitor to ensure that it did not violate securities laws in the future. But that would most likely be just another cost of doing business for the firm, which would certainly be able to survive any issue arising from the monitoring.

Criminal prosecutions for accounting fraud are uncommon, but late last year, prosecutors took a much more aggressive position in accusing senior executives of violating accounting rules.

In December, federal prosecutors indicted a co-founder of Outcome Health, Rishi Shah; the company’s former president, Shradha Agarwal; and its chief financial officer, Brad Purdy, of money laundering and mail and wire fraud for making false statements to a bank to obtain almost $1 billion in loans and equity investments.

The Justice Department also charged the former MiMedx executives Praker Petit and William Taylor of “channel stuffing” by selling more products to distributors than they needed, to “juice” corporate sales. According to the indictment, MiMedx “did not meet the low end of its revenue guidance until the very last day of the quarter in each of the four quarters of 2015.” That is sure to arouse suspicions about whether the sales were legitimate.

If federal prosecutors can convince a jury that the defendants violated the securities law, substantial prison terms are likely.

The issue for BMW will be whether its reporting of vehicle sales also misled investors. The S.E.C. is investigating whether the company manipulated figures to make it appear healthier than it was. If it is found to have done so, the company could face a substantial penalty.

In September, Fiat Chrysler paid $40 million to settle claims that it used dubious practices to inflate its sales. The S.E.C. concluded that Fiat Chrysler had provided inaccurate information to investors, in violation of federal securities laws.

The House of Representatives passed the Insider Trading Prohibition Act, which for the first time would specifically define what constituted insider trading and expand what could be prosecuted.

If Senate approval follows and the legislation becomes law, any person “while aware of material, nonpublic information relating” to a company could be considered liable for insider trading. Communicating confidential information to others, the tippees, would be prohibited so long as the information “would reasonably be expected to have a material effect on the market price” of any security.

The legislation also covers obtaining information by “theft, bribery, misrepresentation or espionage” along with any “conversion, misappropriation, or other unauthorized and deceptive taking of such information.” That would subject many means of obtaining confidential information to the new prohibition on insider trading.

Providing a definition would be a substantial step forward for insider trading prosecution because prosecutors have had to rely on the courts to define what is — and is not — insider trading. We’d be likely to see an expansion of what types of conduct could be subject to prosecution. Whether that is a good thing remains to be seen.

Even if the legislation is not adopted, a ruling at the end of 2019 will make it easier for the Justice Department to pursue insider-trading cases.

A federal appeals court upheld the insider-trading convictions in United States v. Blaszczak. The court found that a securities fraud statute added to the Dodd-Frank Act does not require prosecutors to prove that the tipper received a personal benefit from the tippee. This is likely to allow prosecutors to pursue more cases that involve trading on confidential information without requiring proof that there was a quid pro quo exchange.

Whether that, too, is a good thing also remains to be seen.

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