You know the old saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This week, my feeling is more like: The more things get back to normal, the weirder some other things get.
The big-picture view of the heart of the industry — making and selling cars and light trucks — is definitely continuing to get back toward normal after the pandemic.
The supply of vehicles in the U.S. is still tight, but inventories are up almost 50 percent from a year ago, as Michael Martinez and David Phillips report, helping May sales jump by an estimated 21 percent among the companies that report monthly U.S. results. (Volvo said it plans to put its numbers out early in the coming week.)
Consumer demand remains strong in the face of higher interest rates and economic uncertainty — the latter of which was lessened a bit as Congress passed a debt-ceiling increase that averted a global financial catastrophe. Shoppers were encouraged by some corporate largesse: Incentives jumped 62 percent from a year earlier, with Volkswagen and Jeep among the brands goosing the spiffs.
Sales were also aided by rising fleet deliveries and leases — both trends back toward normal.
You know what else is normal in the auto industry? A publicly bellicose and belligerent UAW. Union President Shawn Fain is giving his members the political red meat they want. And his leadership team's relative openness — including the union's first-ever online town hall — speaks to the need to restore trust after a bruising scandal that sent several people to prison including two former UAW presidents, as Martinez reports. With UAW strikes ongoing at suppliers to the Detroit 3, the prospect for an automaker work stoppage this fall appear serious.
But while the industry would seem to be getting back to normal, it's also in the midst of a transition to electric vehicles — and that's where things start to get weird.
For one thing, you've got Elon Musk, who rarely does what people expect. Reporter Laurence Iliff explores the idea that the Tesla CEO's politics have taken a sharp rightward turn in a calculated effort to win over the EV converts in red states such as Texas. (Musk moved Tesla's headquarters to the state's capital from California in 2021.)
I'm reminded of Michael Jordan's anti-political — or at least nonpartisan — stance when he was the world's greatest basketball player and Nike pitchman. While some fans, especially in the Black community, wanted him to speak out on national issues, he famously quipped that "Republican buy sneakers, too."
Most commercial figures try to stay out of politics to avoid alienating roughly half of the consuming public; contrarian-minded Musk decides to host the presidential campaign launch of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
It's just another example of how the more things stay the same, the more they get turned on their head.