The burned hulk of the vacated vehicle carrier Felicity Ace could be under tow and on its way back to a European port as early as Wednesday, less than a week after it caught fire while on its way to deliver a load of nearly 4,000 Volkswagen Group vehicles from their factories in Europe to U.S. dealerships.
Meanwhile, dealerships across the U.S. spent the weekend and the early part of this week assessing their potential losses and beginning to contact customers whose ordered vehicles are aboard. Estimates of the loss from the fire are as high as $335 million.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that flames were no longer visible from the ship, and that a salvage crew hopes to get aboard Wednesday to hook up a tow line and bring the Felicity Ace back to port. Authorities do not yet know the cause of the blaze, but the crew reported that the fire had broken out on one of the cargo decks where vehicles, including battery-electric vehicles, were stored for transport, the AP reported. Firefighting vessels directed their water cannons to the ship's hull to cool it and to keep any runoff from lithium ion batteries from polluting the surrounding Atlantic Ocean.
For Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini dealers in the U.S., the fire exacerbates already tight supplies because of the ongoing microchip shortage, and it means dealers will have to find ways to satiate customers whose ordered vehicles were aboard.
Porsche dealer Robert DiStanislao has a customer-ordered Cayenne on the Felicity Ace.
Porsche is providing dealers daily updates on the status of the vessel, said DiStanislao, president of Porsche of the Main Line in suburban Philadelphia.
The potential loss of the Felicity Ace is likely to make an already-challenging inventory situation worse.
"It's going to cause us even more shipping delays because we now have one less transport vessel," DiStanislao said.
The dealership has reordered a Cayenne for the customer, who should receive it in June, instead of this month.
But, there's a silver lining for the customer, who will receive an upgrade.
Because of limited product availability, Porsche Cars of the Main Line had to order a Platinum-edition Cayenne.
"The Platinum is more expensive than the original order," DiStanislao said. "But we are keeping the pricing the same for the customer."
Like Porsche, almost all Audis — with the exception of the Mexico-produced Q5 — are imported to the U.S. from Europe via car-hauling freighter. Audi of America has not publicly disclosed how many of its vehicles are aboard the Felicity Ace.
Michelle Primm, managing partner of Cascade Auto Group in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, which includes Cascade Audi, told Automotive News that two of her customers had ordered vehicles aboard the Felicity Ace — a Q3 and a Q7, both gasoline-powered crossovers. Both orders were "refilled from allocation," Primm said, adding that the customers understood what had happened, though they responded differently: "One was very OK and one was [upset]."
At VW, the hardest losses to deal with will be for ID4s, the brand's compact-crossover EV that went on sale last year. Volkswagen of America executives have said that they are still trying to fulfill orders placed in the U.S. for ID4s, which, for right now, are being manufactured in Zwickau, Germany. VW's plant in Chattanooga is expected to begin local salable production of the ID4 this spring.
Fred Emich IV, general manager at Emich Volkswagen in Denver, said his store lost five vehicles aboard the ship, including three that were sold orders. Emich said that the brand is "trying to replace the sold orders" from elsewhere in stock and that the dealership is waiting to hear the results of that search before reaching out to the impacted customers.
A spokeswoman for Bentley of America said last week that there were also 189 of the brand's bespoke, hand-built luxury vehicles aboard. Bentleys are built in Crewe, England, and are transported from Europe with other VW Group vehicles.
It may be some time before the exact cause of the blaze is known. The Felicity Ace was hauling both battery-electric and gasoline-powered vehicles. BEVs are not charged to full capacity at the factory, nor are gasoline-powered vehicles filled up, but both are fueled sufficiently to allow them to be loaded and unloaded as they are transported between the factory and their intended dealerships.
Even before the advent of EVs, automobile fires had been an ongoing issue for automakers for decades. According to the most recent report in 2020 from the National Fire Protection Association, there was an annual average of 117,370 fires in passenger vehicles in the U.S. every year from 2013 to 2017.
During that same period, there was an average of 10 fires aboard oceangoing cargo vessels reported each year. The total number of vehicle fires per year of all types declined steadily from 1980 (456,000) to 2013 (164,000) before beginning to increase again. In 2018, the report said the total had rebounded to 181,500.