Alongside seismic structural shifts taking place in the car industry including electrification and autonomous vehicles, German carmakers say that the potential for punitive U.S. tariffs on European car and part imports are casting a large shadow over the industry.
CEOs at the Geneva Motor Show told CNBC that geopolitical tensions and the threat of trade wars were the biggest unknown facing the industry right now.
"It is a critical situation for us," Herbert Diess, the CEO of VW Group, which comprises Porsche, Audi and Seat among other brands, told CNBC Tuesday. "Mostly, our premium brands here in Germany are depending on the import market of the U.S. Audi and Porsche have significant market share there, so this is a threat," he said.
Free trade, and trade wars, became something of a buzzword last year after President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on, at first, solar cells and some washing machines from China, and then on steel and aluminum imports.
China retaliated in kind, quickly leading to a tit-for-tat escalation in billions of dollars' worth of tariffs on one another's imports. Trade negotiations are currently taking place between China and the U.S. with sources telling CNBC on Monday that a trade deal could be reached later this month.
Europe wasn't left unscathed by Trump's trade tirade and in August 2018, he announced he would put a 25 percent tariff on every car import from the EU, much to the dismay of European leaders and carmakers. So far, however, the tariffs have not been imposed and U.S. and EU officials are meeting Wednesday and Thursday this week to discuss ways to avert them.
Speaking to CNBC's Annette Weisbach in Geneva, chief executives of some of the world's largest automakers said free trade — defined as international trade that is left to its natural course without tariffs, quotas or other restrictions — was under threat and the outcome uncertain. "We are for free world trade, but in the end (it) depends on politics. We have a very true fanbase in the U.S. so we will see what will happen," Oliver Blume, the CEO of Porsche, told CNBC Monday.
Meanwhile, the BMW CEO said that the auto industry created wealth, investment and jobs and that it could do this thanks to free trade policies.
"Our business model is clearly based on free trade and we have shown and demonstrated by our biggest plant in South Carolina that export-business and free trade business creates wealth and jobs and high investment. And the answer to the current situation is flexibility," Harald Kruger told CNBC Monday.
Audi Chairman Bram Schot struck a more upbeat tone, saying he didn't see the potential for tariffs on European cars as something to worry about.
"I don't see them as a threat, I see it as a challenge, we are transforming the business and it's one of the things we have to cope with, so I don't see that as a big issue," he told CNBC's Annette Weisbach Monday.
Schot was concerned about a slowdown in car sales in China, however, noting that "the only thing we're concerned about is what's happening in China, we see some sluggish markets at the beginning of the year."
Those in the smaller niche, luxury car market are also concerned. "That economic uncertainty is worrying," the CEO of U.K.-based luxury carmaker McLaren Automotive said, which foresees production of only 5,000 high-end luxury cars this year.
"Political and economic uncertainty are the things that challenge us most," Mike Flewitt told CNBC Tuesday.
"We accept the technical challenges and in fact, we enjoy the technical challenges of this industry building better, more competitive cars but that economic uncertainty is worrying. The discussions around the U.S. putting imports on European cars — that would hurt us significantly."
Andy Palmer, the CEO of fellow British luxury carmaker Aston Martin, also said U.S. tariffs would push prices higher. "All of the luxury manufacturers are based in Europe, we all have the same problem. What that means is that if there is a tariff it'll go through in pricing," he said.