Volkswagen Is World’s Largest Automaker 2018, maybe

One of the most riveting years in the race for World’s Largest Automaker finally is over. A 1pm local Tokyo time, the last remaining data trundled into my mailbox, and my spreadsheet declared Volkswagen the winner. Only 7,732 units behind is the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance in 2nd place – a photo finish as far as this race is concerned.. Toyota occupies the 3rd rung of the podium.

For a long time, OEMs officially claimed to be utterly blasé about the ranking, rightly so, because the title seems to bring bad karma. The top is in the hands of two companies that loudly made becoming World’s Largest Automaker the most important part of their strategy. Volkswagen’s Winterkorn declared it as his and Volkswagen’s goal when he became CEO in 2017. Volkswagen reached the top (or maybe not, see below) after Winterkorn was fired. Carlos Ghosn, Chairman of the Alliance, made reaching the top his goal as well. Now, he languishes in jail.

One thing is clear: The rule of American car companies is long over. Hyundai has reported 7.4 million units for 2018. General Motors has not reported yet. Whether GM is in 4th or 5th position will again hinge on how China’s Wuling will be recognized, still a matter of great controversy among car-counters.

The listing in Dailykanban will likewise be debated. In a few hours, there will be listings with different rankings, namely by sales. The world umbrella organization OICA ranks carmakers by production, not by sales, and Dailykanban strives to do the same, as much as sometimes dearth data allow. In a few years, when you look into Wikipedia, or Statista, you will find yet another set of rankings. The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance keeps repeating that it is the world’s largest, but in the official OICA ranking, the Alliance is a no-show. Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi report separately, which turns them into statistical also-rans.

The methodology sometimes brings big surprises: When the media crowned Volkswagen the World’s largest OEM of 2016, I had my doubts, and lo and behold, when OICA published the final 2016 ranking many months later, Toyota was on top.

We are still waiting for OICA’s official data for 2017, and when they don’t arrive for a long time, then that’s usually a sign of disagreement over data supplied to OICA.

Sales data reported later today elsewhere will be inexact, as Volkswagen reports neither production, nor sales, it reports “deliveries,” which is a blend of sales to dealers and registrations by end-users. Sometimes not even that: A high percentage of “sales” in Europe are so-called “tactical registrations.”  The dealer or OEM registers the car for a day, it goes back on the lot, but in the stats, it is counted as a sale.

And now the necessary caveat:

The race for World’s Largest Automaker is not decided by sales, but by production, and this analysis attempts to track production, not sales, because this is how the world automaker umbrella organization OICA ranks automakers.

Due to the different methodologies of their measurement, “sales” numbers have proven to be unreliable, and prone to ‘sales reporting abuses,” as recent scandals in the U.S., along with rampant “self-registrations” in the EU have shown. The WLTP story underscores this point: Neither the explosion of EU registrations in July and August, nor the sudden implosion in September and October truly reflect actual sales in Europe.

At the same time, data reported by automakers are becoming increasingly hard to compare.

Toyota reports production and sales. Volkswagen reports “deliveries” to wholesale – which can be cars dumped on dealer lots, or actual sales to customers. The Alliance numbers used to be a blend of production data reported by Nissan and Mitsubishi, and deliveries reported by Renault. As of September, Renault started to report sales only, forcing us to use those.

With results that close, every unit counts, and with different ways of counting, the matter is becoming a bit silly.