Disruptions in the auto industry will result in billions lost, with recovery years away. Yet companies that reimagine their operations will perform best in the next normal. 

Electric mobility, driverless cars, automated factories, and ridesharing—these are just a few of the major disruptions the auto industry faced even before the COVID-19 crisis. Now with travel deeply curtailed by the pandemic, and in the midst of worldwide factory closures, slumping car sales, and massive layoffs, it’s natural to wonder what the “next normal” for the auto sector will look like. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the first indicators of this automotive future becoming visible, with the biggest industry changes yet to come.

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Many of the recent developments raise concern. For instance, the COVID-19 crisis has compelled about 95 percent of all German automotive-related companies to put their workforces on short-term work during the shutdown, a scheme whereby employees are temporarily laid off and receive a substantial amount of their pay through the government. Globally, the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis are immense and unprecedented. In fact, many auto-retail stores have remained closed for a month or more. We estimate that the top 20 OEMs in the global auto sector will see profits decline by approximately $100 billion in 2020, a roughly six-percentage-point decrease from just two years ago. It might take years to recover from this plunge in profitability.

At the operational level, the pandemic has accelerated developments in the automotive industry that began several years ago. Many of these changes are largely positive, such as the growth of online traffic and the greater willingness of OEMs to cooperate with partners—automotive and otherwise—to address challenges. Others, however, can have negative effects, such as the tendency to focus on core activities, rather than exploring new areas. While OEMs may now be concentrating on the core to keep the lights on, the failure to investigate other opportunities could hurt them long term.

As they navigate this crisis, automotive leaders may gain an advantage by reimagining their organizational structures and operations. Five moves can help them during this process: radically focusing on digital channels, shifting to recurring revenue streams, optimizing asset deployment, embracing zero-based budgeting, and building a resilient supply chain. One guiding principle—the need to establish a strong decision-making cadence—will also help. We believe that the window of opportunity for making these changes will permanently close in a few months—and that means the time to act is now or never.

Radically focus online

Right now, more consumers than ever are using online sales channels to engage with businesses in every industry. According to a recent McKinsey digital sentiment analysis, in Europe, the use of digital channels has increased by an average of 13 percentage points (Exhibit 1). Growth in online channels is high for every country surveyed, but the biggest boost has occurred in Germany, which has seen the use of digital channels jump 28 percentage points in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, 72 percent of first-time users in Germany and 70 percent of regular users are planning to continue engaging online even after the crisis subsides. According to these metrics, having an online presence may be a game changer for businesses.