The marketplace is swirling with rumours and speculation about the future of Fiat Chrysler (FCA). This is bad news for consumers of FCA’s many brands, though it’s highly entertaining for stock watchers and car business aficionados.

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of FCA.

And so…

Rumours and speculation?

Some suggest FCA is anxious to do an IPO/spin-off of its Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands, just as it did with Ferrari in 2015. At least one Chinese automaker appears poised to make a play for the Jeep brand, and perhaps all of FCA. China’s Great Wall Motor has, for one, confirms interest in owning Jeep, an icon of American military might. Enjoy that irony.

So, what would Jeep, Maserati and Alfa together be worth? The smart money suggests more than $35 billion (US). That pile of cash could be used to help what’s left of FCA fund the development of new and desperately needed products and technologies for its mass market brands – Ram, Dodge, Chrysler and Fiat.

FCA, we should not forget, is the product of a combination of the former Fiat and Chrysler Corp. — Chrysler which was rescued out of bankruptcy with the help of loans and other assistance from American and Canadian taxpayers seven years ago. We — you and me — have at least a distant stake in these proceedings; we helped bail Chrysler out and make it palatable for Fiat to swallow whole. And today, well, plenty of Canadian jobs are in play here.

Nonetheless, the hard truth is, FCA needs the capital. The company badly lags behind its competitors in autonomous and electrification technologies. Moreover, FCA’s stable of traditional powertrain technologies are, collectively, mediocre, as well.

What’s happened here is easy to understand. Since bankruptcy, FCA has not invested the funds and effort necessary to keep pace with its rivals in two key technology areas: autonomous drive and electrification.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio: rumours suggest FCA might spin-off or sell its Alfa brand.

To be fair, FCA has used some of its scarce resources to make taxpayers whole. The Netherlands-based company payed off its bailout loans long ago. That’s worth a round of applause.

But paying back taxpayers has come at a price. That is, FCA has lacked a really rich well of resources to invest in research and development — in new product development.

CEO Sergio Marchionne has never conceded this reality, not publicly. Instead, he has long-argued that ALL car companies — not just his — lack the resources to develop the full scope of 21st century advanced technologies — autonomous drive, electrification and so on.

FCA’s rivals dispute that. Late last year, for instance, Daimler AG said it would invest €10 billion to develop at least 10 new EVs by 2015. Ford Motor plans to invest $4.5 billion (US) in electrified vehicles by 2020. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, General Motors, BMW, Hyundai Motor… All the world’s big car companies are sinking huge sums into advanced technologies and services.

FCA has been close to mute about its plans for big investments in electrification and autonomous drive. Instead, Marchionne has energetically advocated technology-sharing among the world’s big automakers. He argues this is a smart cost-saving measure.

Alas, Marchionne has been repeatedly rebuffed in his efforts to build big, sweeping alliances with his rivals – who see proprietary technologies as essential competitive advantages. This seems quite clear: FCA has under-invested in critical high-tech areas, apparently waiting for these alliances to form..

FCA is making a huge mistake here. Goldman Sachs, for instance, argues that by 2025, 25 per cent of cars sold will have electric motors, up from 5.0 per cent today. Most electrified vehicles will be hybrids of some sort. Therefore, automakers must also continue refining the internal combustion engine to make it compliant with increasingly challenging fuel economy and emissions rules around the world.

Carmakers must also search for ways to strip weight out of future models while also meeting tougher safety standards. These efforts across the board are very, very expensive.

The Jeep brand might be worth $27 billion (US) if spun off or sold. At least one Chinese automaker has said it is interested in Jeep.

Meantime, the world’s big automakers are racing to develop autonomous vehicles. Semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the road. Fully autonomous rides are coming fast and some believe fully self-driving cars will be available in the very near future. McKinsey and Co. says that by 2030, once regulatory hurdles are overcome, 15 per cent of all new cars sold will be fully autonomous.

Again, autonomous technology is expensive to develop and implement. It forces car companies to foster and often fund supplier relationships with specialized companies. This explains why all the world’s car companies have a growing presence in Silicon Valley, the information technology heartland. Most observers believe FCA lags its competition here, too.

Now a third major and related trend is ride-sharing. General Motors’ Maven car-sharing service is a perfect example of an area where FCA remains an also-ran. The price tag to nurture ride sharing units and alliances is hefty.

Last year, GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a car-sharing service, for instance. GM is hardly alone. Toyota has invested in Uber, Volkswagen has purchased shares of Gett, and BMW has become a shareholder of carpool-platform Scoop, to name three more rivals.

Ram:pickup: popular and profitable.

FCA and Google’s Waymo unit have entered into a modest deal to test an autonomous ride-sharing service. But FCA has not yet invested in anything with the scope and vision of GM’s Maven. Overall, FCA’s competitors clearly have a significant edge in this area.

Then there is this complication: FCA is in the early stages of planning and executing a leadership succession strategy. CEO Marchionne is expected to depart in 2018.

Marchionne deserves great praise for successfully merging Fiat and Chrysler, making it quite profitable today. But Marchionne’s constant emphasis on the need for mergers and spin-offs — his obsession with deal-making — has been an unwanted distraction for the company.

My point is, the car business demands leaders with a tight focus on today’s operations. Those leaders must also be astute, forward-thinking visionaries who regularly approve multi-billion-dollar investments in future products, technologies and services. I’d argue FCA’s leadership has been under-performing right across the board here.

Take quality. FCA’s consistently miserable performances in all manner of quality studies suggests the company lacks focus on the very fundamentals of the industry.

Indeed, in the latest J.D. Power and Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study, the Fiat brand finished dead last with Jeep second-worst among all brand. This result is not an aberration nd it’s inexcusable.

It appears to me that FCA has stalled while leadership has focused on finding cost-sharing deals that have yet to materialize in any substantive way. The company has not adequately invested its own resources in future technologies and alliances. I understand why, but the problem remains.

In any case, FCA appears to be falling further behind its rivals in critical areas. Quality remains a serious problem, too. And, frankly, management looks tired and short of the new ideas, initiatives and energies needed to position FCA in a world of autonomous, connected and electrified vehicles.

FCA’s best play might very well be to sell off Jeep and use that massive windfall to fund product and technology programs right across its remaining brand lineup. There is value to be exploited in the Ram, Chrysler, Dodge and Fiat brands, but only if the products are modern, technologically advanced. I would also argue against selling Maserati and Alfa. Both upscale brands are needed to launch halo products and technologies that filter down and throughout the higher volume brands.

Yes, FCA needs an injection of new, forward-thinking leadership that is fully and completely devoted to the car/light truck/SUV business as it is evolving in the 21st century. Who are those leaders and where will they come from?

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