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+++ The idea is certainly audacious: Thwart traffic in congested cities by flying over it with FLYING TAXIS. Quick, quiet, clean, cheap. This concept, which requires a new type of battery-powered vertical takeoff and landing vehicle (VTOL), is Silicon Valley to its core in terms of self-liberation and greater efficiency. These electric vehicles would operate from “vertiports” situated around urban areas, predominantly atop buildings. And, at some point in the future, they would be unmanned. “In the nerd hierarchy of needs, the flying car is up there with downloadable brains and a working holodeck”, Bloomberg Businessweek noted last year in a profile of Google co-founder Larry Page’s aviation ambitions and the seemingly never-ending quest for personal flight. Well, those nerds are still at it. Uber Technologies disclosed the initial steps of its air-travel vision this week, announcing 5 partner companies with various specialties aimed at making the sci-fi staple affordable and common. The initial testing is expected in 2020 in Dallas and Dubai, 2 car-clogged cities where aviation interests wield great influence. “If you’re not planting the seeds for 5, 10 years out, you have no company in 5 to 10 years”, Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, said. Plenty of startups want to hasten the day when we all have a flying car, but Uber and its partners see an air taxi as the logical first step. The company released a white paper in October to discuss its views of on-demand urban air transportation. Yet even with a limited foray into the world of George Jetson and Blade Runner, it’s hard to overstate how many fundamental achievements must occur first, on both regulatory and technical grounds, before anyone can summon a cab from above. No one has built a craft of the sort Uber envisions, much less one that flies three or four people quietly on batteries powering multiple propulsive rotors. Battery technology has years of advances to go in order to become smaller and lighter, two attributes critical for an efficient VTOL. Even the simple matter of naming these things isn’t that simple after all. A flying car? Nope, the future multi-rotor craft will not even be close to an automobile. Nor is it a smaller, more technologically-advanced helicopter. And whatever the consensus on nomenclature, given the expense (Uber suggests a long-term cost around $200,000) it’s unlikely large numbers of motorists will be trading in their ground cars for flying transport. In fact, at first these vehicles may be too exotic even for sky tripping taxi fleets. Given the intense focus on offering air travel at the lowest possible cost, to make it a service for the masses, an air shuttle seems more apt for cheaper fares. And any new aircraft design will in turn require new standards, new regulations, new government certifications of those standards, as well as software testing since programs will be needed to help fly the aircraft. Despite all of these daunting challenges and unanswered questions, the usual suspects are nevertheless lining up. Textron Inc.’s Bell Helicopter sees the business as one that could lead to an entirely new product line, begun with hybrid motors before morphing into fully-electric designs. Embraer SA, which, like Bell, manufactures both civilian and military aircraft, is also hoping to supply VTOLs, along with future generations of computer “fly-by-wire” technologies needed to make these aircraft work without pilots. Given this innovation, the Federal Aviation Administration is keen to be seen as helpful, noting in a statement that the agency is working on automation systems for unmanned aerial vehicles. That technology could eventually have a place in the VTOL world. “Several areas need further research, particularly identifying the operational risks, making sure the automation that ‘flies’ the autonomous vehicle is safe, and how the automation will interact with the air traffic control system”, the FAA said in a statement in response to queries about such aircraft. That last point is a big one as far as the FAA is concerned: How do you integrate these aircraft into U.S. airspace? It’s a complex subject commercial drone aspirants are already exploring with regulators, and one fraught with difficulties. A VTOL flight also presents practical considerations closer to the ground: Most commercial and residential buildings locate their entrances on ground level, which could complicate the arrival of people landing on the roof. (this is also where a Jetson-style jetpack could come in handy). In a VTOL world, many existing buildings will have to retrofit their roofs while some new buildings will require landing pads. Officials at Uber and Fort Worth-based Bell stress that these vehicles will be commercial aircraft requiring roughly the same level of safety as charter aircraft. Regulators and the public won’t abide anything less and any air-taxi business could easily ground itself with just one crash. Uber says its goal is to make the cost of urban air transport, when pooling riders, comparable to its lower-cost UberX ground service. In the long term, Holden said, the cost of flying by VTOL will become lower than the “variable costs” of owning a car, including such expenses as insurance, maintenance, tolls and fuel, given the economies of scale that would come from high production and utilization rates. “There are a lot of compelling elements to this vision”, said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, who attended the Uber event in Dallas this week where the plans were unveiled. Wynne, who’s also a former director of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, which promotes battery, hybrid, and fuel cell tech, predicted the ongoing marriage of electric motors with autonomous technologies for smaller commercial drones will help power the air shuttle field. “Whether this becomes a niche service, and how quickly it scales is anybody’s guess” he said. “But they’ve got the demand”. +++

+++ LAMBORGHINI has opened its largest global showroom in Dubai. The Italian marque is preparing for a significant uptick in demand for the upcoming Urus SUV. The palatial showroom features 1,800 square meters of space distributed over 3 floors, including a dedicated service center. “The Middle East is a strong market for Lamborghini”, says brand CEO Stefano Domenicali. The space may seem large for a company that currently only makes 2 core models (the Huracan and Aventador) but it will presumably host the Raging Bull’s many special-edition builds and an Ad Personam studio where customers can explore a wide range of customization options. The company also suggests the spacious showroom reflects an anticipated increase in sales volume once its Urus SUV arrives on the market. +++

+++ MAZDA has confirmed it is developing a new addition to its family of SUVs, the CX-8. The Japanese car maker announced the 6- or 7-seat soft roader will go on-sale in Japan later this year. The bad news is it has been created specifically for the domestic market as the larger CX-9 is too big for Japanese roads. The good news is that position could change down the track with Mazda Europe interested in a seven-seat version of the CX-5 to take on the likes of the Nissan X-Trail and upcoming Honda CR-V, Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace and Skoda Kodiaq. Details on the new car are limited with Mazda only revealing its size and engine. The interior will accommodate 6 people, with an armrest in the centre of the second row between 2 stand-alone seats, however the brand also admitted it would be available with 7 occupant spaces. The exterior will follow the same Kodo design language as the rest of the range but the proportions will be dramatically different to either the CX-5 on which it is based. The dimensions revealed by Mazda indicate the CX-8 will be significantly longer than the CX-5, measuring 350 mm more in overall length and riding on a wheelbase that has been extended by 230 mm to create a more spacious interior. However, the CX-8 will only be 1.840 mm wide which is the exact same width as the CX-5. “Our latest offering, the CX-8 is a new crossover SUV for people who appreciate quality and need a car that seats more than 5”, said Masamichi Kogai, Mazda’s president and CEO. “It has the looks, performance and high-end feel customers expect from a Mazda, and even adults can sit comfortably in the third row. Mazda aims to create a strong emotional connection with customers, and we will achieve this by continually advancing our lineup to offer all customers our unique combination of driving pleasure and outstanding environmental and safety performance”. The CX-8 will be powered by a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine, likely to be the same 175 hp / 420Nm version as the CX-5. While the car may only be for Japan at present the popularity of SUVs in Europa, coupled with Mazda’s strong position locally, makes it highly probable that the CX-8 will eventually be offered alongside the CX-3 and CX-5 in European showrooms. “We’re interested in it and we’ll look at it if it becomes available”, said a Mazda spokeswoman. The CX-8 will go on sale in Japan before the end of 2017. +++

+++ Having acquired PININFARINA in late 2015, Indian auto giant Mahindra is now considering turning the Italian design firm into a premium electric car brand. The information was revealed by Mahindra Chairman Anand Mahindra during last month’s 2017 Seoul auto show. He also said the first model could be a supercar. “We’re exploring right now the potential of building an electric supercar, which will be branded Pininfarina”, Mahindra said. If approved, the supercar will likely be a production version of the H2 Speed concept unveiled at the 2016 Geneva auto show. Last August, Pininfarina CEO Silvio Pietro Angori said 10 examples will be built at a price of $2.5 million each. The H2 Speed featured electric motors powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Based on Mahindra’s comments, it’s not clear whether a production model will keep the fuel cell or go with a battery. The good news is that Mahindra wants Pininfarina-branded cars to be sold in the United States. “Competing in the U.S. is like the old Frank Sinatra song that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”, he told. “So when you sell cars in the U.S., it forces you to be the most competitive”. This wouldn’t be the first time that Pininfarina is venturing into car production. The Italian design firm has built a number of cars for various automakers, the last being the Volvo C70. Pininfarina has also dabbled in the world of electric cars. Some readers will recall that Pininfarina helped French firm Bolloré in the previous decade to develop the BlueCar electric hatch used for car sharing. As more automakers look internally for new car designs, independent automotive design firms have been forced to seek other avenues of growth. At the 2017 Geneva auto show, rival Italian design firm Italdesign Giugiaro launched a car under its own brand, a coachbuilt supercar dubbed the Italdesign Zerouno. +++

+++ Groupe RENAULT (including Lada) worldwide registrations (PC + LCV) increased by 15.8% in a market up 4%. The Group’s share of the world market now stands at 3.8%, up 0.4 points on 2016. The Renault and Dacia brands set new sales records for a first quarter. Renault Samsung Motors sales increased by 56.3% and those of Lada by 7%. In Europe, the Group’s share of the PC + LCV market increased 0.2 points to 10.1%. Sales grew 10% to 478,706 vehicles. The Renault brand continued to progress, with a 10.1% rise in registrations. Market share came out at 7.7%, up 0.1 points. Renault notably benefited from the complete renewal in 2016 of the Megane family. Electric vehicle sales increased by 46% to nearly 10,000 units (excluding Twizy) thanks to the success of New ZOE with a range of 400 km (NEDC). Sales of ZOE rose 57% and reinforced the Group’s leadership with a 28% share of the electric vehicle market. The Dacia brand posted a sales record for a first quarter with 112,457 registrations and a 2.4% share of the market. This 9.5% growth resulted from the performance of Sandero phase 2, launched in late 2016. In France, Groupe Renault benefited from the growth of the market with a 5.6% increase in registrations. The Group placed 5 vehicles in the top10 best-selling PCs (including the top-seller, Clio) and occupied the top 4 positions in the LCV top10. The Dacia brand was buoyed by the success of Sandero (the leader in sales to retail customers). Outside Europe, all the Regions increased their sales volumes and market share. Groupe Renault strengthened its positions with the success of its range: Kwid in India, QM6 and SM6 in South Korea, Kaptur in Russia, Koleos in China, Megane Sedan in Turkey, and Captur in the South Americas. In Africa-Middle East-India, Group registrations rose 30.9% for a market share of 6% (up 1.4 points). Sales in Iran rose sharply (up 161.5%) for a market share of 9%, up 4.9 points, thanks to the success of Tondar and Sandero. In India, Renault continued to rank as the number-one European brand with a 3.6% share of the market and a 9.9% increase in sales. Kwid registrations reached nearly 27,000. In North Africa, the Group took a 41.5% share of the market, up 8.3 points with a 13.4% increase in sales. In Eurasia, registrations increased by 6.3% in a market down 0.5%. The market share of Groupe Renault, now including the Lada brand, rose 1.5 points to 24.1%, notably thanks to a strong momentum in Russia. In a Russian market that grew slightly (+1%) for the first time in 4 years, the Group increased its sales by 9.2% (including Lada). The Renault brand took a 8.1% share of the market, up 0.8 points. Registrations of Kaptur, launched in June 2016, came to over 6,000 for the quarter. Lada sales volumes rose 8% for a market share of 19.1% (up 1.2 points) thanks to the success of the new Vesta and Xray models. With the consolidation of Lada sales volumes, Russia has become the Group’s number2 market. In Turkey, sales increased 0.8% in a market down 7.4%. The Group posted a 19% share of the market, up 1.5 points. The new Megane Sedan, awarded ‘Car of the Year’ in Turkey, is off to a successful start with over 6,500 registrations. In the Asia-Pacific Region, registrations were up 99.7% in a market up 4.6%. In China, Renault sold nearly 18,000 vehicles (compared with 3,400 in first-quarter 2016), including 10,000 New Koleos, launched at end-2016 and produced locally. Renault Samsung Motors posted a growth of 56.4% in a South Korean market up 0.9%, for a market share of 6.2%, up 2.2 points, driven by the success of the latest product launches (SM6 and QM6; Talisman and Koleos). In the South Americas region, sales increased 19% in a market up 9%, for a market share of 6.3%, up 0.5 points. The success of Sandero, Logan and Duster Oroch models was confirmed. Groupe Renault continued to take full advantage of the recovery in the Argentinean market, with an 87.2% increase in registrations in a market up 42.8%. Market share rose by 3.1 points to 13.1%. Renault is fully benefiting from the local production of Sandero and Logan since end-2016. The market in Brazil has stabilized (down 1.2%) and the Group maintained its market share at 6.8%. Group revenues came to €13,129 million in first quarter 2017, up 25.2%. Excluding the impact of the consolidation of Avtovaz, Group revenues increased by 19.7% to €12,560 million (up 18.4% at constant exchange rates). Automotive excluding Avtovaz revenues totaled €11,939 million, up 20.1%, mainly thanks to growth in sales volumes (up 9.2 points). The increase in sales to partners contributed 3.5 points to this growth. The performance reflects the strong momentum in our CKD activity in Iran and China and in the sales of vehicles assembled in Europe (notably with the start of Nissan Micra production). The price effect (+2.4 points) benefited primarily from recent launches. The currency effect was positive at 1.3 points, mainly owing to the strengthening of the Russian ruble and Brazilian real, despite the negative impact of the British pound. Sales Financing (RCI Banque) posted revenues of €621 million in the first quarter, up 13.5% on 2016. The number of new financing contracts increased by 21.4%. Average performing assets rose 21.9% to €37.9 billion. In 2017, the global market is expected to record growth of 1.5% to 2.5% (versus 1.5% to 2% previously). The European market is still expected to increase by 2% this year, as is the French market. Outside Europe, the Russian market might increase by up to 5% (versus stable previously), whereas the Brazilian market should remain stable. China (+5%) and India (+8%) are expected to continue their growth momentum. +++

+++ TESLA has ousted an automation pioneer after a dispute with CEO Elon Musk. After Tesla acquired Grohmann Engineering, company founder Klaus Grohmann allegedly disagreed with the decision to drop existing clients. A dispute with Tesla CEO Elon Musk is reportedly to blame for automation pioneer Klaus Grohmann’s departure after the California-based automaker acquired his company. Tesla bought Grohmann Engineering in November, giving the automaker deeper control over critical manufacturing technology that is expected to help quickly ramp up Model 3 production volume. Klaus Grohmann, the firm’s founder, was expected to stay through the acquisition but he unexpectedly left within months. Sources now tell Reuters that Grohmann directly sparred with Musk over the decision to terminate existing relationships (including rival clients such as BMW and Daimler) to refocus solely on Tesla’s own projects. “I definitely did not depart because I had lost interest in working”, Grohmann obliquely confirmed to Reuters, declining to elaborate because of confidentiality agreements. Tesla has downplayed the move, claiming that part of Grohmann’s decision to work with Tesla “was to prepare for his retirement” and leave the company “in capable hands” for the future. “Given the change in focus to Tesla projects, we mutually decided that it was the right time for the next generation of management to lead”, the company added. Tesla previously suggested its factory technology will be the secret to its success, arguing that “the factory becomes more of a product than the product itself” at very high production volumes. The company made a controversial decision to skip the traditional “soft tooling” pre-production development phase that automakers use to refine the assembly process before configuring finalized tooling. The company’s bold strategy could be revolutionary, but only if the Model 3 can quickly reach production volumes of 5,000 units per week without requiring time-consuming manual labor after the vehicles have rolled off the assembly line. Or, worse yet, if defective vehicles are delivered to customers before quality issues have been addressed. +++

+++ TOYOTA has been toying with ideas on how to make fuel cells work better and it came up with a new technology that is just as efficient as the conventional hydrogen-based one, but without needing compressed H2. Battery-powered electrics are gaining traction in front of the few automakers promoting the hydrogen fuel cell technology due to a major shortage on the latter’s behalf: the lack of refueling infrastructure. Toyota has decided to try and solve the problem and its new hybrid system might be the solution because it uses natural gas as the base fuel and there’s also a micro hybrid gas turbine to produce the electricity. The catch is the structure for electric generation is a bit complex: natural gas is converted into carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), a compressor injects air into the combination, while the chemical reaction through the fuel cell stack creates electricity. After this, there is residual H2 and CO and these go into the micro gas turbine where a combustion process adds more electricity, while a co-generation system uses waste heat for even more power. Toyota is currently trialing it at its Motomachi Plant in Japan, for evaluations of energy efficiency, performance, and durability. As the photos clearly show, the system is massive though, and makes only 335 horsepower, which is not overly impressive compared to the size. Maybe further development will make it suitable for ships, since those are one of the planet’s biggest polluters, and in dire need of eco-friendly solutions. +++

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