+++ I’ll admit to heading to Ford of Europe’s Go Further event in Amsterdam with a degree of trepidation. Here is a brand that, while still topping several salescharts, is a pale shadow of its former self. Its products no longer have the desirability they used to have, and certainly don’t win as many group tests. And the financial woes of the company’s European arm have been well documented, with some industry watchers wondering whether this US giant might go the way of General Motors and exit Europe altogether. I left with far more confidence over Ford’s future, even a level of excitement about the products that I haven’t felt for a while. There’s some great stuff coming. But perhaps what impressed me most was a chat with Sarah-Jayne Williams, Ford’s director of smart mobility. The brand has set up its own tech hub in London to plan and trial services that will transform it from a car maker to a mobility provider. Williams didn’t need long to convince me that Ford is taking this industry inevitability more seriously than many others. Those who stick their heads in the sand about this tech, which legislators are demanding, could see sales and revenues dwindle fast. It was a strong theme at last week’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Connected conference, too, with Toyota Connected Europe CEO, Agustín Martín, also reiterating how his firm was transforming “from an automobile company to a mobility company”. Meanwhile, Aston Martin boss Andy Palmer warned that companies that didn’t ADAPT to change would fail. “Many could fall under the wing of bigger firms so we have just 2 or 3 mega-companies dominating, becoming the Boeing and Airbus of the car industry”, he said. “You will see fallout. We’ll see newcomers coming; some will succeed, some will fail”. The message is simple: the car companies that don’t adapt to the new world of mobility services might not survive. +++

+++ In one fell swoop, AUDI has unveiled the new S6, S6 Avant and S7 Sportback. Starting under the hood, it gets an electrified 3.0-liter V6 TDI engine that produces 349 hp and 700 Nm. It is paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission which sends power to a Quattro all-wheel drive system. In terms of performance, the S6 TDI Sedan can accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 5.0 seconds. The S6 Avant and S7 Sportback can accomplish the same task in 5.1 seconds. While the latter models are a bit slower off the line, all three are limited to a top speed of 250 km/h. Those figures aren’t earth shattering, but the cars are pretty thrifty at the pump. According to Audi, fuel consumption ratings range from 6.2 liter / 100 km to 6.5 liter. Likewise, CO2 emissions range from 164-171 gram/km depending on the model and its tires / wheels. Sticking with the performance theme, the cars are equipped with an S-specific power steering system and an S sport suspension which reduces the ride height by up to 10 mm. Buyers will also find a high-performance braking system which has 6-piston calipers and 400 mm discs up front as well as 6-piston calipers and 350 mm discs in back. As usual, an assortment of options will be available including a dynamic all-wheel steering system which can turn the rear wheels up to 5 degrees. Audi says this gives the cars more maneuverability at low speeds and greater directional stability at high speeds. Customers will also be able to order an adaptive air suspension for the first time. It has 3 different modes and Audi describes it as a “comfort-oriented alternative” to the standard suspension. A ceramic braking system will also be available and it includes 6-piston calipers which grab onto discs measuring 400 mm up front and 370 mm out back. The larger rear discs aren’t the only advantage as the optional braking system weighs 9 kg less than its steel counterpart. On the styling front, the S6 gains a faux aluminum front splitter and a unique rear diffuser with tucks in between a four-tailpipe exhaust system. The S7 Sportback is a bit more extreme as it has larger air intakes and unique skid skirts. The models also have a revised grille, special mirror caps and standard 20-inch wheels. The sporty updates continue in the cabin as drivers will find contrast stitching, brushed aluminum trim and a digital instrument cluster with S-specific displays. Other highlights include stainless steel pedals and illuminated sill plates with S logos. Alcantara sport seats are standard, but customers can order custom contour seats with Valcona leather. Buyers can also purchase a flat-bottom steering wheel, fine grain ash trim and front seats with heating, ventilation and massage functions. The Audi S6, S6 Avant and S7 Sportback will celebrate their European launch this summer. +++ 

+++ MPVs are not having the best of times right now, as buyers have found a sexier alternative for carrying people and luggage with comfort in SUVs. Nevertheless, 3 years ago, CHRYSLER rolled out the Pacifica and even gave it a plug-in hybrid powertrain option as well. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) was apparently so satisfied with the end product that it has already approved a follow-up and an official announcement should be coming in the next month or 2. Since the alleged follow-up to the Pacifica has yet to be confirmed, no technical details are available yet. However, Chrysler’s parent company has several powertrain solutions. Electrification, apparently, is still a must, not only for the MPV, but other future products, too. The notion of an all-wheel drive version of the people carrier seems to be on the table, too. The model was hinted again in a report released last month, and if it turns out to be correct, then the AWD Pacifica should hit production in the second quarter of next year. +++

+++ The new Range Rover Evoque has been awarded the maximum 5-star safety rating in the latest round of tests by EURO NCAP. The British-built SUV, which moved into its second generation earlier this year, achieved significantly higher ratings for adult and child occupant protection than the original model received in 2011, even against a tougher testing regime. An adult protection rating of 94 % and a child protection rating of 87 % make the new Evoque the safest Land Rover ever tested. A pedestrian protection rating of 72 % is also strong, as is a safety assist technology rating of 73 %. The automatic emergency braking system scored maximum points in tests of its functionality at city speeds. Alongside the Evoque, Euro NCAP tested the new Citroën C5 Aircross. The SUV scored 4 stars for entry-level spec models. They receive the maximum score when fitted as standard with the Safety Plus Pack, which adds a radar sensor to the existing front-facing camera to improve the performance of the automatic braking system and enable detection of cyclists. Praising car makers for rapidly pushing such systems to market, Euro NCAP’s general secretary, Michiel van Ratingen, said: “It’s good news that some of the basic driver assist technologies will finally be mandated from 2022, but thankfully most vehicle manufacturers are already way ahead of the curve today”. +++ 

+++ The Brazilian unit of FORD said it was initiating a voluntary layoff program for its plant in Camaçari, in the northeast state of Bahia, with the objective to cut workforce it said was in excess of current needs. The company in its statement did not say how many people it expected to lay off. Ford previously said the plant was operating with about 700 excess workers. The plant employs 7,400 people in Camaçari, where it produces the Ka+ and EcoSport. The U.S. automaker said 2 months ago it would close its oldest plant in Brazil, in São Bernardo do Campo, which could cost more than 2,700 jobs as part of a restructuring meant to end losses around the world. Referring to the Bahia plant, Ford said: “The measure has the objective to align the plant’s workforce with current market demand”. Ford sold 24,000 Ka+ vehicles in Brazil in the first quarter, about the same level as in the previous year. It sold 7,600 EcoSports, more than the 7,000 reported in the first quarter of 2018. +++ 

+++ The wife of ousted Nissan boss Carlos GHOSN returned to Japan and intends to testify to Tokyo prosecutors, a source close to her entourage said, days after she left the country to seek help from the French government. The source, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said Carole Ghosn would be questioned by authorities. Prosecutors last week arrested the former Nissan chairman for the 4th time on suspicion he tried to enrich himself at the cost of $5 million to the automaker. Authorities had also wanted to question his wife on suspicion that Ghosn had siphoned off payments through a company where his wife is an executive to purchase a yacht and a boat, public broadcaster NHK has reported. Ghosn has said he is innocent of all the charges against him and said he is the victim of a boardroom coup. His wife left Japan last week after Ghosn’s arrest, telling she was going to seek help for her spouse, a French citizen. Paris has said it was monitoring the situation. Prosecutors had earlier seized her Lebanese passport but overlooked her U.S. one, allowing her to leave Japan. Now, she wants to tell a court that there was “absolutely nothing illegal”. Prosecutors asked her to meet them for voluntary questioning as an unsworn witness, but the request was turned down, which prompted them to ask judges to question her on their behalf. Such a request gives judges the power to question on a mandatory basis witnesses who refuse to testify. +++  

+++ British government officials and senior labor union members are set to visit Japan soon to urge HONDA to review its plan to close its automobile plant in Swindon, in the south of the country. Late last month, thousands of people (including workers from the factory of the major automaker and parts suppliers for the Swindon facility) staged a rally to call for the cancellation of the decision to shut down the factory. Honda’s decision is “shocking” and “still unbelievable”, said 43-year old Jos Fernandes, who has been working at the plant for 8,5 years. “I love Honda”, he continued, pointing to difficulties finding a different job in Swindon. In the demonstration, believed to the first of its kind in Swindon in some 40 years, Fernandes and other participants marched for about 1 hour, chanting slogans including “Save Honda”. Many placards calling on the U.K. government to nationalize the Swindon plant were also seen. The planned end of production at the plant in 2021 is expected to affect a total of around 15,000 jobs, including some 3,500 at the factory as well as workers at parts suppliers. “We will be traveling to Japan” with senior British government officials in order to meet with Honda executives and press them to review the decision, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, the largest labor union in the U.K., told rally participants. “I strongly believe it was the wrong decision”, said Greg Clark, Britain’s secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, in a statement. “Swindon is the ideal place” to manufacture next-generation automobiles, Clark also said, citing a “highly efficient and dedicated” workforce, and a supplier network “finely tuned” to meeting needs. Meanwhile, he stopped short of commenting on the ongoing turmoil over the U.K.’s planned exit from the European Union, which is casting a dark shadow over the country’s auto industry. +++

+++ INDONESIA is seeking investment from Renault and Volvo to make electric vehicles as the country targets battery-powered automobiles to account for a quarter of vehicle production by 2030. The government has asked Renault and Volvo to consider building factories or assembly units in Southeast Asia’s largest market for cars, as it eyes production of 750,000 electric vehicles by 2030, said Harjanto, director general of metal, machinery, transportation and electronics at the industry ministry. Indonesia’s total vehicle production is seen more than doubling to 3 million units during the period, he said. President Joko Widodo has promised tax incentives to draw foreign investment in electric vehicles while also making it expensive to own fossil fuel-powered automobiles to save the country about 798 trillion rupiah ($56 billion) from reducing dependence and imports of crude oil. While Hyundai and Volkswagen have shown interest in manufacturing electric vehicles, a consortium of Chinese and Indonesian companies is already building a battery plant, according to Industry Minister Airlangga Hartato. PT Maxindo Renault Indonesia Chief Operating Officer Davy J. Tuilan said the French automaker will need to first conduct a feasibility study before deciding on investing in Indonesia, while Kina Wileke, a Volvo spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to request for comments. Abundant reserves of nickel ore, a key raw material in electric batteries, is an advantage Indonesia wants to tap for developing its electric vehicle industry and one company has started work on producing raw materials for electric batteries, Harjanto said. Once a battery production facility is in place, it would be easy to draw vehicle manufacturers, he said. “Assembling is easy, so we must get hold of the upstream industry”, Harjanto said. “We want to make the components here. That’s why we’re now looking for a battery maker as we have the raw materials”. PT Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned energy company, has announced plans to begin electric battery production, while PT Blue Bird will start adding electric cars to its taxi fleet from this year. The government is working on a set of new rules for promoting electric vehicles which may offer lower luxury tax and progressively higher levy on vehicles which produce more emissions. Automakers may be allowed a 2 year grace period to comply with the new regulation, Harjanto said. Indonesia expects the establishment of an electric vehicles industry to boost its sagging exports, Harjanto said. The signing of a free-trade agreement with Australia in March will allow the country to export the vehicles duty free, he said. +++ 

+++ In JAPAN , sales of imported foreign-brand vehicles in fiscal 2018 increased 1.2 % from the previous year to 307,682 units, marking their second-highest level ever, the Japan Automobile Importers Association said. The figure grew for the 4th straight year and surpassed 300,000 units for the second consecutive year, according to the JAIA. Each automaker’s efforts to bring in new models helped stimulate demand, a JAIA official said. Environmentally friendly models, such as clean diesel vehicles and SUVs, gained in popularity. The share of imported foreign-brand vehicles marked a record high of 9.2 % of total new vehicle sales in Japan, excluding minivehicles with engine displacements of up to 660 cubic centimeters. Mercedes-Benz was the top-selling foreign brand for the 4th consecutive year, with sales of 66,948 units. Volkswagen came second, with 52,044 units and BMW third, with 50,886 units. BMW’s Mini Hatch was the top-selling model, with sales of 25,794 units. +++  

+++ Ford has launched an aftermarket key fob upgrade that makes its KEYLESS ENTRY models far less vulnerable to theft via relay attack. The new fob is equipped with a motion sensor that detects when the key has been stationary for more than 40 seconds. Once the 40-second time period passes without movement, the key fob enters a sleep mode and will not respond to any hacking attempts, including relay attacks where thieves use a special device to boost the signal between a key inside a house and a car outside, so they can unlock it and start its engine. Ford’s keyless fobs are designed to only work within a 2 metre radius of the car. The new key will reactivate as soon as it detects motion again and will unlock the car as soon as the owner takes it into this 2 metre vicinity. The upgraded fob now comes as standard with all new Fiesta and Focus models. In addition, existing owners of these models can purchase the key as an aftermarket upgrade. It takes just under 1 hour for a mechanic to install. Ford security specialist Simon Hurr commented: “The online availability of devices which have no place in public hands has long been a problem for Ford, our industry and crime-fighters. We are pleased to respond with a simple but effective solution, swiftly implemented to help protect owners of our top-selling cars”. The news follows the launch of Thatcham Research’s controversial new vehicle security test, which saw a number of models (including the Mondeo) given low overall security scores as a result of being fitted with keyless entry, making them susceptible to relay attacks. +++

+++ The LEXUS LC is the Japanese automaker’s best performance car since the iconic LFA, but people want more. More specifically, customers have been calling for an even-faster version and the marque appears to be working on such a model that could premiere before the year is out. The current LC range consists of the LC 500 and the LC 500h. The former features a 5.0-liter V8 with 471 hp at 7100 rpm and 539 Nm at 4800 rpm. This old-school, 5.0-liter naturally-aspirated V8 is perhaps one of the finest engines on the market but Lexus is working on something even more special. While recently attending a Lexus drive event in the United States, Lexus International strategic communications senior manager Moe Durand told that “something big is coming to LC this year”. Durand failed to provide additional details about what exactly he was talking about. However, there are 1 or 2 conclusions which can be drawn. The first is that Lexus will launch a convertible version of the classy sports car, a vehicle which was previewed earlier this year in concept form. Another, that a hot LC F is just around the corner. It remains to be seen what powertrain the LC F could feature, but Lexus could go down a variety of different routes. For starters, there is talk about the brand’s 5.0-liter V8 being supercharged to 600 hp. Other reports state that a twin-turbo 4.0 liter V8 is in the works, while some point towards a powerful hybrid V8. Whatever the case may be, I’m excited. +++ 

+++ The new MERCEDES-AMG GT R Pro went into production last month, but fans looking for something even more extreme have to wait a bit longer. I’m of course talking about the highly anticipated GT Black Series which will serve as the pinnacle of the company’s sports car lineup. Mercedes-AMG has been talking about the model for years and it’s inching closer to production as spy photographers have snapped a prototype on the Nürburgring. While the model shares a number of similarities with the GT R Pro, there are some of significant differences. Starting up front, the Black Series has unique canards which flow through the air intakes and connect to the Panamericana grille surround. The model also has beefier support brackets for the front lip spoiler. Moving further back, there’s an additional canard above the front fender vents. The model also has unique side skirts which are more streamlined than those on the GT R Pro. The front and rear brake calipers also appear larger and they have an eye-catching bronze finish. The rear of the prototype largely carries over from the GT R Pro, aside from the missing side fins and temporary exhaust system. While it obviously isn’t finished, we can expect a handful of changes on the road-going model. Power will be provided by a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 engine. There’s no word on what it will be rated at, but the Black Series should be more powerful the GT R Pro which has 585 hp and 700 Nm. It could also be more powerful than the GT 63 S 4-door coupe which has a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 with 639 hp and 900 Nm of torque. Regardless of the final output, Mercedes-AMG boss Tobias Moers has suggested the GT Black Series will be launched in 2020. +++ 

+++ The all-electric MINI Hatch Cooper S E 3-door is just around the corner and the car manufacturer has just confirmed that its electrification plans won’t stop with this vehicle. The BMW board member in charge of Mini, Peter Schwarzenbauer, it was revealed that all future Mini models will be offered in all-electric guises. “Electromobility is an excellent fit for our urban, progressive and open-minded customers. The success of the Countryman plug-in hybrid, which accounted for 13 % of the model’s global sales last year, demonstrates that. To secure the long-term future of Mini, we will enable the range to be all electric, should the customer prefer that”, Schwarzenbauer said. The BMW board member went on to confirm that Mini will continue to sell vehicles with combustion engines as the automaker doesn’t yet “know how quickly electric mobility will spread”. “Let me be clear, though, there will not be a single Mini model we plan to launch that a customer won’t be able to order with an electrified drivetrain”, Schwarzenbauer added. One important aspect of Mini’s electrification plans is the joint venture BMW and Great Wall Motor have in China. This joint venture will see various electric Mini vehicles built across China and while Mini has yet to say if these models will be sold outside of China, Schwarzenbauer said it “is entirely conceivable” that they will be. In addition to building vehicles based on a platform co-developed with Great Wall, Mini will also use a distinct architecture from the BMW family to support some of its future models, including EVs. +++

+++ Dismissing Carlos Ghosn from its board was just the beginning of efforts by NISSAN to secure its future as it seeks to catch up with rivals in adapting to a rapidly changing business environment. 4 months after Ghosn’s arrest plunged the automaker into protracted turmoil, Nissan shareholders approved at an extraordinary meeting the removal of the former chairman from his last remaining post, formally bringing an end to his nearly 2-decade-long leadership. CEO Hiroto Saikawa said at the meeting that Nissan is now moving into a new stage, acknowledging that it has fallen behind the pace in embracing new challenges. While Nissan was busy reforming its governance and establishing its new management following Ghosn’s arrest, its major competitors boosted the introduction of new strategies to address shifting demand as more customers see a vehicle as something not to own but to share. “In today’s auto industry era, a car company cannot just sell cars to survive but is required to propose ways to use cars in an attractive way”, said Satoshi Nagashima, managing partner at consulting firm Roland Berger. Delays in developing new technologies and products poses a serious problem at a time when automakers are confronting intensifying competition with new rivals such as technology giant Google and leading ride-share service provider Uber. “A car company can only afford to stay behind for 3 or 6 months at most. After that, you can’t catch up with rivals”, said Tatsuo Yoshida, a senior analyst at Sawakami Asset Management who used to work for Nissan. Nissan may have an edge in electric vehicles with its Leaf and its alliance formed with Renault and Mitsubishi became the world’s No. 2 auto group last year in global sales. But it seems to be lagging behind rivals in ride-sharing and ride-hailing services and internet-connected vehicles, analysts said. Major automakers are scrambling to team up with others to develop technology and gain know-how necessary for new services with increased investment. Volkswagen, the world’s largest carmaker by volume, said last month it will invest €44 billion by 2023 in autonomous vehicles and digitalization, while teaming up with Ford on self-driving and electric vehicles. Daimler and BMW have also joined hands on autonomous vehicles, while General Motors paid more than $1 billion to buy Cruise, a self-driving company. In Japan, Toyota is no longer sticking to traditional business groupings and alliances, as it looks to tie-ups with technology groups such as SoftBank and Uber. President Akio Toyoda has vowed to offer new services beyond just manufacturing and delivering vehicles. Honda decided last month to invest in autonomous vehicle service venture Monet Technologies set up by Toyota and SoftBank. The strategy follows Honda’s plan to invest in GM’s Cruise last October. Nissan said in February last year that it was launching joint public tests of ride-hailing services with mobile service provider DeNA. But no other major deals have been announced. Sawakami Asset’s Yoshida said Nissan has to make up ground on its rivals. “It goes without saying that Nissan needs money, time and investment in human resources to respond to the changing auto industry”, he said. “It is crucial that Nissan first installs a new leadership and rebuilds relationships of trust with Renault and its employees” to move forward with the new strategies. Before embarking on the new services and technology, Nissan’s immediate task is to launch a new board expected to be approved at an ordinary shareholders’ meeting in June. Saikawa said at the shareholders’ meeting that he is fully aware of the need to work with a sense of speed in the fast-evolving auto industry. “I cannot help but accept the fact that we have slowed down in the past few months”, Saikawa said. “Technological innovation is not waiting or stopping and I am aware that we are in a very difficult situation”. Roland Berger’s Nagashima said Nissan should try to maximize the synergy effect of the alliance to create new services and technologies and become a “unique existence” in the auto industry like Toyota, which recently said it would take part in a space exploration project. Nissan also has a challenge in the short term. Its profitability has been faltering recently with slumping sales in the United States and China, the two biggest markets for the company. The carmaker cut net profit forecast for the fiscal year ended March 2019 in February, projecting a 45.1 % drop to $3.6 billion. +++ 

+++ PORSCHE is scheduled to hold a press conference at the New York Auto Show next week and it appears the company will use the event to introduce a new special edition. While the automaker was originally expected to unveil the new Cayenne Coupe, a Porsche spokesperson told me the model won’t be on display in New York. However, they did confirm plans to “premiere a new vehicle at the press conference on Wednesday, April 17th”. Porsche declined to name the mystery model, but a 911 Speedster customer contacted me and showed an invitation to a “charity cocktail party” on April 18th. That’s one day after the press conference, so the timing makes sense for a New York debut. Previewed by the 911 Speedster concept, the production model will serve as sort of a last hurrah for the 991. Porsche hasn’t said much about the car, but it should have a mix of components from the 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet and 911 GT3. Some of the biggest changes will include a shorter and more rakish windscreen that pays tribute to the 356 1500 Speedster. The model will also have a unique rear cover which features two tunnels that are connected by a floating third brake light. Performance specifications remain unconfirmed, but the 911 Speedster concept had a flat-6 engine which produced more than 500 hp. This suggests the production model could use an upgraded version of the GT3’s 4.0-liter flat-six engine which develops 500 hp and 460 Nm. However, it remains unclear if the 911 Speedster’s rating will surpass the output of the 911 GT3 RS which has 520 hp and 470 Nm. Regardless of the final numbers, Porsche has already confirmed production will begin in the first half of this year and only 1,948 units will be built. +++ 

+++ Ford has toned down its ambitious expectations for what SELF-DRIVING CARS will be capable of, with the company’s chief executive cautioning significant limitations will affect Ford’s first autonomous model, due to arrive in 2021. Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford, said the company “overestimated” how soon autonomous vehicles will arrive on roads around the world and enforced doubts about how advanced the capabilities of the firm’s first driverless car will be. “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles”, said Hackett, speaking at a Detroit Economic Club event. Continuing on to the topic of the autonomous vehicle due in 2021, Hacket said: “Its applications will be narrow (what we call geo-fenced) because the problem is so complex”. A geo-fence is a virtual perimeter generated for a real-world geographical area using GPS technology. Ford has previously stated that its first autonomous car will operate without a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal within geo-fenced areas as part of a ride-hailing scheme. Hackett’s comments emphasise the fact the vehicle could be more limited in its capabilities than expected, though it remains to be seen exactly how so. After voicing his doubts, though, Hackett went on to explain how revolutionary driverless cars will be in his view. “When we break through, it will change the way your toothpaste is delivered”, he said. “Logistics and ride structures and cities all get redesigned. I won’t be in charge of Ford when this is going on, but I see it clearly. When we bring this thing to market, it’s going to be really powerful. There’s probably going to be alliance partners that we haven’t announced yet that will make it more certain that we don’t take on all the risks ourselves financially”. +++ 

+++ TESLA recently confirmed that it had cut several dozen sales staff jobs at a handful of retail locations across the United States shortly after announcing lower-than-expected first quarter delivery results. The electric car manufacturer dismissed certain sales staff in Chicago, Brooklyn, and Tampa. An employee from the Brooklyn location and one from Tampa both say they were informed their positions were being eliminated during a conference call. Tesla has confirmed the cut to sales staff, but not said exactly how many employees were affected. These job cuts come at an interesting time for Tesla as in February, chief executive Elon Musk announced the car manufacturer would close most of its retail locations and embrace an online-only ordering and sales model. Musk said this move would allow it to cut the prices of all Tesla vehicles. However, just 10 days after making this announcement, Tesla changed its mind and said most of its retail locations would remain open. At roughly the same time it would said it also evaluate all areas of its sales and marketing organization, revealing that some staff would be axed while others would transition to different parts of the company. Last week’s job cuts impacted Tesla staff working as part of “inside sales” teams. These staff were tasked with reaching out to potential customers and arranging test drivers for them. Many employees from these inside sales teams have since been reassigned to perform tasks like taking calls, washing and detailing vehicles, and helping with deliveries. +++  

+++ UBER expects it will be a long time before one of its biggest investments, self-driving cars, is ready for wide-scale deployment, a senior scientist said, as the ride-sharing firm gears up to go public. Raquel Urtasun, who is chief scientist at Uber Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) and heads the group’s unit in Toronto, spoke about the challenges for self-driving development. “Self-driving cars are going to be in our lives. The question of when is not clear yet”, Urtasun said. “To have it at scale is going to take a long time”. The more cautious tone marks a change from 3 years ago, when Uber embraced aggressive tactics to turbocharge its autonomous vehicle development in a bid to get more robot taxis on the street driving more miles. The company had been seen as an industry leader in the technology until one of its autonomous SUVs killed a pedestrian in Tempe in March 2018. Urtasun’s comments fall in line with the rest of the self-driving industry, which after much hype and bold promises has tempered expectations and pushed out timelines for deployment. The extreme technical challenges of building cars that can predict human behavior and respond appropriately proved greater than even some of the industry’s brightest minds had anticipated. The progress of Uber’s self-driving car unit is in the spotlight as the company prepares to kick off its initial public offering this year. Uber, whose losses before taxes, depreciation and other expenses were $1.8 billion last year, has at times spent close to $200 million in a single quarter on its self-driving unit, sources told. Uber, last valued at $76 billion in the private market, is seeking a valuation as high as $120 billion in its IPO and may kick off its investor roadshow before the end of April. “It is true that when you go to an IPO, there is much more of a look into your finances”, said Urtasun. “That being said, again because Uber understands that self-driving cars at scale is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow, they understand the need for the science”. Urtasun declined to offer any guidance on what mix of human-driven cars and autonomous cars Uber will have in the next 10 years, citing too many uncertainties in the industry. “What is clear is that in a 10-year time frame there will be a mix of both self-driving and human-controlled cars”, she said. The business of building self-driving cars is extraordinarily expensive and the time frame to payoff is increasingly uncertain. However, some consider Uber’s ability to successfully navigate the transition to autonomous vehicles as crucial to the company’s long-term financial prospects. By removing drivers and adding automation, Uber will be able to pocket the full fare that passengers pay and create more efficient routes to move around people and packages. Uber opened ATG in Toronto in 2017 and named Urtasun, who is also an associate professor at the University of Toronto, as head of the Toronto organization. Uber said last year it would invest more than $150 million in Toronto to grow its self-driving car operations, open an engineering hub and expand its work in artificial intelligence. After the fatal Arizona crash, Uber removed its autonomous cars from the road, laid off hundreds of test drivers and shuttered operations in Arizona, its testing hub. Uber resumed very limited testing on public roads in Pittsburgh in December. Uber has recently taken a more collaborative approach, inviting General Motors’ self-driving car unit Cruise and Waymo to put their cars on Uber’s ride-hailing network. Urtasun said that Uber encouraged every self-driving company to add their cars to the Uber network. “We’ve been very, very open that we would like every other company to be in our autonomous vehicle network”, said Urtasun. A group of investors led by SoftBank and Toyota are in talks to invest $1 billion or more into Uber’s self-driving vehicle unit. Toyota previously invested $500 million to jointly develop self-driving cars with Uber. +++

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