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+++ ASTON MARTIN says it is not actively pursuing new investors. Shortly after it emerged that Canadian billionaire and owner of the Racing Point Formula One team, Lawrence Stroll, was reportedly behind a consortium looking to buy a stake in the British automaker, Aston Martin chief executive Andy Palmer downplayed the claims. “You know what we would have to do if there was an official approach. Beyond that, I can’t comment”, he said. “We’re certainly not actively soliciting any other participation. That’s not to say it doesn’t come”. While Aston Martin is one of the few car manufacturers not owned by a larger automotive group, Palmer said that “there is a perfectly rational route to success in our current state”, downplaying the idea that to prove successful in the current automotive age the company cannot remain independent. it is understood that Stroll and other investors believe Aston Martin is undervalued and in a good position for the future. Following the recent launch of the DBX, which is expected to boost the company’s sales significantly, it’s easy to understand where the consortium is coming from. +++ 

+++ Signs are growing that AUDI is poised to add China’s largest automaker as a manufacturing partner as the German premium brand pushes to regain share lost to Mercedes-Benz and BMW in the world’s biggest market. Audi parent Volkswagen Group and China’s SAIC Motor invited parts makers to bid to become suppliers for an Audi A7L they plan to build. Longtime talks between VW and SAIC over Audi have progressed to the point that they can start laying the groundwork to set up a supply chain. Audi, which has thus far had China FAW Group as its sole China manufacturing partner, has faced opposition to the SAIC plan from dealerships concerned that they would lose business. Audi dealers said in February 2017 that they would drop opposition to a second joint venture once the German automaker reaches sales of 1 million cars a year in the country. Audi delivered just over 663,000 vehicles in China last year, narrowly beating Mercedes-Benz with 653,000 cars. BMW sold about 640,000 vehicles, including Mini cars. SAIC and VW have been in talks to expand cooperation to include Audi and the 2 parties have come up with preliminary plan as per what cars they would make together, SAIC chairman Chen Hong told shareholders in May. After entering the country in the late 1980s with FAW and building an early lead, Audi sales rose and the marquee became the quasi-official ride of high-ranking government officials and privileged businessmen. Yet Audi recorded its first annual sales drop in China in more than a quarter century in 2015, and Mercedes and BMW have won over buyers with new designs. +++

+++ Russia’s biggest automaker AVTOVAZ said it would buy out General Motors from their joint venture producing vehicles in Russia under the Chevrolet brand, effectively ending GM’s presence in car assembling in the country. Russia’s car market was among Europe’s top performers before the imposition of western sanctions in 2014 which, coupled with falling oil prices, sharply weakened the rouble, increased the cost of buying a car and curbed Russians’ ability to buy new vehicles. As a result, foreign carmakers started to rethink their strategies of doing business in Russia. Earlier this month, Avtovaz signed an agreement to buy GM’s 50 % stake in the venture, which sees the 2 companies produce the Chevrolet Niva car from a factory in Togliatti, a city on the Volga river. Avtovaz did not disclose financial details of the deal which would end GM’s presence in the car assembling business in Russia. According to the agreement, the factory will continue producing and selling cars under the Chevrolet brand for “a certain period of time” before switching to Russia’s Lada brand. Built in 2001, the Togliatti factory has the capacity to make up to 100,000 cars a year and produces the Chevrolet Niva, whose design was based on the Soviet-era Niva by Avtovaz engineers and developed further with GM’s input. Russia’s automobile market has struggled in 2019, with sales of new cars in November falling by 6.4 % year-on-year, the Association of European Businesses (AEB) said. +++

 

+++ The iNext, or whatever the model name ends up being, is vital to BMW ’s future. It’s fully electric and will offer driver-assisted Level 3 semi-autonomous driving technology when it arrives. To prepare for the new model, BMW is investing €400 million into its Dingolfing factory. The investment allows BMW to produce multiple models with different powertrains on a single assembly line. When iNext production starts, BMW will build it alongside the 5 Series, 7 Series and 8 Series, which means the line will produce traditional combustion-engine cars, hybrids, and electric vehicles. The project was no easy feat, forcing BMW to extend the factory hall for added space. The iNext’s need for sensors, cleaning systems, and high-performance, onboard computers required BMW to install new validation stations for these functions. Different models also require different build processes, needing more or less assembly work compared to other models during the build process, which was something BMW had to consider. New Dingolfing plant director Christoph Schröder said, “The iNext is more than just a new model. It’s a pioneer for many key automotive innovations, especially autonomous driving”. The iNext is set to arrive at dealerships sometime in 2021, however, the company has not said when the EV will debut. When it does, it will look much like a typical crossover. Spy photos show an upright front end with a kidney bean grille of unknown size hiding under the camouflage. I’ve seen inside, too, where BMW will feature a curved display and polygonal steering wheel. The model’s electric range is expected to exceed 600 kilometres, which should position it well against the growing competition. Electric vehicles have yet to supplant combustion engines as the dominant propulsion source. However, they continue to grow in popularity, with more automakers than ever offering EVs. When the iNext goes on sale, it’ll have healthy competition: Mercedes EQ C, Audi e-Tron, Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla Model X. +++ 

+++ Auto sales in CHINA fell for a 17th consecutive month in November, with the number of new energy vehicles (NEVs) sold contracting for a fifth month in a row. Total auto sales in the world’s biggest auto market fell 3.6 % from the same month a year earlier, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) said. That follows a drop of 4 % in October and 5.2 % in September. Car sales in the country contracted last year for the first time since the 1990s against a backdrop of slowing economic growth and a crippling Sino-U.S. trade war. “The China 5-6 emission standard change is the biggest reason for this year’s sales plunge”, said Chen Shihua, deputy secretary general at CAAM, referring to how local governments had accelerated changes to emission standards this year. He added that overall car production levels were now returning to normal and carmakers had boosted their product line-ups in the past few months. In November, sales of NEVs fell 43.7 %, CAAM said, following a 45.6 % drop in October. NEV sales had jumped almost 62 % last year even as the broader auto market contracted. NEVs include plug-in hybrids, battery-only electric vehicles and those powered by hydrogen fuel cells. China has been a keen supporter of NEVs and has implemented sales quota requirements for automakers. But it cut subsidies this year and plans to phase them out after 2020 amid criticism that some firms have become overly reliant on the funds, making NEVs costlier and dampening demand. “Next year there will be different NEV manufacturing quotas for carmakers. I think next year will also be an adjustment period and sales of new energy vehicle will be better than this year”, said Xu Haidong, assistant secretary general at CAAM. The prolonged car sales crisis has made global car makers from Ford to PSA cut China production plans. Geely, China’s best known car maker globally, said sales rose 1 % year-on-year in November while China’s biggest carmaker SAIC Motor saw a 9.6 % drop due to poor performance from joint ventures with General Motors. NEV sales at both BYD and BAIC’s electric vehicle unit BluePark, in which Daimler has a stake, fell around 63 % last month from a year ago. +++ 

+++ Finnish telecoms equipment maker Nokia has suspended legal action against German carmaker DAIMLER in the hope that mediation will resolve their dispute over technology licensing fees. However the decision drew a cool response from Daimler, which reiterated that the 2 companies had different legal opinions on the dispute. Nokia’s pursuit of fees from Daimler has thrown a spotlight on the wider battle between tech companies and the car industry over royalties for technologies essential for navigation systems, vehicle communications and self-driving cars. Daimler, along with Bury Technologies, Continental, Valeo and Thales-owned Gemalto complained to the European Commission this year about fees demanded by Nokia for patents related to car communications. Nokia has in recent years initiated 10 court cases against Daimler in Germany for alleged patent infringements. Daimler, meanwhile, has issued its own lawsuits against Nokia. However, Nokia said that constructive negotiation was the best way to resolve matters, having last week offered to enter into independent mediation as part of efforts to avoid an EU antitrust investigation. “To ensure there is time for this mediation to be successful, we have unilaterally chosen to postpone the pending hearing on 10 December in Germany”, Nokia spokesman Mark Durrant said. “We trust that Daimler and its tier 1 suppliers will now engage in these meaningful efforts to reach settlement. There is more to gain for all if we work together”. Daimler declined to comment on Nokia’s move, reiterating its previous stance. “We have a different legal opinion on the question of how to license essential patents for telecommunications standards in the automotive industry. Nokia has so far refused to license our suppliers directly on a comprehensive basis”, the German company said. EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager however welcomed the mediation efforts, saying the postponement of the court hearing was a positive move. “This is why we think it is a good thing that they now try mediation at the International Chamber of Commerce”, she told reporters. “It would be a good thing if there could be a mutual understanding”. Nokia has also offered to negotiate with the car parts makers instead of only Daimler on licensing fees. Carmakers argue that car parts makers should deal with the licensing fees rather than them and that patent holders should be open to negotiations with whichever company is interested in using their patents. Sources had told that EU competition enforcers had been poised to open an investigation into the matter until Nokia made the mediation offer. +++ 

+++ Despite FORD ’s openness that it’s working on an electric F-150 pickup, this potential segment-shaker has many secrets yet to be revealed. Now, though, thanks to patent filings, we gain insights on how batteries in the F-150 EV might be arranged in a new and novel way. The patent describes a method of integrating batteries into a body-on-frame platform. It’s similar to a skateboard chassis that’s become common for all-electric vehicles, in which batteries are mounted low in the floor. In Ford’s application, crossmembers are mounted between the left and right frame rails. Those crossmembers provide distinct battery housings, and are additionally supported by a metal plate. This is noteworthy for a few reasons. Whereas in many EV chassis the battery pack is a single, large unit placed centrally between the axles, the crossmember approach allows the batteries to be placed in separate areas of the frame. In the abstract, Ford says a “plurality of power storage modules are disposed within a plurality of compartments”, which could have benefits for weight distribution, manufacturing simplicity and NVH reduction. Additionally, the conventional approach of placing a single, heavy battery pack in the floor can cause shear stresses on a vehicle structure. In Ford’s patent, the crossmembers do more than simply house the batteries: they provide reinforcement to the frame rails, helping make the structure stronger. The patent reads “Each crossmember is welded to the left frame rail, and the right frame rail and the plate. The plate is welded to the left and right frame rails”. This subsequently allows the frame rails (made of steel or aluminum) to be thinner and lighter. The number of battery-containing crossmembers is defined by the length of the frame rails. This implies that longer trucks could have more power and range on tap. Is Ford already thinking about applying this approach to heavy-duty-sized pickups? Ford indicates that a single motor could be mounted to the frame “forward or rearward of the power storage units”, but the potential addition of a second drive motor opposite the first is mentioned numerous times. Also described is an arrangement for powering each wheel individually, using its own motor. Interesting about this whole thing is how it’s similar and different from what’s been displayed by Rivian, the electric vehicle startup in which Ford invested $500 million. Rivian’s skateboard chassis is also body-on-frame, but uses a more conventional large single battery pack, not the divided crossmember construction method described here. However, Rivian has stated that its vehicles will be available with individual motors for each wheel. Perhaps there’s intellectual property sharing going on between the brands and anything could change by the time their respective electric trucks reach production. Doubtless they’re locked in a release date race with the Tesla Cybertruck. Suffice to say, whatever Ford does with the electric F-150 will make it unlike any truck to ever wear the Blue Oval. +++

+++ GENERAL MOTORS (GM) executives had laid the groundwork for a new labor agreement with the UAW in September 2015. The company had met most of the union’s demands with a proposal that would have boosted pay and benefits by almost $1 billion over 4 years. If the UAW’s then-president Dennis Williams had agreed and the deal been ratified, it would have set a precedent for similar accords between the UAW and Ford, and between the UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). But instead, Williams balked and went to FCA to cut a pattern-setting deal that pushed GM’s 4 year labor costs up by $1.9 billion. The roughly $1 billion difference seemed like hard luck at the time, but suspicions arose at GM headquarters when Al Iacobelli, FCA’s former labor relations chief who later joined GM, was indicted in July 2017, according to people familiar with the matter. Federal investigators charged him for tapping into a union training-center fund for years to buy himself a Ferrari and Montblanc pens, and to lavish union officers with $1.5 million in cash and gifts. GM attorneys began to suspect Williams and other union leaders may have been swayed by graft to favor FCA at their expense; a charge current UAW leaders deny and that the Justice Department has not made. The Iacobelli case set off a more than 2 year effort by GM’s legal staff to establish a pattern of coziness between the UAW and FCA, leading to an unprecedented step: hitting its rival with a federal racketeering lawsuit. Bloomberg spoke with several people involved in the lawsuit and pored over court filings to assemble this detailed account of the evidence GM’s lawyers pieced together to convince CEO Mary Barra they had a strong case of unfair behavior by FCA and the union. When Iacobelli pleaded guilty to violating labor laws, alarm bells went off in GM general counsel Craig Glidden’s office. He and his attorneys became increasingly convinced FCA had bought off union officers as part of a strategy to gain a cost advantage. They also started doing forensic work to match up emails and key dates in the FCA – UAW scandal with overtures the company’s late CEO, Sergio Marchionne, made to pressure Barra into a merger she did not want. Barra, 57, relied on her staff to sift through court filings and build a bribery case, even though she knew it would be incendiary. GM’s top managers did not make a final decision until days before filing the suit on November 20. For Barra, the choice to move ahead rested on 2 key points. First, cheating to get a better labor deal offended her personal sense of fair competition. The second rationale was more pragmatic: If GM was injured financially, someone had to hold FCA accountable. “I would just say, it was not a decision that we made lately”, Barra said during an investor conference last month. “It was something that we very, very carefully considered”. FCA and its chairman, John Elkann, have denied the allegations. The company and UAW have said the 9 former leaders who worked on past labor contracts and have been convicted of corruption acted on their own. Both have also noted that workers rejected the initial agreement FCA and the union reached in 2015, arguing that workers had final say and GM was not damaged. Cindy Estrada, the UAW’s chief negotiator with GM in 2015, recalls events differently than how the company recounts in its suit. She said in an interview that the UAW walked on GM’s offer because management insisted on cutting profit sharing, which the union would not accept. Williams went with FCA’s offer because GM fell short on a key bargaining issue, she said in a phone interview. When Iacobelli, the highest-ranking former FCA executive to plead guilty, was sentenced to 5,5 years in prison, FCA said it was a victim of illegal conduct by “rogue individuals” and the UAW denied that labor contracts were affected by the scheme. But that claim may not carry much weight with the court in GM’s civil case, said James Jacobs, a New York University law professor. “Under federal law, the corporation is responsible for the conduct of its agents, so the rogue argument won’t fly”, he said. GM points to Justice Department documents in which federal prosecutors say FCA made illegal payments to union officials in order to “obtain benefits, concessions and advantages”. The government stated in court filings that Iacobelli and his co-conspirators wanted to keep UAW leaders “fat, dumb and happy”. In an 4 interview, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who is heading the Justice Department’s investigation, stopped short of saying UAW corruption has compromised labor contracts, as GM has alleged. “At this stage, I’m not able to draw that conclusion right now”, he said. “That’s why we’re continuing to look at it”. Schneider also said the government’s case is proceeding on a separate track unrelated to GM’s legal action. GM alleges FCA’s racket dates back to at least 2009, when Iacobelli and FCA financial analyst Jerome Durden set up a scheme to funnel money from union training funds to UAW leaders. Durden later pleaded guilty to failure to file tax returns and fraud and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. A big part of GM’s damage claim revolves around a tiered wage system the UAW allowed Detroit automakers to set up in 2007 when the companies were teetering. The union let them hire new employees at half the prevailing hourly wage rate for senior workers and to give them less-generous benefits. GM and FCA agreed to limit these new hires, known as tier-two workers, to 25 % of their ranks until 2009, the year both ended up in bankruptcy. The cap on tier-two workers was removed entirely that year to help the companies, but only on the condition limits would be back in place by 2015. GM said in its lawsuit that tier-two workers made up 20 % of its unionized workforce that year. The company alleges the UAW gave FCA special permission (via an undisclosed side letter) to ignore the reinstated cap; an arrangement GM believes was sealed with bribes. At FCA, tier-two workers accounted for 42 % of its 2015 workforce. GM alleges FCA also got the UAW’s go-ahead to hire far more lower-paid temporary workers. This year, FCA’s hourly labor costs are about $55, compared with GM’s $63. “Looks to me like GM has a strong case”, Jacobs said. “The bribery put it a competitive disadvantage”. GM claims that Marchionne, who died last year, was complicit in bribing union leaders to help coax GM into a merger. In June 2015, when GM, Ford and FCA were all in preliminary discussions for new 4-year labor deals, the UAW’s then-president Williams and Estrada met privately with Barra, then-GM president Dan Ammann and other executives. The UAW leaders told GM executives they would support a merger, removing a key potential stumbling block, according to the company’s lawsuit. This was unusual: unions typically oppose mergers because cost savings tend to be borne out of plant closings and job cuts. To GM, it was proof FCA’s boss had convinced UAW officials to do his bidding, something it later concluded must have resulted from bribes. The company refers to Williams in its lawsuit as Marchionne’s “wingman”. To date, neither he nor Estrada have been charged with wrongdoing by federal prosecutors investigating corruption at the union. Estrada said she and Williams did not support the merger. She said she told Barra she feared overlap in products and plants would reduce jobs and union membership. She said Williams had the same concerns and that neither of them openly supported a deal. “I wasn’t in a meeting with Dennis saying, saying ‘merger, merger, merger’ ”, Estrada said. “I would have remembered that. I never recall Dennis saying that. I recall it being the opposite”. In addition to sticking to its claim the 2015 agreement was not marred by the corrupt executives who clinched it, FCA could argue that labor contracts automakers reach with the union are distinct enough that one company cannot blame another for concessions. This year, for example, GM agreed to pay workers bigger ratification bonuses than Ford or FCA. The UAW also relented, after a 40-day strike, in allowing the company to close 3 plants. “The pattern is never cookie-cutter for all 3 companies, but they are often very close”, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of the labor and economics group at the Center for Automotive Research. “The difference is often what is actually enforced by the union”. +++ 

+++ GERMANY has overtaken Norway for sales of full-electric cars since the start of the year, putting Europe’s biggest auto market in position to become the regional leader on an annual basis for the first time. Through November, 57.533 new EVs were registered in Germany, compared with 56.893 for Norway, according to statistics published by transportation agencies in both countries. Norway has sold the most electric cars of any in Europe each year since at least 2010, when the Nissan Leaf, the first mass-market full-electric car, made its debut. The numbers offer fresh evidence that the technology is becoming more mainstream in Europe’s automaking heartland, where the Volkswagen Group, BMW and Daimler are preparing for a major EV push. While Norway emerged as an early regional hot spot thanks to generous government incentives, the country has about 6.4 % of the population of Germany and so growth is limited. Across the region, governments are ramping up subsidies. “The electric model offensive of the German manufacturers is in full swing”, Bernhard Mattes, head of the country’s VDA auto lobby, said last week. German automakers will triple their electric car offerings to 150 models by 2023 and invest €50 billion by 2024, he said. Norway and Germany have been neck-and-neck in electric-car sales this year. Norway held the upper hand for most of 2019, with Germany gaining momentum in recent months. Statistics published Monday by the Norwegian Road Federation OFV show sales in November of new battery powered cars fell 27 % to 3.697. In Germany, the number increased 9.1 % to 4.651, according to data last week from the country’s Federal Motor Transport Authority KBA. Even with last month’s increases, however, electric vehicles remain a small part of overall sales and the greening of Germany’s car fleet still has a long way to go. Across Europe, sales of electric cars made up just 3.1 % of new registrations in the third quarter, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. Before the latest numbers, Germany was already a regional leader when taking into account plug-in hybrid and full-electric cars. It’s now displaced Norway for both types of electrified vehicles. Other countries will follow as consumers in the region adopt e-cars, according to Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based independent automotive analyst. “The Norwegian electric passenger-car market is currently a very large fish in a tiny European electrified pond, helped by the generous comparative fiscal benefits,” he said. Consumer appetite for electric models will be further tested next year when Germany’s domestic automakers start to roll out competing models to Tesla’s most-affordable offering, the Model 3. Tesla’s sales in Germany rose 130 % last month on demand for the model, and through November, they are up 432 %, according to the KBA. Volkswagen’s ID.3 will go on sale starting at just under €30,000. That compares with €20,000 for the cheapest combustion version of the Golf and roughly €44,000 for a Model 3. The German government has also sweetened cash incentives for electrified cars as part of a large-scale climate package. The benefits would start on cars costing less than €40,000, which Schmidt said should fuel demand for more affordable models. In a sign of the importance of incentives for the market, sales in China have been dropping for four straight months after the government scaled back subsidies. China accounts for about half of the world’s sales of electrified cars. The U.S. is second, and until now, Norway has been third. +++ 

+++ Sport utility vehicles accounted for more than 50 % of all HYUNDAI and KIA sales in the U.S. this year for the first time ever thanks to their expanding lineups. The 2 automakers said they sold 1.21 million cars in the U.S. in the first 11 months of this year, with SUVs accounting for 55.4 %; up from 30.9 % in 2013. Hyundai sold 333,452 SUVs and Kia 334,876. Until 2017, Hyundai only had the Santa Fe and Tucson in its SUV lineup for the U.S. market, but it added the electric Kona and hydrogen-powered Nexo last year and the large Palisade and the small Venue this year. Kia expanded its lineup from 3 models in 2016 (Sorrento, Sportage and Soul) by adding the hybrid Niro and large Telluride. The large SUVs fared particularly well. Hyundai sold 23,082 Palisades since it was launched there in June, and Kia sold 52,108 Tellurides since February. Kia will release the compact Seltos SUV in the U.S. early next year, while Hyundai plans to roll out the high-end Genesis GV80. +++ 

+++ The VOLKSWAGEN Group of America has turned down LG Chem’s request that it submit documents to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) connected to the Korean company’s legal battle against SK Innovation. The U.S. arm of Volkswagen filed a petition last month urging the ITC to reject battery maker LG Chem’s motion seeking access to additional documents from the carmaker’s German headquarters. Since May, the ITC has been investigating LG’s complaint that SK stole its trade secrets by hiring former employees and used that knowledge to win electric vehicle (EV) battery deals. The 2 companies have been fighting an all-out war in courts on both sides of the Pacific over intellectual property related to EV batteries. Volkswagen America argued it has already responded to LG’s request with a 1.400 page document submitted in mid-September. The company had “expended time and resources in a good-faith effort” despite being a “non-party” in the fight between 2 local carmakers. “It is unreasonable and unduly burdensome to make non-party Volkswagen conduct a second collection, review it and produce more highly sensitive materials based on requests that have not been properly raised”, Volkswagen wrote. The company also argued that LG was circumventing a Hague Convention by requesting documents from the German headquarters through the U.S. office. The local battery maker was also vague in establishing why it needed broader access to documents on the matter, Volkswagen said. The U.S. office also emphasized that it does not have control over the German headquarters’ documents and personnel, with the 2 being different corporations. “LG Chem’s apparent attempt to revise and broaden its actual requests for production to include documents that it never requested is improper and should be rejected”, it wrote. Whether the German carmaker can reject LG’s request for additional documents is down to the ITC. Volkswagen’s involvement in the LG-SK feud goes back to last year. In November 2018, it named SK Innovation its strategic battery cell manufacturer for EVs produced in North America and parts of Europe. After the announcement, SK constructed a massive EV battery plant in Georgia, which will have a 9.8 gigawatt-hour capacity annually when completed. SK’s Volkswagen deal was mentioned in LG’s petition to the U.S. ITC in April, saying the “wrongful” win would constrain LG’s future business opportunities with the German carmaker. LG argues that without its “stolen” secrets and technology, SK would never have landed the deal. LG denied local reports that suggested Volkswagen’s opposition to submit a second round of documents implies a fracture in the relations between the leading battery maker and one of the world’s biggest EV battery clients. LG is also a Volkswagen supplier. “We have a very long relationship. It’s not a conflict but a procedure that frequently occurs during lawsuits”, said an LG Chem spokesman. “Our sales team confirmed that there was zero impact relationship-wise”. +++

 

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