Newsflash: Fiat vervangt 500L en 500X door elektrische 500XL


+++ The coronavirus pandemic buffeting the auto industry may prove to be a watershed moment for the ALLIANCE of Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi, as they prepare deep cost cuts to survive. The car-making trio will take a series of measures aimed at closer operational integration. These were promised at the start of the year and have been made more urgent by the steep drop in sales and unprecedented production halts rocking the sector. After coming close to breaking up last year, the partnership could instead be crucial for the companies to endure the global health crisis. With Nissan and Renault also scheduled to detail their own measures on 2 subsequent days, they will at least have the opportunity to show progress in moving beyond last year’s management paralysis and infighting to try to reap some benefit from their decades-old partnership. “The alliance model is incomplete, very fragile and inefficient because the companies just don’t collaborate enough”, said Jean-Louis Sempe, an auto industry analyst with Invest Securities in Paris. “The market doesn’t understand how it works”. “We reiterate that the Alliance is essential for strategic growth and enhanced competitiveness for each company”, a representative for Renault said. Even before the virus outbreak, the companies were struggling to right the partnership and turn around slumping sales and profitability. At the end of April, Nissan warned of losses for the fiscal year that ended March and delayed its earnings announcement, which will now be released Thursday, the same day as a promised restructuring plan. The automaker has been in turmoil since the November 2018 arrest of former Chairman Carlos Ghosn, with an aging car lineup as well as management upheaval. “The more they focus on the alliance, the harder it is see through necessary restructuring measures”, said Seiji Sugiura, an analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center. “At the same time they need to use the alliance. It’s a dilemma”. This week’s events are critical for Renault, according to Sempe, with European car sales having dropped 78 % in April and the automaker turning to the French government for €5 billion in loan guarantees to bolster reserves. The timing for Renault is delicate because CEO-designate Luca de Meo will only officially take the helm July 1, a monthslong delay following Thierry Bollore’s acrimonious ouster in October that left finance chief Clotilde Delbos in charge along with Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard. Delbos has promised €2 billion in cost savings over 3 years, yet after Renault burned through €5 billion in the first quarter pressure has increased for a detailed revamp even before De Meo arrives. Having already acknowledged the company doesn’t have the luxury to wait, she also pledged no taboos in exploring avenues for reductions. Renault’s plan would involve closing four sites in France, including the Flins plant. “If the restructuring doesn’t include plant closures then there could be some disappointment”, Sempe said. “On the other hand, Renault can’t ask for €5 billion from France and then turn around and shut a factory”. Delbos has said there are “no strings attached” to the state-backed loan, and that the company’s global industrial footprint, policy on sub-contractors and non-core assets would be reviewed to lower the breakeven point. Yet for the French government, which owns a 15 % stake and has representatives on the board, there may very well be limits. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has promised a support plan for the industry that would include measures to boost purchases of new electric and lower-emissions vehicles, while at the same time urging companies to bring manufacturing back to Europe. “I’m not worried about French plants”, said Franck Daout, a spokesman for the CFDT union at Renault. He predicted the company may cut back on models, reduce engineering and development costs and halt some projects that could be taken up by partners. A so-called leader-follower strategy announced by the alliance in January is aimed at divvying up technologies, platforms and powertrains, possibly using 1 team for all 3 companies. Geographically, Nissan will take the lead in China, Renault in Europe and Mitsubishi in Southeast Asia. The French carmaker has since pulled back from China, and Nissan looks set to downsize its footprint in Europe. For Mitsubishi, the sometimes-forgotten member of the alliance, the benefits have been clear, according to CEO Takao Kato. Collaboration on small cars has yielded benefits and Nissan’s autonomous vehicle technology are critically important, he said at an earnings briefing on May 19. “The merits of using the alliance are very large”. Next week’s response to the pandemic will bring home just how much dimmer Renault’s prospects have grown since Ghosn unveiled with great fanfare in 2017 a 6-year plan for ambitious growth and expansion, especially in China. Renault is nowhere near achieving the goals on sales, deliveries and margins. Part of the French automaker’s problems are also rooted in 43 %-owned Nissan, which is planning to cut about ¥300 billion ($2.8 billion) in annual fixed costs and book restructuring charges as the virus outbreak further depresses the carmaker’s sales. The Yokohama-based company will also retire the Datsun brand and shut down one production line in addition to the recently closed operation in Indonesia. Given that Nissan is planning to reduce capacity to about 5.4 million vehicles a year from 7 million, one key question is whether Renault will be able to do the same, given the pressure it faces not to cut jobs and especially in the current environment of economically damaging shutdowns. “If after 20 years this is all they have to show for the alliance, it’s proof that the partnership isn’t really effective”, Sugiura said. +++

+++ In CHINA , the coronavirus has changed the way many industries operate, not least the way that cars are being marketed, as dealers take to online platforms to promote sales. Over the past months, dozens of carmakers have launched models online, and tens of thousands of dealerships across the country are selling cars via livestreaming. “Chinese customers always have their smartphones at their side. That’s why online consultation was already well-established and accepted before Covid-19”, said Michael Mayer, head of sales and marketing for Volkswagen brand in China. The trend became more evident when people stayed at home as the pandemic reached its peak. Data from Quest Mobile, a big-data company in Beijing, show that the time people are spending on the internet has increased 21.5 % since the outbreak started. Volkswagen said it sold a total of 550 cars in March in a completely digital process. The carmaker said the sales were made possible by virtual showrooms where customers could see the vehicles and inquire in real-time about their prices and equipment. More than 2.000 Volkswagen dealerships are also presenting their current model line-ups via livestreaming, some of which can reach thousands of viewers. In February, Volkswagen trained more than 70.000 participants during a 3-day online course in the use of live broadcasts and the production of short videos. “On average, dealers present a new show every other day on platforms such as TikTok or Kuaishou”, Mayer said. Car salespeople need new skills in this world. Good product knowledge remains the basis, but if you want to be successful, you have to appear in livestreams like a type of TV presenter. “Car salespeople are becoming entertainers”, Mayer said. “The competition is tough”, he added. “Those who want to be found must always offer something new”. The contest soon escalated. In March, British premium brand Land Rover came up with a 30-hour livestreaming event, during which its new Discovery Sport was launched. General Mmotors’ high-end marque Cadillac invited online celebrities to help sell vehicles in April. In China, a young man named Li Jiaqi is believed to know lipstick better than anyone. Almost every night, millions of girls and ladies wait for him to appear online and introduce new lipsticks. Orders are placed even before the show is over. Li was invited in April to help market Cadillac’s CT4. Despite the huge number of online viewers, none of them placed an order on the vehicle priced around 200,000 yuan. The same embarrassing situation happened again when he presented Porsche’s electric car model Taycan in the same month. Li, who reportedly does not hold a driving license, even called hubs by the wrong names. Another online celebrity named Weiya, who sells household commodities like Li, helped attract orders for the Roewe RX5: 4.180 were sold in 30 seconds. The key, said industry insiders, was the discount. They say the rule of the game is that the contract will require the sellers to give the celebrities the biggest discount for a period of time before and after the shows to ensure the products will be sold, which will save the faces of both the sellers and the celebrities. Under condition of anonymity, a marketing manager at an international carmaker told that she knows livestreaming with online celebrities won’t help sales. “In fact, if you give dealers the same discount, they may sell even faster”, she said. “If livestreaming is of any use, I would use it to tell brand stories instead of selling cars. A lipstick is affordable for anyone, but a car is different. But bosses do not want their brands to remain silent during the pandemic, especially when others are seemingly have a good time in the limelight”, she said. Some bosses decided to try it themselves. Nio chairman Li Bin explained products. WM president Shen Hui rapped unskillfully. Both claimed big successes. Nio said the 40-minute live show on May 18 brought in a total of 320 orders, 5.288 testdrive appointments and sales valuing 128 million yuan. Orders continued to grow after the show and sales reached nearly 150 million yuan by the next day. WM said its online launch of the EX5 (a SUV) on May 10 garnered 1.400 million views, which is 10 % of China’s total population. In 2 days it received over 4.000 orders and more than 30.000 people showed interest in the model. He Xiaopeng, founder of Xpeng Motor, said “Many people ask me when Xpeng will do livestreaming. I am worried that it will become a data-falsifying show. Everyone knows that the data is exaggerated. But if you do not do it, you will feel you are shortchanged”. A senior executive at a premium carmaker said online events cannot replace offline ones. “Luxury is something you have to feel yourself. Livestreaming will not do”. She said she hoped the pandemic would end as soon as possible and everything would return to normal, with reporters huddling at new car launches and visitors kicking tires at dealerships. Mayer, the head of sales and marketing at Volkswagen, said digitalization will continue, but that does not mean Volkswagen will make online sales the standard. He said it is more important to digitalize further process steps and thus work in a more customer-friendly and cost-effective manner. He said shortly before closing, many customers still wished for a personal meeting with their salesperson. “They expect that they can negotiate the price. That works best on site. For this reason, we plan to have separate meeting corners in new car dealerships. Even if digital continues to spread, the human aspect must not be forgotten”, Mayer said. +++

+++ The FIAT Tipo family hatchback is likely to morph into an entire family of vehicles, including an off-road-inspired Cross model, as well as a full-sized SUV to rival the likes of the Nissan Qashqai and Skoda Karoq. Recent spy shots showed a revised Tipo hatchback wearing additional body cladding; a sign that Fiat is preparing a slightly jacked-up competitor to the likes of the Ford Focus Active and Kia XCeed. This version is likely to be part of a range-wide facelift that’s due before the end of 2020. However, the company’s boss has acknowledged that, in the medium term, a proper SUV is required; perhaps forming part of an expanded Tipo family or as the model’s direct replacement. “Fiat has been doing family cars for so many years that there’s still a lot of legitimacy for us in the family car market”, chief operating officer Olivier François said. “Now clearly the next generation of the Tipo must migrate into a more relevant space, which is SUV. So you can probably expect to see a Tipo product line: besides the Tipo, on top of the Tipo, or instead of the Tipo. But family transport is probably more in the Qashqai bodystyle”. François believes that the strong family SUV sales from value-oriented brands make Fiat’s entry into that market doubly important. “Who is doing well? The budget-conscious ones such as Skoda, Seat, Kia and Hyundai”, he said. “So yes, we belong there. Honestly, I wish we had something today. But it’s very important for us to feed that part of the Fiat range without too much delay”. Elsewhere at Fiat, the brand has already started work on a successor to the Punto. Production of the previous-generation Renault Clio rival ended in 2018, stymied by ever-tightening safety and emissions legislation. Fiat has a long history of superminis, going back to the original Punto and the Uno, and a new one would be an obvious project after the proposed PSA merger, given the possibilities offered by the CMP platform that supports the Peugeot 208 and Opel Corsa. François declined to provide details on what tech a new Punto might use, but he did confirm that a fresh supermini is under development. “We need a B-sector supermini”, he said. “It’s not a mystery. That project has been postponed continuously. Now it is under development. But it would be premature to speak of this model. We will have a B-sector, for sure”. Fiat is likely to merge the 500X and 500L models for their next generation, which should use the same underpinnings as the newly launched all-electric 500. The SUV and MPV versions of the existing 500 have been on sale since 2014 and 2012 respectively. The 500X has been a strong performer for Fiat, shifting between 75.000 and 105.000 units across Europe alone during the past five years. Yet while the 500L did nudge 95.000 sales in 2014, its numbers dropped back to around 36.000 units last year as customers moved away from MPVs towards crossovers and SUVs. A 7-seater is still sold in Italy as the 500L Wagon, but not in key markets such as France, Germany or the United Kingdom. In normal car life cycles, the 500L is overdue replacement and the new 500X would arrive in 2021. But François told that when the new generation does arrive, it’ll probably be a single ‘500XL’ model, instead of 2 cars. “The L is a particularly good body, high on wheels, to add batteries”, he said. “Family transportation is a good candidate for electrification, too, because it involves a lot of city driving, a lot of stop and go, school and work runs. But at the same time, it’s not a SUV; it’s an MPV, and this type of car is a little less in fashion now. We need to think of the next generation with the same approach to the consumer that makes a lot of sense in an all-electric version, with a body that is obviously more relevant and in fashion. We’re thinking maybe a blend of the X and L is the way ahead, at the end of the day. But it is not for the near future, and when I say near, I mean not by the end of this year, for sure”. Before the new model arrives, expect the 500X (and 500L) to get the same mild-hybrid powertrains that have already appeared in the current 500 and Panda. This tech boost will help to see both models through their final 18 months before replacement. +++

+++ The Ranger is one of FORD ’s global players: it’s sold in North America, Europe, Australia and other regions of the world. Depending on the market, it has varying powertrains and specifications but it’s all the same truck in the end. That’s why a new comprehensive report about the next-generation Ranger, coming from the land Down Under, could be considered valid for the United States and Europe as well. Preliminary details about the 2022 Ranger wereobtained publication, saying the pickup would get a brand new plug-in hybrid powertrain, which hasn’t been installed in any Ford product to date. It will use a 2.3-litrе turbocharged engine mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission and supported by an electric motor for a combined output of 370 hp. The powertrain will be different from Ford’s 3.0 and 2.5 litre PHEV systems found in the new Explorer and Kuga. Aside from the electrified engine, the new Ranger is also reportedly getting 2 diesel options. These include a base 2.0-litre twin-turbo motor with 210 hp and a larger 3.0-litre V6 twin-turbo diesel with 250 hp. The current 3.2-litre 5-cylinder diesel will be discontinued. As far as the performance-oriented Ranger Raptor is concerned, at least for Australia, it is expected to get the 3.0-litre engine, which will replace the current 4-cylinder twin-turbo unit. The off-road pickup could get the latest generation Fox Racing shock absorbers, similar to the setup seen in the F-150 Raptor. On the tech front, expect the new Ranger to get Ford’s SYNC4 infotainment system with a 12.8-inch vertical display on the centre console and a wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity. It’ll be joined by another 10.25-inch screen, which will be positioned ahead of the driver’s sight; a layout that’s very similar to the interior of the Mustang Mach-E. +++

+++ 8 months after its introduction in China, Volkswagen Group’s JETTA brand has sold approximately 81.000 vehicles. In April alone, the marque delivered 13.500 cars to customers, which equals roughly 1 percent of the world’s largest automotive market. The brand increased its market share this year as younger, price-conscious customers in China buy cars to avoid public transport following the coronavirus outbreak. 38.000 Jetta vehicles were delivered to customers in China from January through April 2020. Following this success, the Volkswagen Group is considering ways to expand the new entry-level marque. One option on the table is to take Jetta beyond China. “The successful start has of course also sparked interest from other markets in the Volkswagen world”, Jetta president Harald Müller told reporters this week. He didn’t elaborate on that, though. Following years of struggles to offer a strong rival to Renault’s Dacia budget brand, Volkswagen seems to be on the right track. The company opted for a 2-pronged approach: it established an affordable brand in China named by the Jetta sedan; a popular nameplate in the United States and Europe, leaving sister brand Skoda to focus on India. China’s entry-level segment is largely dominated by local manufacturers such as Great Wall and Geely, as well as other Asian brands. It makes up about 30 % of the country’s total market. According to VW, about 80 % of customers buying an entry-level vehicle are purchasing their first car. Jetta’s lineup currently includes a sedan (VA3, a.k.a. China’s former VW Jetta) and 2 SUVs (VS5 and VS7), all built at VW’s joint venture with FAW in Chengdu. +++

+++ KIA said it will suspend 2 domestic plants for several days next month due to lockdowns in major markets. Kia plans to suspend its No. 1 plant in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi, from June 1-2 and 8-9 and its No. 2 Gwangmyeong plant from June 1-3 and 8-10, a company spokesman said. The No. 1 plant churns out the Carnival MPV, the Stinger and the flagship K9 sedan, while the No. 2 plant produces the Rio and the Stonic. The 2 plants were halted from April 27-29 due to the same reasons. The maker of the K5 sedan and the Sorento said it will extend the suspension of its No. 2 plant in Gwangju until June 5 after suspending production 2 times since April 27. It already suspended the plant from April 27 to May 8 and plans to halt the plant from May 25-29 to keep inventories at manageable levels. The No. 2 Gwangju plant produces the Sportage and the Soul, but coronavirus lockdown restrictions in the United States and Europe have blocked vehicle exports from South Korea, the spokesman said. Kia suspended most of its overseas plants from March and resumed most of their operations early this month to control inventories. All of its overseas plants are in operation as its Mexico plant reopened on Tuesday. From January to April, Kia’s sales fell 11 % to 782.901 vehicles from 877.839 units in the year-ago period. Kia has 7 overseas factories (3 in China and 1 each in the United States, Slovakia, Mexico and India) and 8 local ones (2 in Gwangmyeong, 3 in Hwaseong and 3 in Gwangju). Their overall capacity is 3.84 million units. Hyundai, which owns a 34 % stake in Kia, also said it will halt 3 assembly lines at its No. 3 and 4 plants in Ulsan, 414 kilometers southeast of Seoul, from June 1-5 and 11-12. The vehicles to be affected by the planned suspension are the Venue subcompact car, the Ioniq electric and hybrid cars and the Porter truck, Hyundai said. Hyundai said it is considering halting assembly lines at its No. 1 plant, which rolls out the Kona and Veloster. IHS Markit has predicted the size of the global automotive market to shrink by 22 % on-year in 2020. Last month, 213 out of 300 global automotive production factories shut down over Covid-19 concerns. Major dealerships in countries like Germany, the UK, France, Mexico and India have been also hit hard lately. To overcome the current crisis, Kia said it will establish an online sales platform in overseas markets and upgrade the quality of products for export. The automaker said it plans to come up with customized sales programs for customer groups in different countries, starting in Europe. Earlier this month, Kia launched a campaign and offered to delay monthly installment payments by customers, home delivery service, online test-drive reservation and vehicle sanitization service. From the second half of this year, Kia will also conduct a test-trial on a non-contact sales service via its online sales platform in Germany. The automaker already operates such online services in India and Russia, while the service will launch in China within the first half of this year. The automaker said it will also strengthen supply management and quality checks for models that are exported and manufactured at South Korean factories. According to Kia, over 60 % of its annual production of 1.5 million units of vehicles are shipped abroad. To boost sales of its flagship models, the automaker said it will supply them timely, and also focus on promoting its e-Soul and e-Niro in Europe where the eco-friendly models are coveted. In the US, the automaker plans to debut the new versions of K5 and Sorento, as well as expand sales of its flagship model Telluride. +++

+++ The next MERCEDES SL, which is due to be revealed next year, will hark back to the original model of the 1950s more than any generation that followed, according to Daimler’s chief design officer. Gorden Wagener admitted that he’s “not a fan of retro designs”, so the new SL won’t wholly revive the two-seat, gullwing look of the formative car. However, he said that the SL is moving away from the GT-style roadster ethos of the past few decades, returning to its sporting roots. To this end, AMG is heavily involved in its development. “For me, the most beautiful SL is the original, the 300”, said Wagener. “And I think we’ve taken some of that DNA, starting with the proportions, the surface treatment, things like that. In that respect, the new SL is probably the closest to the first one ever”. Our best sighting yet of the new Porsche 911 Cabriolet rival has been of a prototype with a cover half-removed at a research and development facility in Germany. This spy shot (below) shows that the car retains its classic long bonnet and cab-back profile but uses a fabric convertible roof instead of the current SL’s folding metal item. Its platform will be adapted by AMG for the next AMG GT but, when asked if there will be any crossover between the 2 cars, Wagener said: “The GT is more of a race car and the SL is more of a sports car. You will clearly see the differences”. +++

+++ Kia’s European subsidiary said it plans to launch a MICRO EV (a micro-size electric vehicle) that can replace public transportation amid increased preference for use of private vehicles following the Covid-19 pandemic. “People want to feel safe today. We saw that very clearly from a survey that was done after the coronavirus outbreak in China. People started shifting from public transport to private vehicles. They safer in their own car compared to public transport”, Kia Europe’s chief operating officer Emilio Herrera said. According to Herrera, Kia is studying the development of micro vehicles for urban use, which can be fully charged by electricity for a short distance range. He cited Citroen’s compact vehicle model Ami as an example of its new micro car. Ami, which costs €6.000 but only sold on a subscription basis in European market, is a micro EV with a range of 71 kilometers and a top speed of 45 kph. Citroen has been offering drivers a subscription program with a rental period of a week, a month or a longer. Anyone who aged above 14 can drive Ami without a driving license. “We’re really looking at very low monthly prices for subscription, to be competitive, and the Ami is one of the vehicles we’ve looked at”, Herrera was quoted as saying, adding that the company believes “it could be an alternative to public transportation”. Market insiders viewed that Kia’s micro EV will fit a maximum of 2 people and will be attached with 5.5 kWh lithium-ion battery to allow up to 70 kilometers of driving range. The lightweight-battery pack will be less than 500 kilograms, which can be fully charged via both EV charging sockets and 220 Volt cables within three hours, according to industry sources. Industry insiders expect sales of the new model to begin by 2022. “The company has been reviewing a variety of possibilities, while focusing on securing profitability based on cost competitiveness and economies of scale”, a Kia official said. +++ 

+++ If all goes well, on May 30 or 31 two American astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will ride in a Tesla electric car to a Florida launchpad, hop out, and then climb into the nose of a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon MUSK ’s SpaceX. They’ll strap in before a bank of superslick touchscreens, as opposed to a Cold War-era clutter of buttons and knobs. The rocket will dock with the International Space Station about 19 hours later. It will be the first privately built rocket and capsule ever to put humans into space, as well as the first time in almost a decade that an American spacecraft will ferry Americans into space from American soil. In another era and under slightly different circumstances, this event would be the whole, glorious story. Immigrant rocket man ferries brave patriots into the heavens. Plop some ice cream on the apple pie, pass the Budweisers around, and let the livestreamed adrenaline loose on the imaginations of millions of kids. Alas, we do not live in such times. Americans have a Twitter president and all the tremendous, very big, super-duper baggage that comes with him. They have a Space Force. They have a virus run amok. And, in Musk, they have a Twitter business icon with his own impressive set of baggage. So the moment of achievement is complicated. Sort of like The Right Stuff meets The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test where the idea that “anything is possible” is as unnerving as it is encouraging. A Musk biographer has spent years watching how he operates and affects everyone and everything in his orbit, from SpaceX to that other company he runs, Tesla. During interviews, he can be loquacious to the point of oversharing and then shut down for weeks or months after some perceived slight. He has had periods of intense and fruitful interactions, though his book left him in the Musk doghouse for quite a while. The odd e-mail returned. The odd phone call about his desire to reenact the police raid on Kim Dotcom’s compound if he ever visits New Zealand. But silence, mostly. Yet here we are, at the leaving-the-planet part of the pandemic, which would certainly qualify as a giant leap for Musk. Sure enough, he called his bopgrapher late on May 17. “It’s pretty intense days”, Musk said, revealing nothing about his whereabouts other than being 2 hours late for a dinner. A lot can go wrong with a rocket launch, obviously, from inclement weather to much worse. The only reason NASA entertained the idea of putting astronauts in a rocket built entirely by a private company is that SpaceX has proven itself a remarkably dependable, relatively low-price, competently managed operation. Over the past decade, it’s launched about 100 rockets, landed many of them safely back on Earth and come to dominate the industry, while being valued at close to $40 billion. It took the effort of many clever, hardworking people to pull this off, but it’s Elon Musk in all his audacious, volatile glory that made such a thing possible in the first place. Even the most fervent Musk hater, of whom there are plenty in the U.S., has to feel some twinge of pride. At a moment when the American Empire can seem to be in decline, here’s a clear sign that great things remain possible and that humans have much left to achieve. “America is still the land of opportunity more than any other place, for sure”, Musk says, waxing patriotic. “There is definitely no other country where I could have done this, immigrant or not”. That it’s a multibillionaire, Covid-19-truthing, entrepreneurial huckster / hero delivering this message is pretty much perfect for America in 2020. Like president Trump, Musk uses Twitter as a mainline into the id. But even by Musk’s flamboyant standards, the last couple of months have been exceptional. He’s vowed to sell almost all his possessions, announced the birth of his son, named X Æ A-12 (pronounced ex-ash-A-twelve), described Tesla as being overvalued, recited the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner and made sure that everyone knows “Facebook sucks”. The real juice, though, has come on the topic of the coronavirus, where Musk has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates of reopening society and one of the most vocal downplayers of the virus’s effects. He predicted in March that the U.S. would see “probably close to zero new cases” by the end of April, which was obviously wrong. Like Trump, he’s promoted the use of chloroquine, which doctors have warned is unproven to help with Covid-19 and can be very harmful. There have been no calls to inject Lysol but plenty of armchair epidemiology. And, on the subject of reopening, Musk has been less than subtle with such memorable tweets as “Give people their freedom back!” and “Free America Now!” Ricardo Reyes, who served 2 tours of duty as Tesla’s communications chief, saw all of this and tweeted, “My lord. Seems Gorilla’s way out of the cage and knows exactly what he’s doing”. As if to prove his former employee right on both counts, Musk on May 11 announced he would reopen Tesla’s Silicon Valley car factory in the most high-on-Twitter-dopamine way: “Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules”, he posted. “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me”, After additional threats to pull Tesla out of California and move to a more hospitable state, Musk got his way, and Tesla was given the all-clear to reopen. As for the virus and his predictions of its imminent disappearance, Musk refuses to back down, despite clear evidence to the contrary. “I think the statistics became unreliable at the point at which they included those who weren’t actually tested for Covid but simply had Covid-like symptoms”, he says. “The statistics became bogus probably around mid-April. There’s about a hundred Covid-like symptoms. Basically anything. And then the stimulus bill gave a major incentive to have someone regarded as having Covid. The data is no longer valid. That said, I would say I was off by maybe 3 or 4 weeks”. Suggesting that Covid-19 cases are faked sounds especially abhorrent coming from someone who tends to celebrate science. But Musk has always been a provocateur. It’s only in recent years that those outside his inner circle or who don’t work at his companies have been able to witness the Full Elon firsthand. He’s basically become a religious figure on Twitter. The true believers think he can do no wrong and celebrate any position he takes even if it seems to contradict past positions or simple common sense. As in, is he pro-science and fighting climate change or anti-science and denying the spread of the coronavirus? The true believers don’t care. Conversely, there are the hordes of people who detest everything Musk does. They think he’s an outright fraud who lies and cheats and will do anything to make a buck. The pandemic tweets, though, have made it harder to tell what’s up and what’s down in Musk Land. He’s been distrusted by a certain breed of conservative for years simply for producing electric cars and sounding the alarm on climate change. And now suddenly Musk’s reopening demands (combined with tweets supporting fringe right-wing causes) have aligned him with plenty of voices on the right. Texas, which tried long and hard to ban Tesla from selling or servicing its cars in the home state of Big Oil, has politicians stepping over each other to welcome Musk and his factories. True, many people, even in Texas, have bought Teslas to virtue-signal their love of the planet and hope for a better future. But the symbolism turns quickly if you believe the workers making the car are risking their health on the factory line. Among the many questions Musk’s recent behavior raises is: Why tweet at all? Why risk alienating your base and fraying the goodwill of the superfans? Also, why spend your limited free time in a virtual cesspool? “It’s hard to make everyone happy, especially on Twitter”, Musk says. “Look, you can either say things that are not controversial at all, and then you’re boring, and nobody cares. Some of the things I say, I would like to retract them. It’s not like I stand by all the tweets I’ve ever done. Some of them were definitely extremely dumb. On balance, the good outweighs the bad. It’s a means of communicating directly to the people without having to go through the press”. The great irony in Musk’s pandemic denialism is that pandemics are the sort of thing that SpaceX was built to free us from. Billionaires are not in vogue at the moment, especially tech billionaires. To Musk’s point about going around journalists, the tech press (after years and years of celebrating young, rich geeks) seems to have decided they can now do no right and have ruined civilization. But to the extent that there’s still room for nuance and complexity in the world, consider Musk’s unlikely and remarkable story. He grew up in South Africa and had the good fortune of doing so in an upper-middle-class home. But that’s more or less where the good fortune ended. His parents divorced. He was bullied at school. And he had a disastrous relationship with his father. At 17, Musk decided to leave home, heading first to Canada and then the U.S. for university. “When I told my father I was leaving, he said I was going to fail and would be back in 3 months”, Musk says. Some of his most vocal detractors have promoted the idea that Musk, like Trump, began his career backed by the deep pockets of dear old dad. Errol Musk, an engineer, owned a small percentage of an emerald mine and had a couple of good years before the mine went bust and wiped out his investment. Musk readily jumps onto Twitter to refute the charges that his empire was forged with the aid of family wealth, and part of the reason he wanted to talk to me (rather comically given the rocket launch and, well, trolls) was because the jabs bug him, and he hopes to set the record straight. For what it’s worth, the reporting of the biographer, based on conversations with hundreds of people, confirms Musk’s story. Regardless of your opinion of him, he is a self-made billionaire. “I paid my own way through college, through student loans, scholarships, working jobs and ended up with $100,000 of student debt”, Musk says. “I started my first company with $2,500, and I had one computer and a car that I bought for $1,400 and all that debt. It would have been great if someone was paying for my college, but my dad had neither the ability nor the inclination to do so”. Fast-forward to 2001. Musk is sitting poolside at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The Nasdaq has crashed. September 11 is coming. But life is pretty good for Musk. The company he co-founded, PayPal, is about to go public. His stake will soon be worth roughly $160 million, and he’s celebrating in a cabana with some friends, amid the boozy, nearly naked masses. Only he’s celebrating like Musk celebrates. “Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay”, Kevin Hartz, one of the PayPal crew. “He was studying it and talking openly about space travel and changing the world”. The Musk sitting by that pool was coming on 30 and, while wealthy and plenty full of confidence, was far from the outsize persona that rampages across Twitter today. That Musk was closer to the awkward loner from South Africa who still had room for self-doubt. He was wandering around in an existential funk, trying to figure out what to do with his money and his life. Among the least financially advisable projects imaginable for someone in that position would be to start a rocket company. Rockets are national projects. They cost billions of dollars to develop and manufacture. Governments make them via the hard work of thousands of people spread out over many years. The handful of wealthy space enthusiasts who’d tried to make rockets in the past gave up after setting fire to their fortunes. The lesson being that one does not pivot into rockets on a midcareer whim. And you definitely don’t do it because you think it would be cool to put a small greenhouse on Mars that earthlings could all watch via the internet, Musk’s actual founding idea for SpaceX. Cut to 2008, and things are not going well. SpaceX’s first three rockets have either blown up or failed to reach orbit. Tesla is verging on bankruptcy after struggling to get its first car to market. Musk has ripped through his PayPal money, trying to keep both of his companies alive. In the background of all this, the financial markets are cratering, real car companies are going under and Musk is getting a divorce from the mother of his 5 boys. The only way out of the financial part of this mess is to persuade investors watching their portfolios collapse to take one more chance on Tesla and make NASA, if not you, believe in a space startup by getting the last remaining SpaceX rocket in the factory to orbit (the way out of the personal mess turned out to be dating a talented and beautiful young actress, Talulah Riley). That Musk somehow emerged from this with both companies intact is lottery-odds improbable. If we really are living in a simulation, as Musk has suggested, it’s the only one you could run where both SpaceX and Tesla survive. Since then, Musk has built vast rocket, car and battery factories. He’s employed tens of thousands of people, created a worldwide car-charging network, figured out reusable rockets, started an artificial intelligence software company, dug tunnels for high-speed transport, founded a brain-machine-interface startup, and constructed a high-speed internet system in space (how’s your sourdough starter going?). That he can be a tyrant to those helping him create all of this stuff is no secret. And, as regulators would attest, his business tactics and behavior can oscillate between infuriating and appalling. Yet at a time when America doesn’t seem the best at doing stuff, the guy gets a lot of stuff done. Part of the reason Musk is under fire for pushing to open his factories is because he actually has factories to open. “People should value manufacturing (the world of atoms vs. the world of bits) far more”, he says. “It is looked down upon by many, which is just not right”. Musk has railed against Silicon Valley’s squandered brilliance for years and he has a point. The Bay Area, home to Tesla and its car plant, boasts the world’s top engineers, biggest tech companies and wealthiest people, as well as some of the finest universities and hospitals. Yet precious few ideas have emerged here about reopening the economy, even as the local daily deaths from Covid-19 have neared zero. The Silicon Valleyites who talk often about saving the world with their apps and baubles have been missing in action when the world actually needs saving. Musk, true to form, says he won’t wait for people to figure out how to turn the economy back on. “SpaceX has been working this entire time, because we have a national security exemption”, he tells. “We’ve had 8.000 people working full time through the whole pandemic. We’ve had zero serious illnesses or deaths despite working in L.A., Washington, Texas, and Florida. It’s more of the same in China (for Tesla), with 7.000 people. I think when the dust settles it will be obvious this was much less of an issue than people thought”. The great irony in Musk’s pandemic denialism is that pandemics are the sort of thing that SpaceX was built to free us from. While the mission to the ISS may be a defining moment in his career, it’s only a steppingstone toward his company’s much bigger ambitions. Musk wants to build a human colony on Mars, in part to make people dream big, and in part to give us a backup plan for the human species in case of an asteroid strike or, you know, a plague. SpaceX engineers are busy constructing a massive craft called Starship meant to take humans to, as it says on the website, “the Moon, Mars and Beyond”. Where such a quest might have seemed laughable decades ago, it now feels very real, especially when you consider the other great irony of Musk: SpaceX, the crazy rocket company, is his most consistent and successful venture. Following the launch of the astronauts, SpaceX is on the hook to fly several resupply missions to the ISS and to put up military satellites, communications satellites for commercial customers, and thousands of its own satellites at the heart of its Starlink space internet system. It’s also in the running to take people to the moon with NASA and apparently to fly Tom Cruise to the ISS to film a movie. This flurry of activity is part of a booming new space industry Musk and SpaceX catalyzed. It’s because of Musk and SpaceX that the biographer has turned into a space nerd. He has traveled from California, Texas and Alaska to French Guiana, India, New Zealand and Ukraine to see rockets get made and watch them go up. At every launch, the excitement comes from the unknown. There’s a thin, tall metal tube filled to the brim with liquid explosives and it seems to huff and puff as the countdown heads to zero. At liftoff, the might of gravity becomes obvious, as this object blasts great streams of fire at the ground but struggles to gather momentum. Will it? Won’t it? Just like with Musk, you want to see what happens next. His behavior of late will no doubt color how SpaceX’s launch is perceived and that’s unfortunate. People can understand a businessman wanting to restart the economy, and plenty of arguments can be made that support such a position. It’s the straight-up denial of a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people that casts a pall. But then, Musk will always do as he wishes and operate in the reality he creates. It’s this very trait that led to the formation of SpaceX. For anyone who can look past Musk’s antics, a successful launch will be a moment of pure shared bliss at a time when the world could use some of that. At the very least, it would affirm that the government (in this case, NASA) can take intelligent risks and be courageous by partnering with a private company while keeping its safety standards intact. “There might have been 10,000 meetings”, Musk says. “There are probably 10.000 tests of one kind or another that have taken place”. Should all go well, Musk, NASA and all of SpaceX (from its indomitable and thick-skinned president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, to every engineer, coder, and metalworker) will provide the rest of us with proof of what government and industry can accomplish when they execute on a well-thought-out plan. Between now and the launch, Musk intends to keep on Musking. He really is doing what he tweeted: selling his possessions, including his many homes. “I’d rather just stay with friends and rotate among their houses and stay in the factories when there are issues”, he says. “I kind of like that better. It’s less lonely”. His comments may not have been thought through at, say, a NASA-like level. Asked where his 6 boys will stay, Musk allows that he might need some kind of residence in Los Angeles, near SpaceX headquarters. “I’ll probably rent a place or something. Renting a place that’s sort of small. But I actually don’t know where it would be”. When the launch does take place, Musk will head to Cape Canaveral and sit with the SpaceX and NASA teams as they do their final engineering reviews. If the weather cooperates and all the technology performs as designed, 2 humans will safely exit the pandemic and head for the stars. “Assuming it’s successful, I don’t want to seem presumptuous, then it will be an incredible moment for humanity”, Musk says. “I think it’s something that everyone should be able to celebrate”. As in parties? In person? Seriously? “I think we can have parties”, he says. “Yeah, we’ll be fine”. +++ 

+++ As we deal with the corona virus pandemic, automakers are looking to expand their online customer services and cover everything from ordering to delivery. PORSCHE even introduced an online platform that helps you find your desired classic Porsche and now the Stuttgart-based company is expanding its digital services even further. Meet the Porsche Track Your Dream service, which allows American customers to track the entire journey of their brand new cars from the production facility in Germany and across the Atlantic to the final destination at the dealership for delivery. The platform is currently live for clients who have ordered the 911 sports car and will very soon expand to cover Taycan orders as well. “Buying a Porsche is a special moment and one that should be as personal as possible, recognising that placing the order and awaiting its delivery is part of the experience as anticipation builds”, Klaus Zellmer, CEO of Porsche in North America, comments. “Porsche Track Your Dream allows our customers to trace every key stage of their new car as it leaves our home in Germany”. The most exciting part of the virtual journey is the Behind the Scenes section, where you can actually watch your 911 being assembled in Zuffenhausen thanks to 2 cameras installed close to the assembly lines. The application is currently available for new car customers from Great Britain, Germany, Canada, America, Switzerland, and Spain, and will very soon grow to include more markets worldwide. The tracking service is currently offered only for the 911 sports car and includes 14 milestone points, such as order creation, freeze point for vehicle changes, production updates, and departure from Germany. Future plans also include enrolment of the all-electric Taycan. Demand for this Porsche in North America has been strong, yet only 350 units have been sold in the U.S. from December through March. The reason for this is that the Taycan is being built at the Zuffenhausen assembly plant in Stuttgart, where production was halted for 6 weeks in early April and only resumed in mid-May, thus complicating the Taycan’s rollout in the U.S. America was this nameplate’s launch market, with the high-priced Turbo and Turbo S variants arriving back in December, followed by the lower-priced 4S model in mid-April. “That 6-week window was very much reserved for fulfilling the U.S. demand”, said Porsche North America boss Klaus Zellmer in an interview. “We had to take thousands of cars out of our sales plan for this year that we will not get into the United States and Canada”. Even so, global demand for the electric Porsche has outstripped the carmaker’s own expectations, forcing it to reportedly double its annual production capacity to 40,000 units. “The Taycan is the sports car in the battery-electric vehicle segment right now”, added Zellmer. “That’s what people aspire for”. He went on to say that this is a new era for his company and that as a milestone, the rollout of the Taycan can only be compared to Porsche “coming from 2-door sports cars and selling an SUV in 2002”. Just how important of a car this is for Porsche was made quite clear back in February when the German brand ran its first Super Bowl ad in more than 20 years in order to promote its EV. +++ 

+++ Mercedes-Benz has released the first official image of the upcoming 7th generation S-CLASS and confirmed its flagship saloon will be unveiled later this year. The firm has released a single image showing the front grille of the BMW 7 Series rival. The front of the car had already been seen in a low-resolution image posted on social media recently. There have been recent reports that the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic could force Mercedes to delay the launch of the S-Class until next year, but the firm’s chairman, Ola Källenius, has insisted that it is on track. The first official image of the new S-class, which goes under the internal codename W223, reveals its conventional styling. Key elements include a prominent chromed grille with three horizontal blades and angular headlamps with three projector beams. Describing it as a “technological tour de force”, Källenius, says the company has put its “brightest minds and most creative people” to work on its new flagship model.“It’s a completely new level in terms of artificial intelligence and needs-based electrification”, he said. The Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series rival is set to receive a variety of drivetrain options, including 48 volt mild hybrid petrol and diesel units and new plug-in hybrid powertrains Production of the new S-class is planned to commence in September at Mercedes-Benz’s Factory 56 in Sindelfingen. He described the model as a “milestone in design” and a “digital S-Class of the next decade” but admitted it will evolve Mercedes’ existing design language rather than lead it into a new era. He said: “Back in the old days, the S-Class invented a new kind of style every time for the rest of the brand. But that was back when we only had three models, and it’s impossible to do now. There are still a lot of people who love the S-Class how it is, so that’s probably the last car we would want to change radically”. Källenius said the most “progressive aspect” will be the interior, where his designteam has put “even more emphasis on the digital side”. Spy shots show prototypes have a Tesla-style portrait touchscreen dominating the dashboard. The Mercedes-Maybach version will continue to serve the ultra-luxury segment, too, but Wagener said its focus is on “traditional luxury values: craftsmanship, materials and so on” rather than just tech. The new S-Class will be joined by a slightly smaller pure electric EQ S model at the same facility in 2021. Commenting directly on the Telsa Model S and Jaguar XJ-challenging EQ S for the first time, Källenius said it would use CO2 neutral battery cells sourced from an unnamed supplier. The EQS will look “radically different”, according to Källenius and will target “a lot of different customers”. “Our Vision concepts have always been 80 % – 90 % close to the production car”, he said. “So that will have completely different proportions. It’s a very innovative vehicle”. +++


+++ In SOUTH KOREA , more than 80 % of vehicle plants in 13 major car-manufacturing countries resumed limited operations as of mid-May as new coronavirus restrictions were eased, an auto industry association said. Vehicle plants in the United States and 12 other major car-manufacturing countries began to restart production, though not in full operation, since mid-April, and more lines are expected to resume operations this month. “It will take some time for the auto plants to return to full operations and pre-coronavirus production levels as consumers opt to spend less amid the Covid-19 pandemic”, the Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association (KAMA) said in a statement. On May 19, the proportion of auto plants that were back in operation jumped to 84 %, or 232 plants out of the countries’ combined 278 plants, from 29 % a month earlier on April 16, the statement said. Auto plants in South Korea, Japan, China and other East Asian countries were in operation in mid-April, plants in European countries like Germany, France, and Spain resumed operations in late April, and plants in the United States and India restarted production in early May, it said. Plants in Latin American countries like Mexico and Brazil resumed operations in mid-May, driving up the proportion of operating car plants in the 13 nations that include South Korea, the US, China, Japan, and Germany, the statement said. In South Korea, all of Hyundai’s and Kia’s overseas plants were in operation at a reduced level from last week, except for Kia’s Mexico plant. Hyundai and Kia suspended most of their overseas production facilities from March. The suspension affected their vehicle sales, particularly in the past 2 months. From January to April, Hyundai and Kia sold a combined 1.845.406 vehicles; down 19 % from 2.268.183 units in the same period of last year. +++

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