Newsflash: BMW komt met M140i

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+++ A prototype of what could be the BMW M140i has been spied testing on the Nurburgring under heavy camouflage. The current-generation 1-Series family is topped out by the M135i, a formidable rival to the likes of the Audi S3 and Mercedes-AMG A 35. However, the previous-generation 1-Series was topped out by a more powerful M140i variant and it seems likely that BMW will offer such a version of the current 1-Series and positioned as a rival to the VW Golf R, Audi RS3, and Mercedes-AMG A 45. As standard, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine of the M135i pumps out 306 hp and 450 Nm. It is possible that BMW could retain this engine for the M140i but modify it to produce at least 350 hp, giving the VW Golf R a run for its money. However, if BMW wants to match the RS3 and A 45 in performance, this engine will need more than 400 hp on tap. The prototype is bathed in heavy camouflage and while it could be an M140i, there’s no guarantee that it is. There’s also no guarantee that the M140i will have a 2.0-liter turbo-4. You see, BMW announced not too long ago that it is developing an M240i xDrive model to top out the 2-Series range until a new M2 arrives. This model will feature the brand’s 3.0-liter B58 turbocharged inline-6 with over 380 hp and it’s entirely possible that the M140i could use the same engine. The soundtrack of this 1-Series prototype seems to suggest it has a 4-cylinder, meaning it could be a lesser variant. Nevertheless, the promise of a new hot hatch from BMW is enough to get anyone excited. +++

+++ What would you splurge on if you won the lottery? Most people have a dream car or two on their list, but alas, most people never win the lottery. General Motors has unveiled a luxury sports car that is competitive with its more exotic (read: expensive) counterparts but isn’t completely out of reach for drivers looking for some flash. The 2022 Championship Edition Stingray of the CORVETTE was revealed Wednesday less than 3 miles from GM headquarters. MacArthur Bridge was closed briefly so a quartet of mid-engine Corvette C8.R’s could cross the swirling Detroit River and enter the Raceway at Belle Isle. The cars were piloted by Corvette Racing drivers Jordan Taylor, Tommy Milner, Nick Tandy and Antonio Garcia, who normally would be in France this weekend for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. With Le Mans rescheduled to August, the conflict that had prevented Corvette from competing at Belle Isle had been eliminated and the 2-car program will race Saturday in GM’s backyard for the first time since 2008, hitting the track right after IndyCar’s doubleheader opener. The Stingray is a supercar with a base price starting at $62,195. The Championship Edition starts at $87,085 for the coupe and $94,085 for the convertible; still a reasonable price point for a car fanatic who wants to own a vehicle that resembles the Corvette C8.R race cars and is in the same class as a more expensive Ferrari or McLaren. “It’s combining supercars with more attainability”, Harlan Charles, product manager of Chevrolet Corvette, told. “Not that it’s inexpensive, but it’s to the point where anybody who works can save up and it is attainable someday. Only we can do a car like this because Corvette, being an attainable car, we’ve applied that to the mid-engine concept and we’ve made a unique sports car that’s never existed. We’ve taken the portability, the everyday drivability, and we’ve added those exotic mid-engine attributes that are previously only available in these triple-the-price type cars”. The 2020 Corvette was the first with a mid-engine in the 67-year history of the car and it gave GM an affordable rival to everything in its class from the Audi R8 to the Lamborghini Aventador. The special edition available next year pays homage to the 2020 racing season when Corvette Racing swept IMSA’s sports car manufacturers, drivers and team titles. GM will make only 1.000 of the special edition Stingrays (all in its Bowling Green, Kentucky, assembly plant), partly because it wants the car to be a hot ticket item. The luxury sports car market isn’t flooded with volume but is highly competitive with the most entries of nearly any category. “You’re getting everybody’s best shot in the luxury sports car market, the Europeans are in, everybody gives this market their best shot”, Charles said. The special editions are based on the 3LT trim with Z51 performance package that includes Corvette Racing-themed graphics packages. The exterior content varies by market and includes a high-wing spoiler in carbon flash, yellow brake calipers, black trident design wheels, exterior mirrors in carbon flash, black side rockers and splash guards. The interior comes with a yellow and gray cabin that continues the exterior racing theme. It has standard GT2 seats, yellow seat belts and a C8.R numbered plaque. Competition sports seats are also an option. GM added 3 new exterior colors: hypersonic gray, caffeine and amplify orange tintcoat. The 2022 Stingray’s LT2 6.2 liter V8 engine will come with an upgraded dual injection fuel system. GM considers the Stingray a daily driver (the mid-engine has improved traction that makes for an all-weather vehicle) whereas many of its class rivals can sit inside garages as expensive showpieces only brought out for special occasions. GM is also pitching to a customer base it believes wants luxury from a domestic brand. “It’s American technology and people are patriotic and almost all of our competitors are European”, said Charles. “This shows we can compete with the best in the world on an American-based car and that’s a real source of pride for us”. +++

+++ If the auto industry is to succeed in its bet that ELECTRIC VEHICLES will soon dominate the roads, it will need to overcome a big reason why many people are still avoiding them: Fear of running out of juice between Point A and Point B. Automakers have sought to quell those concerns by developing EVs that go farther per charge and fill up faster. Problem is, most public charging stations now fill cars much too slowly, requiring hours (not minutes) to provide enough electricity for an extended trip. Concerned that such prolonged waits could turn away potential EV buyers and keep them stuck on gas-burning vehicles, automakers are trying to cut charging times to something close to the five or 10 minutes of a conventional gasoline fill-up. “It’s absolutely the target to get faster and faster”, said Brett Smith, technology director at the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank. “It’s not there yet, but it’s one of those things that moves the needle more toward a competitive vehicle for a lot of people, this ability to fast charge”. The latest generation of EVs, many with ranges around 500 km per charge, can accept electricity at a much faster rate than previous models could. So fast, in fact, that most charging stations cannot yet accommodate the vehicles’ advanced technology. It can now require hours to fully charge an electric vehicle because most stations operate on a home-like alternating current. Direct-current fast-charging stations, by contrast, are hours faster. But they can cost tens of thousands of dollars more. The high cost is something the Biden administration will have to consider as it develops incentives to encourage companies and governments to build 500.000 charging stations nationwide by 2030. Among the possibilities being discussed are grants, with $15 billion in spending over five years to build the network, including fast chargers along highways and in communities. Details are being worked out as the administration negotiates its infrastructure plan with key members of Congress. Of the roughly 42.000 public charging stations in the United States, only about 5.000 are considered direct-current fast chargers, according to the Department of Energy. The rest are like home chargers; they require roughly eight hours to fully charge longer-range batteries, longer than anyone wants to wait to charge a vehicle on a road trip. And most fast chargers can pump out only about 50 kilowatts per hour (requiring roughly 1 hour to charge an average EV to 80 %) even though newer EVs are capable of being charged must faster than that. “It’s one of the big barriers for someone who is not living with a battery-electric vehicle yet”, said Alex Tripi, who head’s Volvo’s electric vehicle marketing. “It will continue to be for a while”. Limited by technology, early electric vehicles charged at ridiculously low speeds when compared with recent models. When Nissan’s Leaf first went on sale more than a decade ago, for example, it could take in only 50 kilowatts per hour from a fast charger. That meant it took a half hour to charge it to 80 % of its small battery, just 100 km. A new long-range version released in 2019 nearly tripled the range per charge. Because it can take 100 kilowatts at a fast charger, it can get to 80 % (300 km) in 45 minutes. Newer EVs can be charged even faster. But they far exceed the capacity of most fast chargers. Ford’s Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning can take in 150 kilowatts per hour. Hyundai’s Ioniq 5 and Porsche’s Taycan are over 200 kilowatts. The Hyundai, with almost 500 km of range, can go from a 10 % charge to 80 % in just 18 minutes, much closer to gasoline fill-up times (automakers tend to quote charging times to 80 % of battery capacity because it takes much longer to go from 80 % to 100 %; the final 20 % is often slowed down to prolong battery life). Hyundai knows there aren’t many chargers now that can fill the Ioniq that fast. But it says it’s ready for a future when more quick chargers are more widely available. “Hopefully the infrastructure will improve across the U.S. for this to be a whole lot more viable”, said John Shon, senior manager of product planning. Tesla, which has its own private charging network of 25.000 plugs worldwide, leads just about every automaker. Its newer chargers can crank out up to 250 kilowatts and 300 km of range in about 15 minutes. Electrify America, a charging network funded with money paid by Volkswagen as punishment for its emissions cheating scandal, says it’s ready for the newer EVs. Having installed fast chargers since 2018, it runs more than 600 stations with 2.600 plugs nationwide. All can pump out 150 kilowatts. That means they can charge a typical EV with 480 km of range to 80 % of battery capacity (380 km) in roughly 45 minutes. Over half of Electrify America’s stations can pump out 350 kilowatts, which charge twice as fast. A fast-charge fill-up to 80 % of battery capacity varies by state but typically costs around $16. Even Tesla owners, who can access the nation’s biggest fast-charging charging network, risk running out of juice on road trips, especially in rural areas. On Monday, one such driver, Dan Nelson, said he had to stop at a Tesla station near Ann Arbor, Michigan, for more than 20 minutes to make sure his Model 3 had enough charge to reach his rural home 40 km away. “There’s definitely improvements that can be made”, said Nelson, who charges at home most of the time. Bruce Westlake, president of the East Michigan Electric Auto Association, suggested that such anxiety tends to ease as people gain more experience with EVs. He said he is now comfortable running his 2 Teslas as low as 5 % of battery capacity to go farther between charges on trips. Research by J.D. Power and Associates shows that most people think charging stations are needed at locations where gas stations are now. But in fact, according to the Energy Department, most EV owners charge at home more than 80 % of the time. That means super-fast chargers, which can cost close to $100,000, should be built mainly along highways where people are traveling long distances and need to charge quickly, experts say. They also may be needed in urban areas where people live in apartments with no access to a home charger. It’s far from clear that the automakers can depend on a proliferation of fast chargers across the country to build customer confidence and propel EV sales in the years ahead. The high cost and heavy load on utility grids likely will limit the number of fast chargers to areas where they’re needed for quick fill-ups, said Jessika Trancik, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies EV charging. “As we’re approaching this transition”, she said, “it’s important to be more strategic than just putting them everywhere”. Charging companies have time to figure out where to build fast chargers, because it would take more than 17 years to convert the entire U.S. fleet of 279 million passenger vehicles from petroleum to electricity, even if every motorist were willing to make the switch, said Pasquale Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, a charging station company. But the chargers can’t come fast enough for automakers, who want more people to buy their EVs to spread development costs over more vehicles. Romano says fast chargers will be needed about every 140 km on roads that connect metro areas, and that the United States should get there in about 2 years. As more EVs are sold, he said, more stations will be built. “You don’t want to put all the infrastructure in for 20 years starting with vehicle zero”, Romano said. “This is about the natural organic growth”. This means the vehicles are getting ahead of the public charging network, which isn’t ready to handle the higher kilowatts that the parade of new vehicles can handle. Experts say there’s time for the chargers to catch up as long as EV sales don’t take off too fast, and if charging networks are willing to invest in faster systems. +++ 

+++ U.S. electric truck maker LORDSTOWN MOTORS said there was “substantial doubt” about its ability to continue as a going concern in the next year because of problems funding the production of its vehicle, causing its shares to plummet. Lordstown, which went public last year through a reverse merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), has struggled with the launch of its Endurance pickup. The truck is being built at a former General Motors Co plant in northeast Ohio. Several electric vehicle makers over the past year have gone public via mergers with SPACs, bypassing the rigorous scrutiny of a traditional initial public offering process. “The company believes that its current level of cash and cash equivalents are not sufficient to fund commercial scale production and the launch of sale of such vehicles”, Lordstown said in a quarterly filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “These conditions raise substantial doubt regarding our ability to continue as a going concern for a period of at least one year”, the company added. Lordstown’s shares fell 16.3 % in regular trading and were down 5.7 % in after-hours trading. A Lordstown spokesman declined further comment, pointing to statements made by the company during its earnings call last month. Lordstown said on the call that its Endurance production this year would be half its prior expectations and it needed additional capital to execute its plans. It blamed Covid-19 and industry-wide related issues for higher spending on parts, shipping and third-party engineering resources. In March, Lordstown’s shares slumped after Hindenburg Research disclosed it had taken a short position on the stock, saying the company had misled consumers and investors. Short sellers bet the price of a stock will fall by borrowing and selling shares in the hope of buying them back at a cheaper price and pocketing the difference. Lordstown subsequently said the SEC had asked for information related to its merger with SPAC DiamondPeak Holdings and preorders of its vehicles. Chief executive Steve Burns said Lordstown was cooperating with the agency’s investigation. GM, which is a minority shareholder in Lordstown, declined to comment on Lordstown’s filing. During the May 24 earnings call, Lordstown said options to raise money could include asset-backed financing and investments from strategic partners like other automakers. However, Burns, the company’s largest shareholder, said Lordstown was not for sale. Burns said on the call that the launch of the Endurance, which is targeted at commercial customers, remained on track for September. However, Lordstown said it had done “limited marketing activities” around the truck and had no binding purchase orders or commitments from customers. Lordstown reported a first-quarter loss of $125 million, and said it had cash and cash equivalents of about $587 million. At a June 2020 unveiling of the Endurance at its Ohio plant, then U.S. vice president Mike Pence credited president Donald Trump with fighting for American jobs in the Mahoning Valley region where the plant is based. “Today is a new beginning for Lordstown and it’s a new day of leadership in electric vehicles in the United States”, Pence said at the time. “Today is one more example of president Trump’s commitment to make American manufacturing great again”. The plant’s fate became a political lightning rod after GM announced its planned closure in November 2018, drawing condemnation from Trump and many U.S. lawmakers. Lordstown bought it and equipment for $20 million. +++ 

+++ William Li is being mobbed. At a gala dinner in Shanghai, the founder of Chinese electric carmaker NIO can barely move forward in the buffet queue before being stopped for another selfie, handshake or hug. Swapping his usual attire of jeans and a T-shirt for a tailored grey suit and blue dress shirt, the tall 46-year-old happily obliges with a smile. Li manages to spoon a small amount of fried rice and vegetables onto his plate, but he’s not here for the food. Over the next 3 hours, Li poses for hundreds more photos, chatting with customers of the automaker he started just over 6 years ago and has built into a way of life (at least for the people who buy his cars) with clubhouses, a round-the-clock battery recharging service and even clothing, food and exercise equipment, all decked out in Nio’s geometric logo. As Li works the room, a video backdrop shows 6 performers, each wearing a different-colored Nio hoodie, singing a self-composed song dedicated to the company. “Meeting with Nio, we want to be better selves”, the not-so-catchy ditty goes. While other billionaire executives may cringe at spending their down time glad-handing customers, for Li this is core. Nio’s business model relies on creating a sense of allegiance among buyers, who then spread the word about its cars to friends and family. Dubbed “Rippling Mode”, the strategy invokes the ever-widening circles caused by throwing a single stone into a pond, Li says. The scene in Shanghai was just what he was aiming for: a passionate customer base with the loyalty of Apple fans, and a dash of Elon Musk cult-of-personality thrown in. It’s an approach that’s turned Nio into Musk’s most visible nemesis in a country that seems to be minting Tesla adversaries every other day. While other electric vehicle companies may pump out more cars aimed at the mass market, Nio is targeting the premium buyers that Musk (who established his first Gigafactory outside the U.S. on the outskirts of Shanghai in 2019) needs to realize his ambitions for global growth and long-term profitability. China is ground-zero in the transition away from gas-guzzlers to alternative-energy cars, with the government intent on dominating a new automotive era that has triggered an onslaught of investment over the past six months and that even the U.S. is now embracing. The biggest car market on the planet, China is already the world’s largest for EVs. Sales will reach 2 million this year and surge to 6.2 million vehicles by 2025, when they will account for a quarter of all passenger car sales in the country. Urbane, early adopters in China’s biggest cities have been at the heart of that transition, and are prime targets for both Nio and Tesla. Nio’s premium ES6 competes head-to-head with the sporty Model Y that Tesla started making in China last year. It’s a tussle that’s front and center for Li, who in an interview talked about how the eldest of his 2 sons, a first grader, wants to follow in his footsteps. “One day he told me that he would study hard and work hard, helping dad beat Tesla when he grows up”, said Li. “It’s going to be too late, I said”. These days, that prospect is looking less like wishful thinking. Nio delivered more than 20.000 vehicles, all of them SUVs, in the first quarter at an average price of $68.000, while Tesla shipped around 17.000 of its Model Y in China, which starts at around $53.000. Nio’s share of the overall China market for higher end cars is second only to Tesla, according to Kang Jun, an analyst at consultancy LMC Automotive, and it’s set a “benchmark” for the wider EV space, “particularly in product and service innovation”. Tesla has also faced a raft of setbacks of late in China, which accounted for more than 20 % of all revenue last year. Increased scrutiny from local regulators has been accompanied by a rising backlash against Tesla and its cars, culminating in one owner climbing on top of a Model 3 at the recent Shanghai Auto Show, claiming the company failed to address issues with her vehicle’s brakes. The protest, which went viral in China, unleashed a wave of complaints about Tesla’s customer service, the very thing Li (who regularly replies to queries from Nio owners on the company’s app and has taken weekend trips across China to meet customers) has used to differentiate Nio in the cut-throat EV landscape. But Tesla isn’t the only foe Li has to worry about. A Battle Royale is brewing in China’s new energy car market (where retail sales of battery-powered passenger vehicles jumped 10 % to 1.11 million last year, despite the hit from the pandemic) one that will challenge both Nio and Tesla, and set the stage for global control over the future of cars. After years watching from the sidelines, the big automaking giants are doubling down on EVs, with Volkswagen launching an 8-car range from its platform designed for battery electric cars in China, Toyota unveiling a new EV platform, and premium carmakers like BMW aiming for 25 % of all Chinese sales to be electric. At the same time, Big Tech is eyeing the sector, lured by the technological possibilities. Firms from Chinese search engine titan Baidu to smartphone-maker Xiaomi and networks giant Huawei Technologies have pledged almost $19 billion into the EV and autonomous driving space since the start of the year alone. Smaller companies like Nio (which is listed with compatriots Xpeng and Li Auto in New York, putting them on the radar of U.S. investors) will face greater pressure as multinationals enter the fray, said Zhang Xiang, an auto industry researcher at North China University of Technology in Beijing. “It’s by no means a time they can rest easy”. Nio has already had one near-death experience. Carmaking is typically a capital-intensive business, but with Nio, Li has sought to create a brand beyond the vehicles, an approach he describes as “the pursuit of being a user-enterprise”. The most visible manifestation of that was the Nio House, an elite drop-in center for the company’s customers (even offering art and music classes for their kids) and located on prime real estate in some of China’s biggest cities. It was coupled with extravagant marketing events. The carmaker holds annual Nio Days, and in 2017 paid for flights and luxury hotels for everyone who ordered a vehicle a year before production started. R&B star Bruno Mars headlined the 2018 event. When its public charging facilities are overwhelmed, Nio has a fleet of cars that can take portable battery chargers to users wherever they’re parked. Such largesse, along with a major recall after some cars caught fire just as China shifted subsidies from EV purchases to support the charging network, saw Nio rack up $5 billion of losses in its first 4 years of existence (Tesla took about 15 years to reach that particular milestone). By the second quarter of 2019, the company was losing around $5 million a day. “It was our darkest time”, Li said. A team met nightly to comb through expenses, from salaries to the cost of Nio Houses. “It was easy to calculate how much we could earn from selling cars, but we had to mind for everything to sustain a normal operation”, he said. “Every dollar counted”. By October 2019, it looked like the gig was up. After posting a worse-than-expected quarterly loss, Nio’s shares plunged to a record low of $1.32. At its nadir, the carmaker had lost more than 70 % of its market capitalization (about $5 billion in value) from its New York initial public offering a year earlier. Even a $200 million cash injection from a sale of convertible notes to Li and an affiliate of Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings (an early investor in both Nio and Tesla) wasn’t enough to shore up the company’s seemingly insatiable need for cash. The setbacks kept coming. Nio couldn’t afford the final payment on an imported stamping presser, a large machine used to shape a car’s panels. Worse, it had to sell the presser at a discount to Tesla, which promptly installed it in its new Shanghai plant, built with loans and support facilitated by the government. Soon after, a deal for as much as 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in funding from a Beijing local government-backed firm fell apart. Analysts started to openly speculate that Nio may be delisted or taken over. The situation got so dire that in late 2019, He Xiaopeng, the engineer founder of Guangzhou-based Xpeng, itself in a tenuous position with just 3 billion yuan in cash, proposed a merger of the two struggling electric carmakers, according to an interview He gave to Chinese state media. Li rejected the offer. “Nio was already in the intensive care unit, while Xpeng was waiting outside”, Li recalled. “A merger would bury both of us” (Xpeng went on to be the third Chinese EV startup to list in the U.S., raising $1.5 billion in August 2020. The surge of investment in the space has seen its shares more than double, even accounting for a recent dip, and the company is now setting up a third Chinese production base to meet demand). Then came the lifeline that showed the lengths China will go to maintain its ambition of creating a world-leading EV industry. In early 2020, the municipal government in Hefei (the capital of Li’s home province of Anhui) came knocking. Despite the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which initially paralyzed car sales, a deal was struck in which the Hefei government would lead an injection of 10 billion yuan into Nio, more than the company’s entire revenue for 2019. Coming just months after Nio said it wouldn’t have enough money to continue operating for another year unless it got more funds, the agreement essentially provided the company with a state-backed security blanket. That can be a key advantage in China, where the government is the biggest player in almost every industry and has a hand in everything from manufacturing permits to access to capital. It could also provide a decisive edge over Tesla, which seems to have lost the favor it enjoyed early on with Beijing, as tensions with Washington continue to simmer under president Joe Biden’s administration. For Nio, the quid pro quo was supporting local industry. The company abandoned plans to build a factory in Shanghai in early 2019, and instead (unlike Tesla and most traditional automakers) it pays a government-owned manufacturer in Hefei called Jianghuai Automobile Co. (or JAC) to make its cars. The deal was extended last month for another 3 years, with JAC agreeing to double monthly capacity to 20.000 vehicles. “When William Li brought his proposal to us, most people thought it was fantasy that a Chinese carmaker planned to build first-rate intelligent electric vehicles”, former JAC chairman An Jin said. “I might be the person with the best knowledge of how Nio came along, with all the challenges and difficulties. In its hardest time, William even devoted his own money to solve the problem. That’s how he fought for his dreams”. At an April 7 ceremony to mark the production of Nio’s 100.000th vehicle, Li said he would work with the Hefei government to establish an intelligent-vehicle production base, including an R&D facility. Construction started later that month, and the industrial park is expected to eventually house manufacturing workshops, along with other players in the EV supply chain. The Hefei pact, described as a government bailout by Sanford C. Bernstein’s senior analyst Robin Zhu, “put speculation around Nio’s funding issues to bed, at least in the foreseeable future”, he said. Li, though, also credits his loyal customer base. “We sold over 8.000 cars in the 4th quarter of 2019, which was pivotal to our survival”, he said. “That’s why I always say that our customers saved us. Even if we sold 500 or 1.000 fewer vehicles, that could have triggered a total collapse”. Still, the experience was chastening. Nio cut about a quarter of its workforce, slowed its efforts on autonomous driving, delayed wage payments for managers and spun off some noncore businesses. While the rollout of the costly Nio Houses was suspended for more than a year, the strategy of putting Nio ownership at the center of an owners’ lifestyle and creating an aura of exclusivity, wasn’t forsaken with more modest Nio Spaces rolled out. Usually around 100 to 200 square meters, Nio Spaces are located in cheaper locales and also sometimes in smaller cities. They cost about 1 million yuan to set up, much less expensive than the more salubrious Nio Houses. It seems to have worked, for now. Nio is still yet to turn a profit but its sales have risen steadily since, topping $1 billion for the first time in the 3 months to December 31 of last year. The company narrowed its net loss in the first quarter of 2021 to 451 million yuan, down from 1.69 billion yuan a year earlier and 1.39 billion yuan in the fourth quarter of 2020. Even the businesses that underpin Nio’s lifestyle brand are making money, contributing to 1.1 billion yuan in revenue from nonvehicle sales last year, according to the company’s annual report. “To enter the car industry and survive isn’t easy”, said Jochen Goller, BMW’s China CEO. “Some others have disappeared. I have met with William Li a couple of times and I have to say I am impressed by what he has achieved. Nio is also creating awareness for battery cars, and having the right brands in the segment is helping the market”. The Hefei deal also came around the same time as investors cottoned on to the EV revolution, putting a rocket under Nio’s shares. They surged more than 1.110 % last year, besting even the rally that propelled Tesla into the S&P 500 Index. The stock has given up some of those gains since as enthusiasm has eased, but with a market value of $70 billion, Nio is still bigger than Ford. It’s a long way from Li’s relatively humble beginnings. Raised by his grandparents in a small village in the hills of Anhui, known for farming and (more recently) the automobile industry, Li calls himself one of China’s “first generation of left-behind children” because both his parents moved to the neighboring province of Jiangsu to pursue better work. There was no electricity in the village until Li was in his teens. While majoring in sociology at Peking University, one of China’s top colleges, Li started his first business: leasing internet servers and helping clients register domain names. The auto industry is where Li has enjoyed his greatest success, however, with the 3 listed companies he founded in the past 20 years all related to cars. His first, a vehicle-pricing portal called BitAuto Holdings was acquired last year by Yiche Holding for $2.8 billion, propelling Li’s personal fortune to $7 billion. That was followed by online auto-finance platform Yixin Group, which listed in Hong Kong in late 2017. Then came Nio. In an internal presentation in 2016, Li recalled looking out the window of his apartment at Beijing’s smoggy skies before the birth of his first son, and decided something needed to be done to tackle the country’s chronic pollution. He started Nio in late 2014 with funding from a group of well-known investors, including Li Auto founder Li Xiang and Richard Liu, the founder of e-commerce portal JD.com. Xiaomi’s Lei Jun was also an early backer. When he’s not dining with superfans, Li’s workday calendar is packed. On a recent day at the company’s corporate headquarters (which remain in the slick financial capital of Shanghai) he spent the morning locked in executive committee meetings. In the afternoon, it was more back-to-back meetings with the company’s battery partner, designers, and clients from Europe. In a first, Nio recently announced plans to start selling cars in EV hotbed Norway. But while the company is on much firmer ground than 18 months ago, questions remain. “Auto manufacturing has big economies of scale, and at less than 100.000 units a year, Nio hasn’t yet reached the production volume to realize all of those efficiencies”, said Robert Cowell, an equity analyst at Shanghai-based 86Research. Cost issues linger, with the price of raw materials used in batteries, the most expensive part of an EV, including lithium-ion compound, soaring in recent months. Like most global automakers, Nio has also been hit by a worldwide shortage of the chips used increasingly in modern cars, leading to the suspension of production in Hefei for 5 days at the end of March. And despite the intensifying competition in an industry defined by technological advances and consumers drawn to the next shiny thing, Nio isn’t planning on unveiling any new models until late this year or early 2022. While Tesla is the main competitor in view, it’s the rivals to come that Li sees as the biggest threat. “The final game won’t start until tech giants are in”, he said. In March, Xiaomi unveiled plans to invest about $10 billion in manufacturing EVs, while Huawei has collaborated on at least two cars and is developing autonomous driving technologies. Lurking in the background is the biggest tech giant of all: Apple, which has long harbored ambitions to make its own, self-driving car. “I trust companies like Apple for their determination, software development, intelligence capability, and user connection”, Li said. “It’s going to be different competition from traditional car companies”. But like Musk and other EV evangelists, Li is looking to the long game. “I’m very optimistic”, he said. “By 2030, 90 % of the newly launched cars will be electric, or even 95%”. For the Nio fans gathered in Shanghai that Sunday evening, that future is already here. With the event drawing to a close, owners pose for a large group photo with Li at its center, everyone flashing thumbs up. As the lights dim, Li slips out of the hall and into the night, where his driver (in a white Nio ES8) waits to take him home. +++ 

+++ RENAULT has outlined plans to turn three of its factories in northern France into the largest electric vehicle production hub in Europe, producing up to 400.000 vehicles a year. The French firm will establish a new legal entity, named Renault ElectriCity, that will encompass its plants in Douai, Maubeuge and Ruitz. The 3 sites will produce Renault’s forthcoming electric passenger vehicles, including the Mégane e-Vision and R5 Electric, along with electric commercial vehicles and EV components. Renault has previously confirmed that it plans to make the reborn R5 Electric and Mégane e-Vision at its long-running Douai facility, which opened in 1970 and was the site for production of the original 5. The firm says another C-segment electric vehicle based on the CMF-EV platform used for the Mégane e-Vision will also be produced at the site and it has hinted at other vehicles based on the EV city car platform that will underpin the R5 Electric. The Maubeuge facility has been used to produce Renault commercial vehicles since 1980 and is currently home to the Kangoo van and the badge-engineered Mercedes-Benz Citan. The next-generation electric Kangoo E-Tech Electric, next-gen Citan and related Nissan NV200 will all be built at the facility. Renault said “other variants” of the next-gen Kangoo will be built at the plant alongside the EVs. Renault’s Ruitz plant, which currently manufactures gearboxes, will in future be used to produce electrical components. Renault says the ElectriCity scheme will create 700 new jobs by 2024 (350 at Maubeuge, with the rest split between Douai and Ruitz) and the firm will establish a university and training centre to teach the new skills required for EV production. The production plans do not include making any batteries. Renault bosses have previously called for the French government to support a battery gigafactory, which, they hinted, was key to encourage EV production in the country. +++ 

+++ TOYOTA , the world’s biggest automaker, said it aims to make its production carbon-neutral by 2035, replacing the previous target date of 2050. The Japanese firm’s chief production officer Masamichi Okada made the pledge during an online presentation, as the G7 leaders meet in Britain to discuss tackling climate change and other pressing issues. “We are striving to achieve green factories. Carbon neutrality provides us with an opportunity to fundamentally rethink manufacturing”, Okada said. “Toyota will take on a variety of challenges to make its factories carbon neutral by 2035”, he added. One of the ways the company hopes to realize its goal is by introducing new technologies for painting vehicles (one of auto production’s most power-gobbling procedures) such as replacing paint with adhesive film. Toyota is a pioneer of hybrid vehicles and autos using hydrogen fuel. It is also stepping up its development of battery-powered electric cars. Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga in October set a 2050 deadline for the world’s third-largest economy to become carbon neutral, significantly firming up the country’s climate-change commitments. The nation has struggled to cut carbon emissions after shutting down reactors after the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In November, engineering giant Toshiba said it would stop constructing new coal-fired power plants and shift to renewable energy in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Suga is currently in southwest England for the G7 summit, the leaders’ first in-person talks in nearly 2 years. +++ 

+++ VOLKSWAGEN’s high-tech Project Trinity EV is the first car the firm has “developed from the inside out”, with an emphasis on interior design, because of its focus on offering autonomous driving systems, according to company bosses. The production car resulting from Project Trinity is due in 2026 and is set to take the form of a sleek 4-door saloon. It will be one of the first models built on the Volkswagen Group’s planned new SSP architecture and using a next-generation software system. Trinity will be launched initially with Level 3 advanced driver assistance systems (allowing it to drive itself with a driver able to intervene), with a plan to upgrade that to Level 4 (fully self-driving, with no human intervention required) by around 2030. Because of that emphasis on autonomous driving, Volkswagen sales boss Klaus Zellmer has said that, with Trinity, “for the first time, we are developing a car from the inside out”, with a focus on maximising interior space to enable multiple uses for passengers. “Trinity is doing a lot of new things”, said Zellmer. “It’s about the architecture, and our goal is to define it by deciding what we’re going to do in the car for our customers. We call Trinity a time machine, because it will take us to autonomous driving and free up your time while in it. Trinity is a companion for life: for leisure time, family time and so on”. Early sketches of design proposals for Trinity’s interior suggest it will make maximum use of the stretched dimensions allowed by a skateboard EV chassis, with a minimised dashboard and reclining front seats for when the driver is not controlling the car. No steering wheel is visible in the sketch, hinting that VW is considering a concept-car-esque retracting wheel. Volkswagen has yet to detail specifics of the autonomous systems that Trinity will be launched with and that will subsequently be offered through over-the-air updates. VW development boss Thomas Ulbrich said that is partly down to the lack of specific legislation for the use of advanced driver assistance systems. Ulbrich said more dialogue is needed between governments and car firms on the scope of laws and regulations that will govern autonomous cars on the road. “Governments have to be willing and able to listen to us and talk to use, because we can only do this together”, said Ulbrich. “There are no regulations for autonomous driving and we need interactions between policy makers and the car industry, because things need to fit together. “Autonomous highly automated driving technology will develop between the middle of this decade and the next decade: we [the industry and governments] can define it together and develop it step by step”.+++

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