Newsflash: Volkswagen opnieuw beschuldigd van sjoemel software

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+++ Over 30 million AIRBAGS in more than 200 models from 20 car and truck makers are being investigated by a U.S. safety agency because they have the potential to explode and hurl shrapnel. In a document, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it opened the probe into air bag inflators made from 2011 through 2019 by now-bankrupt Takata that weren’t recalled previously. The probe could reverse a decision made in May of last year not to recall the inflators, which contain a moisture-absorbing chemical called a dessicant. It wasn’t clear what prompted the agency to open the investigation. Last year, it decided against recalling the inflators, based largely on industry research, and said it would monitor them. “While no present safety risk has been identified, further work is needed to evaluate the future risk of non-recalled dessicated inflators”, the agency said in the document. Included in the probe are models made by Honda, Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis), General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Tesla, BMW, Toyota, Jaguar Land Rover, Daimler Vans, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche, Mazda, Karma and Fisker. Some of the most popular vehicles in the U.S. are identified in the probe, including certain Chevrolet Silverado pickups from 2014 and 2015, some Jeep Grand Cherokees from 2011 through 2019 and the Honda CR-V from 2012 through 2015. The document said none of the inflators under investigation have blown apart while in use. About 25 million vehicles have the questionable driver or front passenger inflators that were installed at the factory. At least 5 million more had the inflators installed as replacement parts for more dangerous Takata inflators that have been recalled. The NHTSA didn’t immediately comment when asked what changed, prompting it to open the investigation. The agency said in a statement that drivers don’t need to take any action. “NHTSA will conduct a thorough investigation, and should we determine that a safety defect exists, we will act”. At least 19 people in the U.S. and 28 worldwide have been killed by exploding Takata inflators. More than 400 have been injured in the U.S. The Japanese company used ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion to inflate airbags in a crash. But the chemical can become more volatile over time when exposed to moisture in the air and high temperatures. The explosion can blow apart a metal canister and hurl shrapnel into the passenger compartment. The problem caused the largest series of auto recalls in U.S. history, with at least 67 million inflators recalled. About 17 million had not been repaired as of January. Worldwide, around 100 million inflators have been recalled. Takata added the dessicant to absorb moisture and stop the ammonium nitrate from deteriorating. But in the document, NHTSA said at some point the dessicants will become saturated. In the most hot and humid locations, saturation can take place in five years, the agency said. Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he’s not sure what caused the agency to change from last year. But he said NHTSA is opening the probe before something bad happens. “What’s refreshing here is that NHTSA is taking a step that says we don’t have to wait for a body count. That’s great”, Levine said. Under President Donald Trump, the agency enacted few safety regulations and was less active in regulating the industry than under past administrations. But Levine said it is being far more active under president Joe Biden. Levine said the agency should have begun the investigation last year so owners of vehicles with the questionable inflators could know by now whether their airbag systems are safe or whether they’re defective. “It leaves consumers in an unnecessary state of concern”, Levine said. +++

+++ BMW Brilliance Automobile, a joint venture between Germany’s auto giant BMW and Chinese car maker Huachen Auto Group, has rolled out its 4 millionth locally produced BMW car off the production line in Northeast China’s Shenyang, capital city of Liaoning province. The 4 millionth car, the new iX3, features new-generation BMW power batteries. The fully electric car boasts a range of up to 500 km and average power consumption of 16.7 kWh per 100 km. “We will take this 4 millionth car of BMW Brilliance as a milestone to continuously develop our production capacities in Shenyang plants”, said Dr Franz Decker, senior vice president of technology & manufacturing of BMW Brilliance Automobile. Decker said the company will have 3 expansion projects: Tiexi new plant and Plant Dadong Extension and R&D Center Phase 2 Extension, put into use in 2022. +++

+++ Automakers in EUROPE are in discussions with Australian rare earths explorer Arafura Resources about sourcing elements that help power electric cars from outside China, which dominates global supply. The miner is developing the 1 billion Australian dollar ($728 million) Nolans project in Australia’s Northern Territory that will cover as much as 10% of global demand for the type of rare earths used in permanent magnets for electric motors. Crucially, Arafura plans to process ores close to its site, ensuring direct oversight of the treatment of toxic waste products at the project it bought in 2001. “We have engagement with European manufacturers to directly supply them with material”, chief financial officer Peter Sherrington said in an interview, adding that he expects to ink deals before the end of the year because talks are advancing to volumes and price. New rules on sustainability and traceability “have opened carmakers’ minds up to the need of this”. Rare earths are emerging as another source of concern in the transformation to electric cars. They’ll require vast amounts of battery raw materials like lithium, nickel and cobalt, which is leading automakers like BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla to go directly to miners. China, which controls two-thirds of mining and 85 % of refining of rare earths, is expected to put much of its production to use domestically in future. Simmering tensions that previously made the elements (also important for applications in defense) a political pawn are spurring efforts to procure from outside China. Last year, the U.S. Department of Defense committed funding for Australian producer Lynas to set up a processing plant in Texas that will cost an estimated $30 million initially. Other companies advancing projects include Hastings Technology Metals and Peak Resources. While carmakers including BMW and General Motors have sought to reduce the amount of rare earths (a vehicle uses an average of 3 kilograms) switching to alternatives tends to make motors less efficient. Tesla initially used induction motors that didn’t need magnets to power its electric cars, but switched gears with the Model 3. “To have future safety of supply, you need to create your own”, said Joanne Jia, a vice president at China’s Hangzhou Permanent Magnet Group, which has developed magnets that can switch between two types of rare earths depending on price. “The material is critical but very small in quantity”. A new law in Germany on supply chain responsibility has also spurred interest, said Arafura’s Sherrington. Starting from 2023, companies will be held accountable on social standards across their entire supplier network and including waste products, or face fines. Efforts to establish supply are also under way in Europe, which is now the top region for EVs and is on course to become the biggest consumer of the elements. The European Union last year set up the European Raw Materials Alliance to help ensure there’s enough supply of critical raw materials fueling the world’s most ambitious plan to fight climate change. In rare earths, the alliance has identified 14 projects in Europe for investment of €1.7 billion. “There’s always been awareness about the dependency, but availability, at a price, was fine”, said Erma chief executive officer Bernd Schäfer. “That’s now changing to a mindset of the tremendous cost of not having the material”. +++

+++ GENERAL MOTORS said it will invest $300 million in Chinese autonomous driving startup Momenta, which is expected to accelerate the United States carmaker’s development of self-driving technologies for its vehicles in China. Founded in 2016, Momenta is one of the most promising Chinese startups in the autonomous driving industry. Prior to the deal with GM, it raised $700 million from investors including Daimler, SAIC Motor and Toyota. “Customers in China are embracing electrification and advanced self-driving technology faster than anywhere else in the world”, said Julian Blissett, executive vice-president of GM and president of GM China. China is the biggest market for GM. Last year, it sold around 3 million vehicles in the country. “The agreement between GM and Momenta will accelerate our deployment of next-generation solutions tailor-made for our consumers in China”, said Blissett. GM did not reveal details such as when the technologies co-developed with Momenta will be used in its vehicles. Momenta has adopted a scalable path toward full autonomous driving by combining a data-driven approach to quickly iterate algorithms. Unlike many startups, it has a “two-pronged” strategy, which focuses on mass-production-ready solutions as well as full autonomy as well. Momenta has set a goal to save one million lives, save 100 % driving time, and double efficiency of logistics and mobility in the next 10 years. “Together with GM, we will jointly invest in autonomous vehicle technologies to enhance driving safety, convenience and efficiency”, said Cao Xudong, CEO of Momenta. GM is investing heavily in a comprehensive plan to lead the transformation to a more sustainable future, guided by its vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. In June, the carmaker said it is investing $35 billion in engineering and capital in electric cars and autonomous driving technology from 2020 to 2025. Besides its partnership with Momenta, GM is also developing autonomous driving technologies through its subsidiary Cruise. Cruise’s autonomous driving system, called Super Cruise, is already used in the Cadillac CT6 sold in China. The carmaker said the system will be introduced into more vehicle models available in the country. In China, GM is also expanding its design and engineering facilities to increase its capability to deliver over-the-air software updates and preparing to roll out the company’s global battery platform Ultium. +++

+++ Battery power may be the front-runner to become the car technology of the future, but don’t rule out the underdog HYDROGEN . That’s the view of some major automakers, including BMW and Audi, which are developing hydrogen fuel-cell passenger vehicle prototypes alongside their fleets of battery cars as part of preparations to abandon fossil fuels. They are hedging their bets, calculating that a change in political winds could shift the balance toward hydrogen in an industry shaped by early-mover Tesla’s decision to take the battery-powered road to clean cars. Global auto hub Germany is in sharp focus. It is already betting billions on hydrogen fuel in sectors like steel and chemicals to meet climate targets, and closely-fought elections this month could see the Greens enter the coalition government and further push the technology. BMW is hydrogen’s biggest proponent among Germany’s carmakers, charting a path to a mass-market model around 2030. The company also has one eye on shifting hydrogen policies in Europe and in China, the world’s largest car market. The Munich based premium player has developed a hydrogen prototype car based on its X5, in a project already partly funded by the German government. Jürgen Guldner, the BMW vice president who heads up the hydrogen fuel-cell car program, told the carmaker would build a test fleet of close to 100 cars in 2022. “Whether this technology is driven by politics or demand, we will be ready with a product”, he said, adding that his team is already working to develop the next generation vehicles. “We’re on the verge of getting there and we’re really convinced we’ll see a breakthrough in this decade”, he said. Volkswagen’s premium Audi brand told Reuters it had assembled a team of more than 100 mechanics and engineers who were researching hydrogen fuel cells on behalf of the whole VW group, and had built a few prototype cars. Hydrogen is viewed as a sure bet by the world’s biggest truckmakers, such as Daimler Truck, Volvo Trucks and Hyundai, because batteries are too heavy for long-distance commercial vehicles. Yet fuel cell technology (where hydrogen passes through a catalyst, producing electricity) is for now too costly for mass-market consumer cars. Cells are complex and contain expensive materials, and although refuelling is quicker than battery recharging, infrastructure is more scarce. The fact that hydrogen is so far behind in the race to the affordable market also means even some champions of the technology, like Germany’s Greens, favor prioritizing battery-powered passenger cars because they see them as the fastest way to reach their main goal of decarbonizing transport. The Greens do, however, back the use of hydrogen fuel for ships and planes and want to invest heavily in “green” hydrogen produced solely from renewable sources. “Hydrogen will play a highly important role in the transport industry”, said Stefan Gelbhaar, the party’s transport policy spokesperson in the Bundestag. Politics can be unpredictable though: diesel went from saint to sinner following VW’s Dieselgate emissions-cheating scandal, which came to light in 2015. Some carmakers view hydrogen technology as an insurance policy as the EU targets an effective ban on fossil-fuel cars from 2035. Last year, Daimler said it would wind down production of the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell, a hydrogen fuel-cell SUV, but a source familiar with company plans said the project could easily be revived if the European Commission or a German government with Green participation decide to promote hydrogen cars. “We’re focusing on battery electric first, but we’re in close cooperation with our truck guys”, said Jörg Burzer, Daimler’s head of production, when asked about that approach. “The technology is always available”. For years Japanese carmakers Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and South Korea’s Hyundai, were alone in developing and pushing hydrogen fuel-cell cars, but now they have company. China is expanding its hydrogen fuelling infrastructure, with several carmakers now working on fuel-cell cars, including Great Wall Motor, which plans to develop hydrogen-powered SUVs. The EU wants to build more hydrogen fuelling stations for commercial vehicles. Fitch Solutions auto analyst Joshua Cobb said the bloc was only likely to start pushing hydrogen passenger cars in 2 to 3 years’ time, given it was still figuring out how to pay for its battery-electric car push and how to obtain enough “green” hydrogen from renewable sources. “It’s not out of bounds to think if the German Greens come into power they could accelerate the push to adopt regulations favoring hydrogen fuel-cell cars”, he added. BMW’s Guldner acknowledged hydrogen technology was too expensive to be viable for the consumer market today, but said costs would come down as trucking companies invested in the technology to bring fuel-cell vehicles to market at scale. To demonstrate BMW’s hydrogen X5 prototype, Guldner took me for a spin at 180 km kph on the autobahn near the carmaker’s Munich headquarters and in a few minutes gave it enough fuel to run 500 km using a hydrogen gas pump at a Total petrol station. Guldner said BMW saw hydrogen fuel-cell cars as “complementary” to its future battery electric model range, providing an alternative for customers who cannot charge at home, want to travel far and refuel swiftly. The motor in the hydrogen X5 is the same as BMW’s all-electric iX. “When the future is zero emissions, we believe having 2 answers is better than one”, he said. Yet Fitch Solutions’ Cobb said that it would still take years before any European policy support for hydrogen-powered cars translated into significant sales. Indeed, auto consultancy LMC forecasts that various uses of hydrogen (in commercial vehicles, aviation and energy storage) would spur its adoption in passenger cars, but over the longer term. “We’re just not going to get there any time soon”, said LMC senior powertrain analyst Sam Adham. LMC estimates in 2030 hydrogen fuel-cell models will make up just 0.1 % of sales in Europe, and sales will only take off after 2035. There remain divisions about the technology’s prospects in the global car industry, and even within auto groups. Audi might be researching fuel cells, for example, but Volkswagen Group boss Herbert Diess has been scathing about hydrogen-powered cars. “The hydrogen car has proven not to be the solution to climate change”, he said in a tweet this year. “Sham debates are a waste of time”. Stephan Herbst, general manager of Toyota in Europe, has a different view. Speaking in his role as a member of the Hydrogen Council business group, which forecasts that hydrogen will power more than 400 million cars by 2050, Herbst said he was confident that now governments had set ambitious carbon-reduction targets, they would push hydrogen alongside battery electric cars. “We strongly believe this is not a question of either or”, he added. “We need both technologies”. +++

+++ Tesla boss Elon Musk said that a global SEMI CONDUCTOR SHORTAGE hitting car firms especially hard would be overcome soon. The chip drought is “short term, I think”, the billionaire said in an appearance by video at Italian Tech Week in Turin. “There are a lot of chip fabrication plants that are being built”, Musk told the audience of startups, investment funds and tech entrepreneurs. “I think we will have good capacity for providing chips by next year. I certainly hope so, but it appears that way”. A boom in electric vehicle sales and renewed activity following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in many advanced economies has boosted demand for car parts. But the auto industry is butting up against other sectors that require large amounts of semiconductors as inputs, including computing, smartphones and smart devices. Tesla has so far overcome the chip shortage by switching to different designs and rewriting the relevant software. In the second quarter, the carmaker delivered a record number of vehicles and topped $1 billion of net profit for the first time. +++

+++ The Dieselgate scandal is had an enormous negative impact on the VOLKSWAGEN marque, but it definitely accelerated the company’s transition towards electric energy. Unfortunately, it seems that the saga is not completely over yet. A new report says an adviser to the European Union’s top court recently said that the so-called “temperature window” software Volkswagen is using in some of its engines is illegal. That doesn’t mean the automaker is officially being investigated by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), though judges usually follow the opinions of the advisers. Or, to put it simply, VW is not being investigated yet as the EU could start a lawsuit any day now. The case was initially brought by consumers in Austria and focuses on software Volkswagen is using to control a valve that recirculates exhaust gases from the engine outlet. Under certain conditions, when outside temperatures are outside the range of 15 – 33 degrees Celsius and at altitudes above 1.000 metres, that valve is deactivated by the software, thus letting more NOx emissions be emitted during the combustion process. In theory, the software is designed to prevent the engine from ageing or clogging up, but the EU court advisor says it’s a “defeat device” in a very similar way the software of the infamous VW EA 189 was. The Austrian consumers have similar claims, saying that the temperature window is not representative of real driving conditions in the country and in Germany. The software’s role to protect the engine is not a justification, CJEU advocate general Athanasios Rantos said. +++

+++ VOLKSWAGEN said it has started construction on a battery system production factory in East China’s Anhui province, as the German car giant accelerates its electrification campaign in its largest market. The world’s second largest carmaker said it is investing over €140 million until 2025 in the new plant and its facilities, with production scheduled to begin in the second half of 2023. The plant, covering an area of over 45.000 square meters, is located next to the production facilities of Volkswagen Anhui, the carmaker’s first majority-owned joint venture in China for all-electric vehicles. Volkswagen said the battery plant’s initial annual capacity will be 150.000 to 180.000 high-voltage battery systems, which will be used for electric vehicles to be built at Volkswagen Anhui. Stephan Wöllenstein, CEO of Volkswagen Group China, said, “With a significant increase of battery-electric vehicles in the future, we need to focus on keeping key components like battery systems in our own value chain, allowing us to leverage group-wide synergies and innovations”. Wöllenstein said Volkswagen expects 40 % of models in China under all its marques from Audi to Skoda to be electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids by 2030. The car group is currently producing electric vehicles in China under Volkswagen and Audi brands. The number of electric models is expected to grow fast as its local electric car plants are opening one after another. The battery plant in Anhui will become the strategic backbone of our e-mobility offensive and a strong foundation for producing the next-generation batteries for the Chinese market, said Frank Engel, executive vice-president of Volkswagen Group China. The new Anhui plant will leverage existing synergies with the Group’s wholly owned battery plants and workshops in Braunschweig, Germany, and North China’s Tianjin, said Volkswagen. The Braunschweig plant is regarded as Volkswagen’s lead plant for the planning, development and production of battery systems. The carmaker said experience gained at the plant, which has been running since 2019, is thus transferred across the group. Besides the Anhui plant, Volkswagen is building up battery manufacturing facilities in the Czech Republic and the United States. The plan is to manufacture more than 1 million battery systems globally per year in a few years, said Volkswagen. By 2025, Volkswagen is aiming to make and sell up to 3 million electric cars each year. By 2040, it expects to achieve nearly 100 % zero-emission vehicles in all major markets. +++

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