Newsflash: Apple geeft gas met autonoom rijdende iCar

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+++ APPLE is pushing to accelerate development of its electric car and is refocusing the project around full self-driving capabilities, according to people familiar with the matter, aiming to solve a technical challenge that has bedeviled the auto industry. For the past several years, Apple’s car team had explored 2 simultaneous paths: creating a model with limited self-driving capabilities focused on steering and acceleration (similar to most current cars from Tesla) or a version with full self-driving ability that doesn’t require human intervention. Under the effort’s new leader, Apple Watch software executive Kevin Lynch, engineers are now concentrating on the second option. Lynch is pushing for a car with a full self-driving system in the first version, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. It’s just the latest shift for the car effort, known as the Special Projects Group or “Project Titan”, which has endured strategy changes and executive turnover since starting around 2014. In September, the former head of the team, Doug Field, left for a job at Ford after three years in charge. In picking Lynch as his replacement, Apple went with an internal executive who isn’t a car veteran. In trying to master self-driving cars, Apple is chasing a holy grail within the industry. Tech and auto giants have spent years on autonomous vehicles, but the capabilities have remained elusive. Tesla, the market leader in electric vehicles, is still probably years away from offering fully autonomous cars. Alphabet’s Waymo has suffered a rash of departures in its efforts to develop the technology. And Uber Technologies Inc. agreed to sell off its autonomous-driving division last year. Apple is internally targeting a launch of its self-driving car in four years, faster than the 5- to 7-year timeline that some engineers had been planning for earlier this year. But the timing is fluid, and hitting that 2025 target is dependent on the company’s ability to complete the self-driving system; an ambitious task on that schedule. If Apple is unable to reach its goal, it could either delay a release or initially sell a car with lesser technology. Apple’s ideal car would have no steering wheel and pedals, and its interior would be designed around hands-off driving. One option discussed inside the company features an interior similar to the one in the Lifestyle Vehicle from Canoo, an upstart in the EV industry. In that car, passengers sit along the sides of the vehicle and face each other like they would in a limousine. Apple has also explored designs where the car’s infotainment system (likely a large iPad-like touch screen) would be in the middle of the vehicle, letting users interact with it throughout a ride. The car would also be heavily integrated with Apple’s existing services and devices. Though the company is pushing to not have a standard steering wheel, Apple has discussed equipping the car with an emergency takeover mode. Recently, the company reached a key milestone in developing the car’s underlying self-driving system, people familiar with the situation said. Apple believes it has completed much of the core work on the processor it intends to eventually ship in the first generation of the car. The chip was designed by Apple’s silicon engineering group (which devised the processors for the iPhone, iPad and Mac) rather than within the car team itself. The work has included honing the underlying software that runs on the chip to power the self-driving capabilities. The advancements could soon make their way into road tests. Apple plans to start using the new processor design and updated self-driving sensors in retrofitted cars that it’s spent years testing in California. The company currently has a fleet of 69 Lexus SUVs experimenting with its technology, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. The Apple car chip is the most advanced component that Apple has developed internally and is made up primarily of neural processors that can handle the artificial intelligence needed for autonomous driving. The chip’s capabilities mean it will run hot and likely require the development of a sophisticated cooling system. The hope is to develop a vehicle that can spare customers from driving fatigue when they’re on long trips. But building an actual car (for an auto industry outsider like Apple) will require partnerships. The company has discussed deals with multiple manufacturers and has considered potentially building the vehicle in the U.S. Even with recent progress, creating a fully self-driving car by 2025 is seen as very aggressive within Apple. Some people within Project Titan are skeptical about the timeline. Safety is a major piece of the puzzle. Apple is looking to build stronger safeguards than what’s available from Tesla and Waymo, engineers involved with the effort say. That includes creating plenty of redundancy; the ability for layers of backup systems to kick in to avoid safety and driving system failures. Apple is actively looking to hire engineers to test and develop safety functions. “The Special Projects Group is seeking an accomplished mechanical engineer to lead the development of mechanical systems with safety critical functions”, one recent Apple job listing reads. “You will use your passion for figuring things out to help design safety systems and to lead the testing and countermeasure of those systems”. As part of efforts to accelerate the project, Apple is hiring more self-driving and car hardware engineers. That’s included enlisting CJ Moore, Tesla’s former self-driving software director. In recent weeks, Apple has also tapped a climate system expert from Volvo, a manager from Daimler Trucks, battery systems engineers from Karma Automotive and other carmakers, a sensor engineer from General Motors’ Cruise, automotive safety engineers from companies like Joyson Safety Systems, and multiple other engineers from Tesla, according to information from LinkedIn and people with knowledge of the matter. The company is also hiring software engineers to work on “experiences for human interaction with autonomous technology”, according to an Apple job listing, suggesting it is deep into development of the car’s user interface. The listing implies the software being developed will be based on similar technology to the iPhone operating system. To power up the vehicle, Apple has discussed being compatible with the combined charging system, or CCS. That would let Apple tap into an expansive global network of chargers. But the approach would differ from the more proprietary charging systems it has developed for the iPhone and Apple Watch. Apple has internally debated several different business models for its car, including creating a self-driving fleet that would compete with the likes of Uber, Lyft and Waymo. The company has discussed an external design similar to the Canoo if it were to take the fleet approach. A more likely scenario, however, is Apple offering the cars for individual ownership. Getting to that point won’t be easy. Apple’s car project has suffered from development challenges, leadership struggles, layoffs and delays over its 7-year history. Field’s arrival from Tesla in 2018 brought a surge of excitement that ultimately fizzled. At least 4 top managers from the project departed in 2021, in addition to Field himself. Some members of the group believe Field was irked about reporting to artificial intelligence chief John Giannandrea after the retirement of his previous boss, Bob Mansfield. Mansfield had reported directly to chief executive officer Tim Cook in a part-time job overseeing the car work. Lynch is now the fifth executive to take charge of the project in roughly 7 years. That rate of turnover is rare at Apple. For instance, its virtual and augmented reality team has had one leader since that project kicked off around the same time as the car. Still, given Lynch’s ability to help turn the Apple Watch into a core product, some engineers on the car team see his appointment as a bullish sign. Lynch reports to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. Lynch is a software manager without car hardware or autonomous experience, but former Tesla executives on the project (including Michael Schwekutsch and Stuart Bowers) have key roles. Apple also hired Ulrich Kranz earlier this year. He previously led Canoo and helped oversee development of BMW’s electric cars. When Lynch was chosen to take over the car project, he remained in charge of the Apple Watch operating system and some health software teams. He has stayed involved in high-level decision making while focusing much of his time on the car project. The question now is whether an executive who oversaw one of Apple’s last big things its smartwatch can turn a car into its next one. +++

+++ ELECTRIC VEHICLE CHARGERS will be a mandatory feature of new homes and buildings in England from next year. Prime minister Boris Johnson will outline an addition to the country’s building regulations later today, which will call for new homes and non-residential properties such as supermarkets and workplaces (as well as substantially refurbished properties with more than 10 parking spaces) to install EV chargers. The British government says this change will lead to the installation of up to 145,000 EV chargers across England each year, building on the “over 250,000” home and workplace chargers it has supported so far. It added: “With the majority of charging happening at home, this will mean people can buy new properties already ready for an electric-vehicle future, while ensuring charge points are readily available at new shops and workplaces across the UK, making it as easy as refuelling a petrol or diesel car today”. As the UK’s 2030 ban on new ICE cars approaches, the government is investing in EV infrastructure to encourage adoption of EVs. Alongside the new building rules, it will also usher in “simpler ways to pay” for EV charging, including contactless, at “all new fast and rapid charge points”. Earlier this month at Glasgow’s COP26 climate conference, transport secretary Grant Shapps unveiled a new government-commissioned EV charger design, but it remains unclear how the government plans to roll out the device. This latest announcement hints that streamlined payment processes will be a priority. Johnson will give a speech at the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) conference later today, during which he will say: “This is a pivotal moment. We can’t go on as we are. We have to adapt our economy to the green industrial revolution. We have to use our massive investment in science and technology and we have to raise our productivity and then we have to get out your way. We must regulate less or better and take advantage of new freedoms”. +++

+++ ELECTRIC SUVS generally are among the least reliable vehicles on the road, but it’s not because of the batteries or electric motors that power them. Instead, it’s because of glitch-prone electronics including climate controls and power equipment, the annual auto reliability survey of subscribers by Consumer Reports found. Electric SUVs were the least reliable category in the annual survey of subscribers to the magazine and website who collectively own more than 300.000 vehicles. Tesla’s Models X and Y, the Audi e-Tron and Volkswagen ID.4 were among the vehicles singled out as having problems in areas other than the electric powertrain. In contrast, compact and plug-in gas-electric hybrids led by the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight were the most reliable category, said Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. Overall, Japanese brands led by Lexus, Mazda, Toyota and Infiniti took eight of the top 10 spots in the reliability survey. General Motors’ Buick brand finished fifth, and BMW’s Mini was 10th. Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand finished last of 28 brands with Tesla, Jeep, Genesis and Volkswagen rounding out the bottom 5. Electric vehicles, with far fewer moving parts, should be more reliable than gas-powered vehicles, Fisher said. But electric SUVs tend to be higher-priced luxury vehicles at present, and those have all the latest technology that can cause trouble, he said. “The powertrains aren’t the problem”, Fisher said. Instead, the electric SUVs often are equipped with electric door handles, electric-activated climate control vents and other features. “By having all of these new technologies saddled into these early adopter-mobiles, there are more problems associated with them”. Fisher said electric vehicles are likely to be more reliable than gas-powered ones as manufacturers work the bugs out of their features. The Lexus GX was the most reliable SUV model in the survey, followed by Kia’s e-Niro, the Toyota Prius hybrid and the Cadillac XT5 sedan. Least reliable were the Mercedes GLE, Ford Explorer, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500, and the Chevrolet Corvette, according to the survey. Fisher said owners are reporting more problems with complex 8-, 9- and 10-speed transmissions that are designed for fuel efficiency, especially among some Hyundia, Kia, Subaru and Toyota models. Tesla, the world’s leading electric vehicle brand, was ranked near the bottom for reliability due to reports of body hardware problems, water leaks, trunks not closing and missing weather stripping, Fisher said. There also were problems with a new heat pump system to heat the passenger compartment and defrost the windshield, he said. Tesla’s Model 3 sedan, with average reliability, was the only model recommended by Consumer Reports. Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, traditionally is at the top of the survey because it’s really conservative when rolling out new engines, transmissions and technology, Fisher said. The brand, he said, was among the last to add Apple CarPlay to its vehicles, and it was slow to move toward 8-speed transmissions, he said. Fisher said reliability is more important than ever now due to parts supply shortages to fix problems. “Buying a reliable vehicle can help ensure that you’ll be able to hit the road when you need to, and not worry about getting stuck waiting on parts for repairs”, he said. The survey is used by Consumer Reports to predict reliability. It’s based on overall reliability for the 2019, 2020 and 2021 model years, for vehicles that have not been redesigned. +++

+++ In the 3 years since Carlos GHOSN was detained on a Tokyo airport tarmac, much has emerged about how forces within Nissan worked to remove him. Yet a key group has avoided close scrutiny of their role in the once-powerful car executive’s downfall: the lawyers. A small clutch of attorneys from Latham & Watkins, one of the world’s largest law firms, advised Nissan for years on how to compensate its then chairman and CEO. That included the remuneration package that would become the basis of the first charges against Ghosn, for concealing the full extent of his income. Then, as Ghosn’s pay became the subject of a criminal investigation in 2018, Latham & Watkins was enlisted to investigate his alleged wrongdoing, despite warnings to Nissan’s board that it posed a serious conflict of interest. “I was concerned right from the get-go about their involvement” in the company-ordered probe, said Ravinder Passi, Nissan’s former global general counsel. Passi sued the carmaker last year for wrongful termination, saying that he was dismissed after questioning whether the law firm acted in Nissan’s best interests. “I was incredibly surprised, and shocked. How is this going to appear when you’ve got the same lawyers investigating things, including their own work? The situation was ripe for misbehavior”. Ghosn’s arrest by Tokyo prosecutors on November 19, 2018, stunned the business world, shock that was compounded just over a year later when the executive (a legend in the cutthroat automotive industry) escaped from Japan while out on bail. He’s now in Lebanon and will probably never face trial for his alleged crimes. A powerful force at Nissan since engineering its rescue with a bailout from Renault in 1999, Ghosn had made enemies in his almost 2 decades at the helm of what became the world’s biggest carmaking alliance. From early 2018, there was a campaign within Nissan led by senior vice president Hari Nada and a small group of insiders to oust Ghosn. They feared that Ghosn’s plans to more closely integrate Nissan and Renault would threaten their positions and curb the Japanese company’s independence. But the insiders didn’t pull it off on their own. Latham & Watkins, Nissan’s law firm since the 1980s, was there at many key junctures, according to an investigation based on hundreds of documents, interviews and testimony from the trial of Greg Kelly, a former Nissan executive arrested alongside Ghosn. Both have denied the charges. Despite what Passi, who reported to Nada, calls its deeply conflicted position, Latham & Watkins remains Nissan’s top legal adviser, as the carmaker continues to grapple with the fallout from Ghosn’s undoing, including in court. Nissan is facing a raft of lawsuits across the globe from disgruntled shareholders, business partners and former employees. Though Ghosn’s made-for-Hollywood story may have faded from the headlines, for Nissan it has had a long tail, hampering the company’s efforts to return to profitability and contend with the changes sweeping through the automotive world. Azusa Momose, a Nissan spokeswoman, said that Latham & Watkins’s probe into Ghosn and Kelly was “robust, thorough and appropriate”, and that its findings were corroborated by multiple government agencies in their own “thorough, independent investigations”. “Latham & Watkins were not at any time conflicted in assisting Nissan to carry out its investigation,” Momose said. “Their client is, and always was, Nissan. Any suggestion that Latham & Watkins were conflicted, or that any potential conflict prevented them from assisting in the conduct of a robust investigation, is not supported by any facts”. In a statement provided to Bloomberg, Latham & Watkins said it “regularly discussed the firm’s engagement on the internal investigation with Nissan and its executives and employees (including Nissan’s former general counsel, Ravinder Passi) all of whom approved of and agreed to continue with the firm’s engagement”. “Latham strongly disagrees with any suggestion that the internal investigation was biased, and notes that numerous independent agencies and law enforcement authorities from Japan and the U.S. conducted their own thorough and independent investigations and reached conclusions consistent with those of the internal investigation”, the firm said. Testifying in March at Kelly’s trial (where the former board director faces charges of helping Ghosn conceal his income) Hiroki Kobayashi, a partner at Latham & Watkins in Tokyo, described the firm’s relationship with the carmaker in detail. He and others, including Michael Yoshii, another senior partner at the law firm, counseled Nissan on everything from its contract with biggest shareholder Renault to the establishment of subsidiaries and commercial contracts. The firm also advised on compensation for directors, Kobayashi said. It was typical legal work by an outside law firm for its long-time corporate client. But it began to evolve into a more complex relationship in the months before Ghosn and Kelly’s arrests. In early 2018, Ghosn was seeking ways to recoup some of the income he had given up voluntarily after Japan tightened reporting rules for executives’ remuneration in 2010. Companies were told to disclose pay above the relatively low benchmark of ¥100 million for CEOs and other senior managers. On July 3, 2018, Kobayashi advised Nada (who was in charge of legal matters at Nissan at the time) n the disclosure requirements in Japan if Nissan sought to pay Ghosn from his pension before he retired. This was done in response to questions from Ghosn relayed to the firm via Nada and Kelly. Kobayashi also gave Nada advice on the possibility of selling back to Ghosn properties the company had bought for him in Brazil, France and Lebanon. Nada and Kelly were told by Latham & Watkins that if shareholders were to approve early pension payments to Ghosn, that would “not trigger a requirement to redo disclosure of director compensation”, Kobayashi wrote in the email. Yet, since as early as April of that year, the law firm had already been separately advising Nada (who was seeking information to use against Ghosn, according to people with knowledge of the matter and documents) on the potential criminality of arranging undisclosed payments to the then-chairman. One memo from the firm to Nada laid out in detail how Japanese authorities might interpret any failure by Nissan to fully account for Ghosn’s compensation in securities filings, saying there could be fines, other penalties and even imprisonment for those responsible. Essentially, Latham & Watkins was offering guidance to Nada, who was working with a small group within Nissan, on compensation measures that could run afoul of securities law, the memo showed. Some of that communication was sent to Nada’s personal email address instead of his company account, documents show. Then, after the arrests and despite being a key adviser on Ghosn’s compensation, the law firm accepted a formal mandate from then-Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa to investigate the matter. Saikawa enlisted Latham & Watkins on Nada’s advice, people with knowledge of the matter said. Saikawa, who left Nissan in late 2019, declined to comment. The report that resulted from the probe (code-named Kali 10 by Nada, for the Hindu goddess and destroyer of evil) ran to more than 170 pages and was kept to a close group within Nissan. An army of Latham & Watkins lawyers and paralegals in Tokyo and Los Angeles spent hours sifting through emails to construct a timeline of how Ghosn’s pay was crafted, who decided what and when. The report ultimately became the official account of Ghosn and Kelly’s alleged misdeeds that Kobayashi presented to Nissan’s board as a PowerPoint presentation in September 2019, almost a year after the duo’s arrest. “Nissan’s internal investigation, conducted along with Latham & Watkins, was tainted by conflict of interest issues and was not independent”, said Leslie Jung-Isenwater, a spokeswoman for Ghosn. “As Nissan’s long-time outside counsel, the firm was indeed not an independent fact finder, as they had given legal advice concerning precisely the very issues that were the subject of the investigation”. James Wareham, Kelly’s U.S. attorney, called Latham & Watkins the “most conflicted law firm on earth” for leading the investigation into its own advice, and that it should never have agreed to take on the probe. Nissan’s board “must engage truly independent counsel to revisit the entire affair; Nada’s role, as well as the role of other conspirators; the role of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; and the role of the Japanese prosecutors”, he said. No fewer than six other law firms, one hired by Renault and others by Nissan, warned the automaker’s legal department, then led by former chief counsel Passi, of the potential legal risks and conflicts of interest of keeping Nada and Latham & Watkins involved in the probe. “L&W are not independent as they were involved in the facts under investigation and acknowledge they could be called as a witness”, Allen & Overy LLP, a law firm brought in to advise Nissan’s legal department, wrote in a January 2019 letter. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, a law firm retained by Renault to look into the circumstances surrounding the arrests, wrote: “Latham has been deeply involved, for a very long time, in various aspects of Nissan’s executive compensation, the propriety of which is the very basis of the charges against Mr. Ghosn”. “If concerns are ultimately raised regarding Latham’s work”, it continued, “a claim for malpractice may be contemplated, which will make Latham a party to the lawsuit and require that some of its current or past members be interviewed”. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and Mori Hamada & Matsumoto, 2 firms hired by Passi to review the investigation, also warned that Latham & Watkins should be kept at a distance from the criminal proceedings and internal investigation. A representative from Cleary Gottlieb declined to comment for this story. Representatives from Allen & Overy, Quinn Emanuel and Mori Hamada didn’t respond to requests for comment. The warnings didn’t just come from other law firms. Megumi Yamamuro, a former judge hired by Nissan’s legal department in 2019 to advise on criminal proceedings, told the carmaker’s lawyers that he was shocked by Latham & Watkins’s involvement in the probe into Ghosn and Kelly given the firm’s conflicts of interest, according to a summary of a July 2019 meeting between Yamamuro, Passi and Nissan’s lawyers. Yamamuro also zeroed in on other conflicts. He pointed out serious issues with Nissan’s interactions with Japanese prosecutors over the handling and review of exculpatory evidence related to the allegations against Ghosn and Kelly. Yamamuro didn’t respond to a request for comment. By the end of 2019, two lawyers from Latham & Watkins’s Tokyo office involved in the Ghosn probe had left the firm, fearing that their careers would be tarnished by its conflicted role as enabler and investigator, according to multiple people familiar with their thinking at the time. When companies find themselves under pressure to conduct an internal investigation, standard practice calls for the board of directors to hire an outside law firm with no links to the company to conduct the probe. That was the case earlier this year with Toshiba, which was accused by activist shareholders of colluding with the Japanese government to thwart their efforts to place directors on the board and have a say in the electronics maker’s strategy. The investors successfully introduced a shareholder motion to commission an independent report that came to a starkly different conclusion from the company’s own internal investigation: Toshiba had rigged the vote on board appointments at its own shareholders meeting. “A probe is supposed to be about getting an accurate reflection of the facts”, said Passi, who said his questioning of the investigation as well as Nada and Latham & Watkins’s role in it ultimately cost him his job. He was demoted from global general counsel to a special projects role, reassigned to the U.K. and later dismissed. In his wrongful termination suit lodged in a British employment tribunal, Passi said that Nissan, led by Nada, directed a campaign of surveillance and harassment to drive him out. Passi (along with the other law firms) had warned that keeping Nada and Latham & Watkins involved with the probe would eventually lead to “exposure and risk” for Nissan. The automaker’s ability to defend itself at trial would be compromised, they said, according to documents. Signs of that may already be emerging. Nissan recently agreed to settle a class action suit brought in Tennessee by investors after facing demands to produce documents about Ghosn’s compensation arrangements and the internal probe. The automaker has also been sued in various jurisdictions for wrongful termination by former employees, some of them linked to Ghosn. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by Nissan on investigations and lawyers to deal with the fallout from the former chairman’s ouster, well above the $80 million in income he allegedly hid. “The potential consequences of whether you know the truth are huge for a listed company when you’re investigating alleged crimes by executives”, Passi said. “Because of the inherent conflict that should have been accounted for and dealt with immediately, one has to ask whether Nissan will always be on the back foot”. +++

+++ SKODA ’s teaser campaign for the facelifted Karoq is still gathering strength. The firm has issued a shadowy video clip of the new family SUV, which gives a first look at the car in the metal ahead of its scheduled launch on the 30th November. The facelifted Skoda Karoq will get a range of styling tweaks and equipment upgrades designed to keep the SUV competitive with the Ford Kuga and the much newer third- generation Nissan Qashqai. Skoda’s teaser video shows the revised Karoq will get a Kodiaq-inspired redesign. Like its larger sibling, there’ll be a deeper front bumper with a wide lower intake, slimmer LED headlights and square fog lights to create the brand’s now trademark lighting signature. There’s also influence from elsewhere in the company’s line-up in items like the radiator grille, which now mirrors the design of the new Octavia’s. The car in the teaser video also has aerodynamic alloy wheel covers, like you find on the pure-electric Enyaq iV. Recent design sketches also show how the Karoq will benefit from a new black diffuser at the rear, along with a larger tailgate spoiler and a new pair of tail-lights, which feature a slimmer C-shaped signature. Skoda’s latest teaser doesn’t offer a look at the Karoq’s cabin, but I’m expecting a new steering wheel design, updated door cards and a choice of new upholstery finishes. The Style variant should also be fitted with the same 10.25-inch digital dash as the revised Seat Ateca, with which the Karoq shares its platform. There’s also the potential for Skoda to introduce an iV-badged plug-in hybrid version of the Karoq with this update. It would likely use the same 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and electric motor combination from the new Skoda Octavia iV, which would provide an output of 204 hp and a maximum electric range of around 50 km. The rest of the Karoq’s line-up will be made up of the Volkswagen Group’s familiar blend of petrol and diesel engines, opening with a 115 hp 1.0-litre 3-cylinder turbocharged petrol and topping out with a 190 hp 2.0-litre 4-cylinder petrol on the flagship Sportline model. In the middle of the range, there’ll be a choice of 2.0-litre diesels, along with a 150 hp 1.5-litre TSI petrol. Martin Jahn, Skoda’s board member for sales and marketing, said: “The Karoq was our most popular SUV model during the past year and the first half of 2021, which illustrates its importance within the model portfolio. I am convinced that we will build on this success story with the new edition of the Karoq and attract new customers to the brand”. The Karoq is also Skoda’s second-best selling vehicle overall, just behind the Octavia, and the Czech brand is keen to maintain that momentum with this facelift. Since production started in 2017, more than 500.000 examples have been sold worldwide. +++

+++ TOYOTA is planning to invest billions of dollars in a battery plant to be built on the outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina, as part of the automaker’s efforts to ramp up output of electric vehicles in the United States, according to people familiar with the matter. The car manufacturer hasn’t made a final decision, but it is expected to partner with Panasonic in the construction of the facility, said some of the people, who declined to be named as the discussions are private. No formal commitment has been made and the plan could still evolve, these people said. While details of the ownership and operation of the plant are still unclear, it will likely be via the two Japanese companies’ battery joint-venture Prime Planet Energy & Solutions, one of the people said. Toyota spokesman Hideaki Homma said nothing new had been decided regarding the company’s battery investments in the U.S. Prime Planet spokesman Masato Tokuhisa said the company was “always considering what’s best in regard to our production”, without commenting on specifics. Panasonic spokeswoman Yayoi Watanabe declined to comment. The factory would be the anchor tenant in an industrial park called the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, which the Randolph County Economic Development Corporation describes as an 1,825-acre parcel of former farmland rezoned for heavy industry and located near several interstate highways at the state’s center. Representatives for the site couldn’t be reached for comment. The North Carolina plant would be the latest in a string of announcements by major automakers laying the groundwork for the industry’s pivot toward full electrification. Ford and South Korea’s SK Innovation said in September they will spend $11.4 billion on a trio of battery factories and a vehicle assembly plant in Tennessee and Kentucky, while Stellantis plans a U.S. plant with Samsung SDI, another Korean battery player. Prime Planet is a Japan-based battery manufacturer that formally began operations last year. Toyota owns 51 % of the venture, while Panasonic holds 49 %. It currently claims the top share (around 25 %) of the market for hybrid batteries and is looking to grow its presence in the EV battery sector as well. Toyota has been slower than rivals in building an EV presence in the U.S. and came under fire for its delayed embrace of tighter vehicle emissions standards. In October, it pledged to invest $3.4 billion in automotive batteries in the U.S. over the next decade, part of a larger plan to earmark $13.1 billion for battery development and production globally through 2030. The Japanese company has been one of the loudest critics of proposed legislation in Congress backed by president Joe Biden’s administration that favors EVs made in U.S. factories with unionized work forces for the most generous subsidies. Toyota, which operates 10 non-union plants in the U.S., aims to start local production of batteries in 2025 and will initially spend around $1.3 billion in conjunction with its trading arm, Toyota Tsusho, to “develop land and build facilities, resulting in the creation of 1.750 new American jobs”.  In a budget bill signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper, the state is offering $135 million in aid to an unspecified manufacturer interested in the Greensboro industrial park and which will commit, among other things, to “invest at least $1 billion in private funds and create at least 1,750 eligible positions”. An additional $185 million in funding will be provided if the manufacturer boosts its investment to $3 billion and increases the job creation to at least 3.875 eligible positions at the site, according to the bill. A spokesman for North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger said the state doesn’t comment on economic development projects until they’re finalized. Details in the bill about the site subsidies were reported earlier by the Triad Business Journal, a Greensboro-based trade publication. Toyota announced in February that it will introduce two all-electric vehicles in the U.S. starting in 2022: a mainstream crossover called the BZ4X and an upscale Lexus model built on the same platform. Those will be its first wholly battery-operated vehicles in the U.S. since it stopped producing an all-electric version of its bestselling RAV4 model 7 years ago. +++

+++ Continental’s former Chief Financial Officer Wolfgang Schäfer, whose contract was abruptly terminated this week, and 2 other former executives are among the 61 suspects German prosecutors have been investigating over the firm’s role in the diesel scandal. The probe into Schäfer, as well as ex-board members Elmar Degenhart and Jose Avila, has now been turned into a criminal case based on allegations of aiding fraud and breach of trust, said Oliver Eisenhauer, a spokesman for Hanover prosecutors, confirming earlier media reports. The overall investigation is focused on the German autoparts supplier’s role in a scandal over diesel cheating that continues to roil carmaker VOLKSWAGEN . Previously, the 3 executives and 2 other high ranking managers, were only probed for failing to properly supervise staff, which is only an administrative offense. The investigation could now also lead to financial sanctions for the company by seizing illegal profit it may have made, Eisenhauer said. The move came after a fresh round of raids last week at Continental’s compliance department based in Frankfurt and the home of a former employee in the unit. Prosecutors also seized documents from a law firm that conducted an internal investigation, which may have had serious shortcomings, according to to Eisenhauer. German prosecutors raided Continental premises several times in recent years following allegations the Hanover-based manufacturer helped VW cheat emissions tests. Continental supplied technology for VW’s 1.6-liter diesel engine used in cars across Europe. The engine-control software for the main 2.0-liter motor at the heart of the VW scandal came from Continental’s rival Robert Bosch. +++

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