Newsflash: Volkswagen gaat zijn leven beteren

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+++ Amazon emerged as a potential savior for ARGO AI , the now-defunct startup backed by two of the world’s biggest automakers, before the deal fell apart because of a sputtering economy, concerns about control and flagging faith in fully autonomous driving. The online retailer was prepared to invest several hundred million dollars into Argo last spring, according to people familiar with the matter who disclosed Amazon’s involvement for the first time. Amazon planned to use Argo’s self-driving technology to automate some of the electric delivery vans it’s buying from Rivian, setting up a test fleet in multiple American cities. Argo’s key backers (Ford and Volkswagen) were eager to attract a third partner to Argo to help shoulder the high cost of developing self-driving technology, the people said. Volkswagen’s then-chief executive officer Herbert Diess even traveled to the US to meet with Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos earlier this year to discuss the deal. The budding relationship soured as Ford and VW grew wary that Amazon would divert Argo’s talent and attention, said the people, who asked not to be identified revealing internal deliberations. The companies also struggled to come up a governance structure for how they would share control of Argo. Additionally, the retail giant was turned off by the high cost of Argo’s technology, one of the people said. Without Amazon on board, Argo was unable to attract other investors and bolster its credibility to eventually go public. Ford and VW last month shut down Argo, which at one time was valued at more than $7 billion. Amazon’s pullout and Argo’s sudden demise underscores the start-and-stop progress toward cars and trucks that will drive themselves. Skepticism has been growing about the commercial viability of full self-driving cars at a time when global automakers are investing billions to shift to electric vehicles to meet increasingly stringent regulations to combat climate change. Even so, the investment community was caught off guard when Argo abruptly ran aground. Founded by autonomy all-stars Bryan Salesky, an alum of Google’s self-driving car project now known as Waymo, and Pete Rander, a former leader of Uber Technologies’ robo-taxi unit, Argo was highly regarded for its technical skills and big-name backers. Ford originally invested $1 billion in Argo in 2017 to get the company off the ground, with VW following with a $2.6 billion investment completed in 2020. Now Ford, which is spending $50 billion on electric vehicles through 2026, has abandoned plans to pursue full self-driving and instead is focusing on semi-autonomous technology like its Blue Cruise handsfree driving feature. Chief executive officer Jim Farley has said Ford will hire hundreds of Argo employees to work on semi-autonomous features. Ford ultimately concluded that the payoff on the breakthroughs required for robo-taxis and driverless delivery would be more than 5 years away. Doug Field, Ford’s chief advanced technology officer, called full-self driving “the hardest technical problem of our time. It’s harder than putting a man on the moon”. But a year ago, Ford and VW still saw a path forward for Argo if it could attract additional investment. Amazon’s interest sparked hope that Argo had found the third big backer it had long sought. It also dovetailed with Amazon’s deal with Rivian to buy 100.000 electric delivery vans by the end of the decade. Ford and Amazon had been early investors in Rivian, though Ford has since reduced its stake. Argo and Amazon first began working together with a pilot project in Miami in 2019. A test fleet of Ford Fusion hybrids outfitted with Argo’s self-driving system ran pre-determined routes from an Amazon warehouse to final destinations: dry runs of so-called last-mile delivery. No packages were actually delivered, but Amazon liked what it saw, the people said. By early this year, there was so much optimism that Amazon would do a deal with Argo that the self-driving firm staffed up to work on outfitting the Rivian vans with autonomous technology, the people said. Argo hired about 150 people to work on the Amazon business, bringing its global workforce to more than 2.000. The plan called for Amazon to steadily increase its investment in Argo as the partnership achieved major milestones, the people said. But by spring, Ford and VW still hadn’t agreed to terms on sharing Argo with Amazon. Ford would eventually acquiesce. VW remained wary that Amazon (with a reputation for dominating partnerships) would draw talent and resources away from the German automaker’s ambitious self-driving strategy, according to the people. At about that time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further destabilized a global economy dealing with supply-chain issues and, in the US, the highest inflation in 40 years. Suddenly, spending billions on a still-unproven technology didn’t look like a such a good bet. And then key players involved in the deal began departing their companies. At Amazon, the mergers and acquisitions executive championing the deal and working directly with Argo left. Around the same time, Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s consumer business, also exited. Talks lost momentum and then the biggest exit occurred. Volkswagen CEO Diess, architect of the automaker’s investment in Argo and a driver of the Amazon deal, was ousted by the board amid concerns about the company’s direction and a debacle with glitchy software in its cars. Only 3 months earlier he had tweeted an image from happier times, when he was discussing VW’s own electric cars with Bezos. With the Amazon deal dead, Argo had to lay off the 150 employees it hired to work on the new business. The shifting economy has taken a toll as well on Amazon, which is planning some 10.000 layoffs of its own. There was one glimmer of hope. VW considered an 11th-hour bailout of Argo this fall when Ford determined it would no longer fund the self-driving firm, the people said. VW looked at covering Ford’s investment in Argo and taking it over completely. Instead, VW invested $2.3 billion to set up an autonomous driving joint venture with China’s Horizon Robotics. With self-driving sentiment in retreat and investors closing their wallets, Argo ultimately had nowhere left to turn. +++

+++ As millions of people travel the highways, many will encounter patches of traffic at a standstill for no apparent reason: no construction or accident. Researchers say the problem is you. Human drivers just don’t do a good job of navigating dense traffic conditions, but an experiment using ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE in Nashville last week means help could be on the way. In the experiment, specially equipped cars were able to ease rush hour congestion on Interstate-24, researcher Daniel Work said. In addition to lessening driver frustration, Work said less stop-and-go driving means fuel savings and, by extension, less pollution. The professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University is one of a group of engineers and mathematicians from universities around the U.S. who have been studying the problem of phantom traffic jams after a simple experiment in Japan a dozen years ago showed how they develop. Researchers there put about 20 human drivers on a circular track and asked them to drive at a constant speed. Before long, traffic went from a smooth flow to a series of stops and starts. “Phantom traffic jams are created by drivers like you and me”, Work explained. One person taps the brakes for whatever reason. The person behind them takes a second to respond and has to brake even harder. The next person has to brake even harder. The wave of braking continues until many cars are at a standstill. Then, as traffic clears, the drivers accelerate too quickly, causing more braking and yet another jam. “We know that one car braking suddenly can have a huge impact”, Work said. Last week’s experiment showed that a few cars driving slowly and steadily could have an impact as well, for the better. The experiment utilized 100 cars that travelled in loops on a 15-mile section of I-24 from about 6 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. each morning. Working on the premise that if 5% of the cars on the road were acting together, they could lessen the prevalence of phantom traffic jams, the researchers equipped those 100 cars to communicate wirelessly, sending traffic information back and forth. They also took advantage of the adaptive cruise control that is already an option on many new vehicles. This technology lets the driver set a car to cruise at a certain speed, but the car automatically slows down and speeds up as needed to keep a safe distance from the car in front. In the experiment, the adaptive cruise control was modified to react to the overall traffic flow (including what was happening far ahead) using artificial intelligence. The cars’ decision-making occurred on 2 levels, Work said. At the cloud level, information about traffic conditions was used to create an overall speed plan. That plan was then broadcast to the cars, which used artificial intelligence algorithms to determine the best action to take. The researchers were able to evaluate the effect the connected cars had on morning traffic flow using a special 6,5 km stretch of I-24 outfitted with 300 pole-mounted sensors. The experiment is a project of the Circles consortium, a group that includes several automakers and the U.S. Energy and Transportation departments. Other lead researchers are based at the University of California, Berkeley; Temple University; and Rutgers University-Camden. Liam Pedersen is deputy general manager for research at Nissan; a Circles consortium partner who was in Nashville last week for the experiment. He said one of the exciting things about it is that it builds on technology that is already in many new cars. “This is not autonomous driving”, he said. “This is something we could realize very soon”. Asked if automakers will be willing to cooperate to ease traffic, Pedersen said, “I certainly hope so, because the system works best when lots and lots of cars participate”. Last week’s experiment built off one Work and his colleagues conducted in 2017 at the University of Arizona. That repeated the Japanese experiment, this time with a single self-driving car thrown into the mix. The self-driving car smoothed the flow of traffic so that there was 98% less braking. That led to a 40% increase in fuel efficiency and a 14% increase in distance driven. Researchers are still crunching the numbers on last week’s experiment, but Work said it “demonstrated that these jams can be reduced through the novel automated vehicle technologies we developed. It’s unquestionable that enhanced automotive technology can significantly reduce phantom traffic jams when implemented at scale”. Still, he cautioned that the technology is not going to suddenly eliminate congestion. “When there are more cars on the road than the road can support, there will always be traffic”, he said. “But this can make that congestion less painful”. +++

+++ Electric vehicle (EV) makers from CHINA have set their sights on winning over European drivers and large corporate customers with more affordable cars that come with top safety ratings and lots of high-tech features. In the past few months, several Chinese EVs have received five-star European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) ratings; an achievement that requires loading vehicles with active and passive safety features that go well beyond legal requirements. More are coming. “All Chinese EV makers want to achieve Euro NCAP 5-star ratings in order to be more competitive in the European market”, said Brian Gu, president of Chinese EV maker Xpeng. Gu said Xpeng has spent the last 3 years building stores and service centres in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden (with some initial sales in Norway) before an official launch next year of its electric P7 sedan and G9 sports-utility vehicle (SUV) in the 4 countries. Chinese EV makers have recognized that safety plays an incredibly important part of the sales process, said Matthew Avery, director at Thatcham Research, a British car research centre funded by insurers and a Euro NCAP board member. 5-star Euro NCAP ratings are seen as key to overcoming residual European concerns over the quality of Chinese-made cars, after awful crash test failures in 2006 and 2007 created an impression that cars from China were unsafe. Perhaps more importantly for sales, high safety ratings also open up the potentially huge corporate car fleet market for Chinese EV makers. Fleet sales make up about half of all car sales in major markets including Germany, France and the United Kingdom, and many corporate buyers put a premium on safety. “Fleet sales are very important, and a lot of fleets have a mandatory 5-star rating for buying cars”, Avery said. What’s more, many fleets want to switch to EVs fast to meet sustainability goals. But corporate fleets have struggled to get enough EVs in Europe as supply chain issues have pushed waiting times for some models to more than 12 months. High demand for electric cars amid supply chain shortages has allowed European carmakers to raise EV prices and focus more on retail clients, rather than customers such as car rental firms that have traditionally been less profitable for them. That has created a window of opportunity for Chinese EV makers that have already stolen a march on most foreign rivals in China, by far the world’s biggest market for EVs. In October, for instance, German car rental company Sixt said it would buy about 100.000 EVs from BYD, starting with its Atto 3 which received the coveted Euro NCAP 5-star rating the same month. Great Wall Motors (GWM) received 5-star ratings in September for its WEY brand Coffee 01 hybrid SUV and its ORA brand Funky Cat electric hatchback. European carmakers are also pursuing 5-star ratings for their EVs and hybrids, from BMW’s iX to Volkswagen’s ID.4 and ID.5. In October, Mercedes got the top rating for its EQE sedan and its driver-assistance features received the highest marks to date from Euro NCAP. Chinese EV maker Aiways has yet to put its U6 through its NCAP paces but it too is shooting for the highest rating on offer, said Alexander Klose, who heads the carmaker’s operations outside China. He said Aiways has invested in extra safety features for the U6 to open up opportunities for sales to European fleets, including rental car firms, when it goes on sale next year. “There will be a natural demand for vehicles like ours that are fully equipped and come at very competitive prices”, he said, adding that Aiways hopes to sell 30.000 EVs in Europe in 2023, up from about 5.000 this year. French auto consultancy Inovev said about 155.000 Chinese-made cars were sold in Europe in the first 9 months of 2022, or 1.4% of the market (including models sold by ‘Western’ brands, such as the BMW iX3). Chinese firms are on track to hit 150.000 cars this year, nearly double the 80.000 sold in 2021. But almost half the Chinese cars sold were EVs, according to Inovev, giving them a 5.8% share of Europe’s fully-electric vehicle market. Inovev vice-president Jamel Taganza said all Chinese cars sold in Europe would be EVs within a few years, with more lower-cost models on the way. By 2030, Inovev estimates EVs will make up 40% of Europe’s new car sales and that Chinese brands will represent between 12.5% to 20% of that fully-electric market, with sales of between 725.000 and 1.16 million vehicles. “This is a conservative forecast”, Taganza said. “But it could increase more rapidly, especially if European carmakers do not answer the needs in Europe of affordable EVs”. Getting a 5-star rating is expensive for automakers because it means investing in additional safety features from extra airbags to collision avoidance, driver-assistance and driver-monitoring systems. Thatcham’s Avery said Chinese EV makers have actively engaged with Euro NCAP and were eagerly making the investments necessary to land top ratings. “Forget what you might think that Chinese means lower quality or lower safety performance”, he said. “Their quality is now better than others”. BYD is launching three cars in a handful of European markets and will add more models and markets next year, all of which should have top safety ratings, said Michael Shu, managing director of BYD Europe. “We think a 5-star rating should be a very basic requirement”, he said. Great Wall Motor’s ORA Funky Cat, meanwhile, will launch in Britain, Germany, Ireland and Sweden later this year. Starting around 38.000 euro in The Netherlands, or about 6.000 pounds cheaper than Volkswagen’s ID.3, the Funky Cat’s features include facial recognition to store seating preferences, driver-assistance systems, reverse camera and wireless phone charging. Toby Marshall, UK sales and marketing director for GWM’s ORA brand, said if a car is well made, laden with features, has a high safety rating and is competitively priced, it no longer matters where it was built. “Those are the key ingredients that matter to car buyers”, Marshall said, while showing off the Funky Cat at his office in Solihull in England’s midlands. Bill Russo, head of consultancy Automobility in Shanghai, said the problem for many international carmakers with was that they ceded the advantage to Chinese rivals when it comes to building lower-cost EVs. “The one place on the planet you’ll find an affordable EV today is China”, said Russo. “And they’re leveraging that advantage”. +++

+++ At least a dozen employees at RIVIAN have accused the electric-vehicle maker of safety violations at its Illinois plant, according to complaints filed with federal regulators. The complaints allege the company ignored known hazards and deprioritized safety resources, leaving some workers to share respirators needed during the manufacturing process. They also detail a range of injuries, including a crushed hand, a broken foot, a sliced ear and broken ribs. One Rivian employee said management fished damaged electrical cables out of the garbage and told employees to use them. Together, the filings depict an automaker that cut corners as it scaled rapidly to keep pace in the competitive electric-vehicle space. Some employees described safety protocols that faded as production pressures grew on its trademark plug-in pickup truck. “There’s a certain level of danger involved in manufacturing”, Don Jackson, one of the employees who filed a complaint, said in an interview. “But I was expecting safety to be a little more prioritized”. In statements to Bloomberg News, a Rivian spokesperson disputed workers’ allegations but declined to comment on specific complaints, citing employee privacy. The spokesperson said the dozen complainants represent just 0.2% of the 6,700 employees at the plant. “Creating a safe and inspiring environment is a daily practice we expect of every Rivian employee and is part of our operating procedures”, the company said in an emailed statement, adding: “We are not aware of any manager directing employees to share respirators”. The allegations were filed over the past 2 months with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and are directed at the automaker’s only operational plant in Illinois. All 12 employees, one of whom has since left Rivian, filed their complaints in coordination with the United Auto Workers union, which has been trying to organize Rivian plant workers over the past year. The UAW shared the filings with Bloomberg News. Several of the complaints describe hazards that did not result in injury, but that employees feared would. Jackson, who joined the company in March, said in his complaint that “trucks frequently veer into pedestrian aisles” and bulldoze racks in a manner that could cause them to accidentally strike people. There have been “many near misses” with powered industrial vehicles nearly hitting people, wrote Kailey Harvey, another employee. Sensors meant to display whether trucks were correctly locked in place sometimes give false readings because they aren’t calibrated to the height of the vehicles, she wrote. “At first, it was really great”, Harvey, a former UAW member who joined Rivian last year, said in an interview. “Slowly, as production kept climbing, the concern for safety dropped”. In a short period of time, California-based Rivian has recruited an army of engineers, vehicle assembly technicians and factory floor managers from legacy automotive names like Ford  and General Motors, mostly at its flagship plant in Illinois, which is capable of building 150.000 electric vehicles a year. It’s also hired top talent from Tesla and Apple as part of a push to scale up and produce mass-market electric vehicles. Rivian quickly emerged as a viable challenger in the EV market dominated by Tesla and a few legacy automakers, attracting keen interest from an A-list of Wall Street investors and strategic backers like Ford and Amazon.com. The company’s initial public offering last November was the 6th biggest in US history. The employee claims “suggest a factory that is far from operational excellence”, said David Michaels, who led OSHA under former President Barack Obama and is now a professor at George Washington University’s public health school. “If workers are being hurt, it is evidence that the factory management is not doing its job in ensuring that operations are being performed properly”. “These reported injuries reflect poor management control of production processes, suggesting that the quality of the factory’s output will also be suboptimal”, he added. The company’s shares fell 1.7% as of 7:25 a.m. Monday in New York. The stock tumbled 71% this year through Friday’s close. Rivian said data it compiles for OSHA show it already outperforms its peers on health and safety. Its Total Recordable Incident Rate is 2.5 cases for every 200,000 hours worked, less than the industry average of 6.4 cases, according to the company. The data also show Rivian’s safety performance improving, with the incident rate dropping 44% since January, a spokesperson said. “Our proactive actions and activities are having a significantly positive impact on safety”, Rivian said. OSHA concerns about safety at fledgling EV-makers (driven by worker complaints) are not new. In 2018, California regulators probed Tesla’s workplace safety as the market leader dramatically ramped up production of its first mass market vehicle. OSHA currently has open investigations into 7 complaints at the Normal plant, an agency spokesperson said. Previously, the regulator issued 4 “serious” citations against Rivian, including 3 from earlier this year that ended in settlements with the agency. Some workers said they had notified management about their concerns before filing complaints with federal regulators. Jackson wrote that he had raised safety concerns with numerous supervisors, but they went unheard. “It’s like talking to a wall”, he said in the interview. One employee, Heather Barschdorf, wrote directly to Rivian chief executive officer RJ Scaringe with worries that hazards in her work area could affect her pregnancy. “The fumes in my area make us sick some days even without being pregnant”, she wrote in the September 23 email to Scaringe, which was viewed by Bloomberg News. Her email said she had experienced miscarriage in the past and was at very high risk for another one. “Many people in my area have become sick with flu like symptoms from exposure to the galvanized metal parts we are welding”, Barschdorf later wrote in an OSHA complaint filed September 30. “I have asked for accommodation as a pregnant person including ventilation for paint fumes and respiratory protection numerous times and have been denied”. Her filing said she was given a dust mask in lieu of the proper kind of respirator. Scaringe never replied to her email, she said, though a human resources representative referenced it in a later meeting with Barschdorf. The company did not act on her repeated requests to be moved to a different section of the factory, she said in an interview. “Rivian’s not listening to us”, she said. 2 weeks after filing her OSHA complaint, Barschdorf suffered a miscarriage. In November, she resigned from the company. Asked about Barschdorf’s account, a Rivian spokesperson wrote, “There is no evidence that anything in the work environment caused or contributed to a personal miscarriage” for any staff at the plant. “We do not comment on open agency cases nor on any situation that has any potential pending litigation”, the spokesperson added. “We value employee feedback and hear employee concerns, and we take appropriate action for each situation”. Rivian has spent millions of dollars on safety and has a team of more than 70 safety, health and environmental professionals, a spokesperson said, adding that the company conducts routine trainings and inspections. In February, a battery-pack explosion caused a fire with 10-foot-high flames, according to the complaint from Harvey. “I witnessed a person pull the fire alarm and nothing happened”, she wrote. After evacuating, employees were told to walk back through the smoke for a head count. “People were coughing and at least one worker had an asthma attack while walking through the smoke”, she wrote, adding that since the fire “no drills or follow-up training have been held” for her shift about where to go in similar situations. Rivian said that after that fire it developed a “comprehensive thermal event response plan”. The company spent $70.000 to acquire a sophisticated gas measurement device from Finland that could be used to assess air quality indoors after fires, a spokesperson said. +++

+++ In an upscale Seoul neighborhood 2 years ago, a white Tesla Model X smashed into a parking lot wall. The fiery crash killed a prominent lawyer; a close friend of South Korea’s president. Prosecutors have charged the driver with involuntary manslaughter. He blames Tesla. Choi Woan-jong, who had eked out a living by driving drunk people home in their own cars, says the Model X sped out of control on its own and that the brakes failed in the December 2020 accident. The criminal trial about to begin in SOUTH KOREA hangs on questions about the safety of Tesla cars, at a time when the EV maker faces a range of lawsuits and increased scrutiny by regulators. Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as an independent driver, or what is known in Korea as a “replacement driver”. He says he suffers flashbacks and depression ahead of a trial that pits his credibility against the world’s most valuable automaker. “When I wake up, I feel abandoned, floating alone in the middle of the ocean,” said Choi, who underwent surgery after the crash for a ruptured intestine. Choi’s case has drawn the attention of some safety advocates in South Korea who want to change a provision in the free trade agreement with the United States that exempts Tesla from local standards. For instance, Tesla is not required to follow South Korean regulations that require at least 1 front-seat and back-seat door to have a mechanical failsafe because the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement exempts carmakers with sales under 50.000 vehicles from local safety rules. Tesla sold 17.828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021, registration data shows. Park Keun-oh, an official from the Korea-U.S. FTA division of South Korea’s trade ministry, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to abide by American safety regulations, which do not require mechanical backup latch. Such latches allow doors to be opened even if the car does not have electrical power. Park declined to comment further. The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to requests for comment about the trade deal or the regulations. Prosecutors say Choi floored the accelerator as he entered the garage of a Seoul apartment building, hitting 95 kph before crashing. He denies that, saying the car’s side mirrors began folding in and out uncommanded just before the car accelerated on its own. “It felt like the car was swept away by a hurricane”, said Choi, who said he had been driving for more than 20 years and had experience driving Teslas. The automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the car transmitted in the moments before the crash, the judge said at a preliminary hearing. The defence team has asked to see the data and is waiting for the court to release it. Choi and his lawyer are seeking to show that the car’s electrical systems failed and that its design slowed firefighters’ attempts to rescue Yoon. The Tesla’s battery caught fire after the crash. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters and a video of the scene, taken by firefighters. Choi escaped through a broken window on his side. Firefighters were delayed in pulling Yoon out of the back seat, because the Model X’s electronic doors failed to open from outside, a December 31, 2020, fire department report shows. The report does not say how long the rescue was delayed. Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters extricated him from the car and performed CPR. The cause of death was not made public. Judge Park Won-gyu said that he plans to call Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla vehicles would be examined at trial. Involuntary manslaughter carries a potential prison sentence of up to 5 years. The investigation by the fire station that responded found the battery failure slowed the emergency response by disabling seat controls, which prevented firefighters from repositioning the front seats so they could get to Yoon, according to the fire department report. The electrical outage made it “impossible to secure space for the rescue operation”, the report said. The report says exterior door handles on the Model X, which are electronic, did not open from the outside as the battery burned. It also says firefighters could not pull Yoon from the car because they couldn’t move the front seats after the battery died. A video of the rescue shows firefighters trying but failing to open the Model X’s wing-style doors. They eventually broke through the front windshield and pulled Yoon from the car about 25 minutes after the emergency call came in, according to the footage and the firefighters’ report. Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) from onboard diagnostic systems for safety checks in South Korea, according to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Party of Korea who, spurred by Choi’s crash, has campaigned for regulators to pressure Tesla to change its door handles and work with regulators. TS noted that Tesla is not legally required to provide such data, but that all other foreign and domestic carmakers are doing so. Park and TS said Tesla is working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access their car’s diagnostic data starting in October 2023. “Tesla has become something of an icon for great innovation, but I think (the company’s issues in Korea) also raise a serious concern for customers here”, Park said, referring to cases in which Tesla’s doors will not open after a collision, and the free trade agreement provisions. A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, said in September that Tesla had not fixed what the group calls “door defects”. The group says it has collected information on about 1.870 complaints involving Tesla doors over the past 4 years. Data provided by another South Korean lawmaker, and TS, confirmed that number. The consumer group said that it asked police to investigate Tesla over not improving driver and passenger safety after the fatal crash in Seoul, but that police told them in May there was not enough evidence to proceed, according to their report. In a June 29 letter to the consumer group, the police say that although Tesla’s door latches might violate local safety standards, that consideration was trumped by the terms of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. Tesla doors “could be in violation of the local regulations, but Tesla has no obligations to comply with local motor vehicle safety standards in accordance with the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement”, the police letter said. In South Korean courts, drivers in cases where a crash’s cause is disputed face the burden of proving the car had a defect, 3 legal and auto safety experts say, and vehicle manufacturers are almost never prosecuted over safety issues. “Unless you have gone through this, you will never know how it feels”, said Ahn Ho-joon, another “replacement driver” in South Korea, who had a Tesla accident in May nearly identical to Choi’s, police records show. Ahn, one of the few to attend all of Choi’s pre-trial hearings, says the Tesla he drove also accelerated on its own and crashed into 2 vehicles in an underground garage, but there were no serious injuries. Police say the accident was his fault because there were no issues with the vehicle, but did not charge him because the wreck was minor. Ahn said he has kept his job as an independent replacement driver, but declines to drive Teslas. Choi, unable to work and nearly out of money, has moved into a 6.6-square-metre cubicle he rents for $243 a month. Financed by state housing subsidies, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen, and all the rice he can eat. Despite these hardships, Choi takes the long view on Tesla. “Obviously there’s a process to make products perfect through trial and error. And I am just destined to be part of that process”, he said. +++

+++ TESLA is making its controversial driver-assistance system available to customers previously deemed not safe enough behind the wheel to test it out. Chief executive officer Elon Musk tweeted that the system Tesla calls Full Self-Driving Beta is now available to anyone in North America who’s bought the option and requests it from their car screen. Until now, some paying customers have been blocked from accessing the feature known as FSD because they didn’t score high enough on metrics Tesla uses to set insurance rates. FSD has been a lightning rod for criticism because the product hasn’t lived up to Musk’s claims. He first announced his plan to sell it in October 2016, a few months after he told a tech conference that he considered autonomous driving to be “basically a solved problem”. In 2019, he said that within roughly a year, Tesla’s technology would advance to the point that no human would need to be behind the wheel. Those predictions haven’t panned out: FSD still requires a fully attentive driver to keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take over at any moment. This disconnect has opened Tesla up to intensifying legal and regulatory risk: The US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission have been investigating Tesla’s self-driving claims, a person familiar with the matter said last month. A customer in California is seeking class action status for his lawsuit filed in September claiming that Tesla has deceptively marketed its driver-assistance systems. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles accused the company in August of misleading consumers about its FSD and Autopilot systems. It’s unclear whether making FSD available to more customers will have any bearing on Tesla generating or recognizing more revenue just after Musk acknowledged demand for its vehicles has been “a little harder” to come by. The company has said it only recognized a portion of the amounts customers pay for FSD, with the remainder going to a deferred revenue balance. “FSD purchases haven’t been fully recognized in Tesla’s P&L because consumers had bought a promise rather than a fully working product”, Patrick Hummel, a UBS analyst with a buy rating on the stock, said in a November 14 note. At the end of September, Tesla’s deferred revenue balance was at $2.8 billion. While the company said then that it expected to recognize $1.09 billion of deferred revenue in the coming 12 months, Tesla has for years overestimated this figure. Musk has taken advantage of a relatively light-touch approach to regulating automated-driving technology in the US. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said shortly before Tesla’s first fatal crash involving Autopilot in 2016 that existing laws in the country posed few barriers to driver-assistance systems. When asked in March when Europeans will get to test FSD, Musk told fans at the plant Tesla was opening near Berlin that the company was holding off because regulators in the region were less permissive. “In the U.S., things are legal by default”, Musk said. “In Europe, they’re illegal by default. So we have to get approval beforehand, whereas in the U.S., you can kind of do it on your own cognizance, more or less”. The National Highway Transportation Safety Board, which lacks the power to compel carmakers to follow its recommendations, has been critical of Tesla’s deployment of Autopilot and FSD. “We essentially have the Wild West on our roads right now”, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told Bloomberg earlier this year. “It is a disaster waiting to happen”. +++

+++ Earlier this year, the VOLKSWAGEN brand updated its MIB 3.0 modular infotainment matrix software. The evolution brought new features like more information in the digital gauge cluster, Park Assist Plus, and Travel Assist. It also tried to amend a few foibles we (and many others) have complained about since MIB’s debut, improving touch recognition, speeding response times to touch inputs, tweaking the user experience, and adding over-the-air updates so owners don’t need to drive to the dealer for enhancements. As I found in a testdrive of the Volkswagen ID.4, the most infuriating components remain, like the capacitive buttons everywhere, the non-illuminated volume and HVAC controls, and some odd button placement. Now, brand chief Thomas Schäfer promises continuous updates over the next 2 years. He explained the uproar from buyers and testers had gotten so bad that the Volkswagen Group Board stepped in and continues to be involved in monthly meetings about the system. The first task has been to figure out the brand identity, then the specific model identity. After that, it’s about creating a logic to ergonomics and functionality for the brands and models that use the system by asking questions like, “What are the top 10 functions that customers always need?” and putting those on the first level of hard buttons. The secondary function are then decided and placed. Once that’s decided, he said the imperative is “Keep it the bloody same. Don’t change it around!” We’re told the board meetings aren’t merely discussions, they’re for trying out improvements, “The technical team puts together mock-ups and we sit down and try them. We can say: ‘This doesn’t really work. Who the hell did this? Next!'” More frequent clinics get random outsiders of all ages and abilities testing new ideas. “If you listen carefully”, Schäfer said, “you find out what you should and shouldn’t do”. All of this sounds so basic, but so many basic and good ideas get shoved overboard when a company wants to be first, and everything is sacrificed to make the deadline. The MIB 3.0 overhaul begins as soon as “in the next few weeks” with a software update, but we don’t know what that contains. Meanwhile, now that OTA updates are part of the mix, incremental tweaks will come quicker. Next year, all of the sliders will be illuminated, and revised steering wheels debuting on the new Tiguan will begin the return of physical buttons to the cockpit. Additional hardware changes will carry on into 2024. Naturally, the hardware needs the most time thanks to the VW Group’s size, Schäfer calling the physical revisions “a monumental task because you have to change 100 tools and so many suppliers globally to change it into something new”. The ID.7 sedan and Tiguan are expected to show sometime next year. +++

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