Out with the tie, in with the teeth

Ideally, cartooning is supposed to be a funny business. There aren’t many people who feed their family and pay their bills by taking pen to paper to draw something that hopefully makes people laugh, or at least think.

But funny also has to be easily recognizable. And for cartoonists, each new administration comes with a mandate: to create a character that readers can instantly identify as the president.

Donald Trump was a cartoonist’s dream with his flamboyant shock of blond coiffed hair and his signature long red tie. Like Trump, President Joe Biden has a few dominant physical characteristics that can guide my mind’s eye in helping craft the character.

For example, Biden’s eyes are frequently squinted or even hidden behind aviator sunglasses; both are comedic gold for any cartoonist. Similarly, Biden’s broad, toothy smile — he could easily have been a pitchman for any teeth-whitening product — dominates his elongated countenance, topped by his combed-back white hair.

Put it all together, and — even without a vintage Corvette — you get a likeness that screams to me in Biden’s voice as I draw: “C’mon, man, add some color!” Which you can see at the end.

Biden redirects course on emissions standards

The Biden administration is revisiting regulations on vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions after the Trump administration last year loosened standards put in place under predecessor Barack Obama.

President Joe Biden’s executive order, issued last week, directs the Department of Transportation and the EPA to reconsider the Trump administration’s 2019 decision to revoke California’s authority to restrict tailpipe emissions by April and review fuel-efficiency standards for light vehicles by July.

Biden is likely to drop the previous administration’s effort to block California from setting its own emissions standards, and establish tougher fuel-efficiency rules that promote zero-emission vehicles — two actions that could aid his $2 trillion “Build Back Better” agenda, which includes the installation of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations nationwide.

The president is expected to lay out his economic recovery plan before Congress next month. The plan “will make historic investments in infrastructure and manufacturing, innovation, research and development, and clean energy,” Biden said in remarks this month before his inauguration.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation — the industry’s leading lobbying group, which represents most major automakers in the U.S. as well as some suppliers and tech companies — vowed to work with Biden and his team on “shared goals of reducing emissions and realizing the benefits of an electric future.”

“We recognize that regulation and policy will help set the terms for that future and that near-term regulatory issues will need to be resolved in a way that benefits the environment, the workforce and our economy,” John Bozzella, CEO of the association, said in a statement.

Leaders from Ford Motor Co. and General Motors also expressed a willingness to work with the administration.

In a statement last week supporting Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement — the 2015 international climate accord that the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of in 2017 — Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said the automaker is committed to reducing emissions and making “the best electric vehicles.”

“While we cannot eliminate all the carbon-producing manufacturing and automobiles overnight, we can choose a path that will eventually take us to a zero-emissions future,” Ford said.

GM CEO Mary Barra congratulated the new administration via Twitter and said GM is looking forward to “working together on the issues that unite us.”

GM, Unifor go from strife to ‘right solutions’

For four years the relationship between General Motors and the Canadian union Unifor was in tatters — marked by a strike, blockades, an international media campaign and the end of vehicle production at Oshawa Assembly.

Things have changed.

Since November, across back-to-back rounds of bargaining, GM and Unifor have agreed to new contracts that include up to CA$2.3 billion ($1.8 billion) in new investments in the automaker’s Canadian assembly plants. By this time next year, Oshawa is expected to be building trucks again, and GM’s CAMI Assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, will build electric cargo vans for the company’s new BrightDrop fleet business, unveiled this month during CES.

“We’re at a point in our collective history where there are opportunities, and I’m not going to allow the past to get in the way of them,” Unifor President Jerry Dias said.

GM and the union quietly began negotiating a new contract for CAMI early this month , long before the previous contract there was set to expire in September. GM is eager to begin production of its new EV600 electric commercial van this year, and Dias said Unifor did not want to pass up an opportunity for a major investment — and a new production mandate.

“We knew we needed to move fast and we needed a place to build it,” GM Canada President Scott Bell said on Automotive News Canada‘s weekly podcast. “We went to the union and asked if we could get together here and talk about a potential opportunity and not wait until that opportunity passed us by.”

GM agreed to pour CA$1 billion ($791 million) into CAMI to build the van there starting in November to fulfill an order for FedEx. Vans initially will be built in an unused body shop before the assembly line is converted to van production in 2023, according to the union.

The CAMI plant currently builds GM’s popular Chevrolet Equinox crossover. But with a redesign due in 2024 and two plants in Mexico also building the model, there has been significant uncertainty about what the factory would produce in the long term.

It was an issue that union leaders raised as far back as 2017 during its last round of CAMI bargaining with GM: Unifor demanded that GM designate the factory as the company’s lead producer of the Equinox.

It was unable to secure such language from GM, leading to a monthlong strike that ended only after the company threatened to pull production out of CAMI entirely.

The friction continued. GM in late 2018 said it would cease vehicle production at Oshawa, enraging union leaders including Dias, who said GM had in effect declared “war on Canada.” The union launched a cross-border media campaign to antagonize the automaker, called for a boycott of Mexico-made GM vehicles and blockaded GM Canada’s headquarters near the Oshawa plant.

The actions stopped in May 2019 after GM and Unifor agreed to launch an aftermarket parts stamping program at Oshawa that would keep the plant running with a few hundred employees, leaving the door open for future investments, though it looked unlikely at the time.

Dias, who will retire from Unifor in 2022 after leading it since 2013, said he believes that agreement with GM will be remembered as the most consequential auto agreement of his tenure. It kept the plant open and allowed both parties to move on after months of fighting that resulted in a “bloodbath,” he said.

“That’s probably the agreement I made that I was criticized the most for, but it was the one that will have the largest impact,” Dias said.

Less than a year after vehicle assembly ended at Oshawa, GM and Unifor last November agreed to a new contract that includes up to $1.3 billion in investments at Oshawa so that it could begin building the company’s Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups by 2022. GM plans to hire 1,400 to 1,700 hourly workers and will initially operate on two shifts.

Bell has appeared to make mending the company’s relationship with labor a priority since becoming head of GM Canada in September 2019. For instance, in November of that year he spent a day working on the assembly line at CAMI to experience what jobs are like for the company’s workers.

“It certainly hasn’t been all easy street for either side over the years,” Bell said. “We’ve been looking for the right solutions that make sense for Canada. We’ve had a couple big wins here recently.”

Despite all of the dust-ups with GM, Dias said Canada’s automotive manufacturing footprint is stronger than it has been in years.

“Bargaining with GM is always incredibly tough,” he said. “Because of our personalities, we tend to clash because we’re both stubborn, to be candid with you. At the end of the day, we may argue, but we found a way to come to a solution.”

Dias is hopeful the repaired relationship with GM will yield further investments and product commitments in the future.

“Our relationship with GM is strong, and I think GM has won back the trust of Canadian consumers,” he said. “All the stars are aligned.”

China auto sales set to grow in ’21, trade group predicts

The world’s biggest auto market is set to resume growing after a three-year slide capped by the pandemic.

China’s new-vehicle sales will grow 4 percent to more than 26 million in 2021 as the world’s No. 2 economy continues to recover from disruptions caused by the coronavirus, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers predicted last week.

China was the first country battered by the coronavirus and is expected to be the only major economy to have grown in 2020.

Car and light-truck deliveries are forecast to rise 7.5 percent to 21.7 million in 2021 while new commercial-vehicle demand will slip 10 percent to 4.6 million, said Xu Haidong, an official at the industry trade group. Sales of new electrified vehicles including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles will jump 40 percent to 1.8 million, he added.

New-vehicle demand in China grew for the ninth consecutive month in December, rising 6.4 percent to 2.83 million, as consumers and government spending rebounded in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Still, 2020 sales fell for the third straight year, dipping 1.9 percent to 25.3 million.

Deliveries of light vehicles — sedans, crossovers, SUVs, multipurpose vehicles and minibuses — shrank 6 percent to 20.18 million.

Behind a rebound that began in July, sales of new electrified vehicles, spurred by new entries from Tesla, Nio, Xpeng and others, totaled 1.37 million in 2020, an increase of 11 percent from 2019.

Deliveries of full-electric vehicles advanced 12 percent to 1.12 million while plug-in hybrid deliveries rose 8.4 percent to some 251,000.

Volkswagen Group remained by far the largest foreign automaker in China last year, even as sales fell 9.1 percent to 3.85 million, with declines at the VW and Skoda brands eclipsing gains at Audi and Porsche. It was the first sales decline the German auto giant recorded in China since 2016.

Deliveries at General Motors, China’s No. 2 foreign automaker, dropped 6.1 percent to 2.9 million last year. Buick sales rose 4.1 percent to exceed 885,000 and Cadillac deliveries rose 7.9 percent to top 230,000. Deliveries at Wuling, a major minibus maker, grew 8.8 percent to nearly 1.1 million.

By contrast, sales slumped 30 percent to 291,000 at Chevrolet and 34 percent to 402,000 at Baojun, a market-entry car brand.

SAIC Motor Corp., which has partnerships with VW Group and GM, saw sales drop 10 percent in 2020 to 5.6 million.

SAIC, China’s biggest automaker, aims to boost sales 14 percent to 6.4 million this year, the most in more than a decade, behind a push into key EV segments. The company is targeting a 140 percent increase in new-energy-vehicle deliveries, to 768,000, Bloomberg reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.

With merger, Peugeot’s U.S. return not a sure thing

ATLANTA — PSA Group’s plan to reenter the U.S. with the Peugeot brand was uncertain as the automaker completed its merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Peugeot CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato said last week on the eve of the deal’s closing.

PSA, which pulled out of U.S. retail sales in the early 1990s, has been moving toward a return by 2026, taking an “asset-light” approach, with an emphasis on software tools and a low-investment retail network.

Late last week, just ahead of the scheduled weekend merger completion, PSA North America CEO Larry Dominique said planning for Peugeot’s return to the U.S. has not changed. “We are continuing all of our plans related to distribution and vehicle development,” Dominique said.

But he added, “Any decisions in context of Stellantis will be made after the merger is completed.”

By combining with FCA to form the new company Stellantis, PSA will automatically have an established presence in the U.S.

One of PSA’s rationales for the merger was to give the French company better geographic balance. The vast majority of PSA sales and revenue currently come from Europe.

Imparato told journalists that Peugeot’s return to the U.S. is still “on the table” for the future. But he said it was important that the new company not overlap brands.

“We were last speaking about [Peugeot’s U.S. reentry] a year and a half ago, before Stellantis,” Imparato said. “We can’t not take into account that in the coming days, Peugeot will be part of this new world. I imagine in the coming months due to the new strategy, we will have to adapt and reconsider all elements, including this one.”

Nick Gibbs of Automotive News Europe contributed to this report.

A faster track to owning an AV?

Aspirations to place self-driving technology in the hands of ordinary vehicle owners had largely been relegated to the back burner.

As automakers and technology companies better understood the enormity of that challenge in recent years, they’ve chosen to focus on simpler tasks in the shorter term, concentrating on building virtual drivers for niches such as geography-constrained taxis, last-mile delivery and high-way travel.

With the exception of a certain billionaire who pitches “full self-driving capability” different from the rest of the industry, most companies have considered the real deal something far off in the fuzzy future.

That’s changing. Global supplier Mobileye unwrapped plans last week to make self-driving technology available in personally owned vehicles in 2025. The Intel subsidiary made the announcement during CES.

“Robotaxi will be somewhat of a game- changer when it’s ubiquitous, because you are eliminating the driver. But having a consumer AV? That is completely disruptive; that is completely game-changing,” said Mobileye CEO Amnon Shashua.

Few competitors have even broached the subject. Waymo has an agreement to work with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on self-driving tech for personally owned vehicles, but that remains a “longer-term opportunity,” according to a Waymo spokesperson.

Tesla’s Elon Musk has touted plans to release a “full self-driving” feature in 2021. But Tesla defines “full self-driving” as still requiring a human driver who’s responsible for vehicle operations — much to the consternation of safety advocates and competitors.

Industry analysts don’t foresee self-driving vehicles that are defined by SAE International as Level 4 and above reaching dealerships for another decade. Brian Collie, global leader of automotive and mobility at Boston Consulting Group, forecasts self-driving cars will begin to reach consumers as personally owned vehicles by the early 2030s, with 1 million sold by 2033 or 2034. Even then, he expects technical challenges will persist.

“In a Level 4 operation, that will be available where there’s very, very detailed localization and high-definition mapping, where environmental conditions are updated on a very, very, very frequent basis,” he said.

That’s exactly where Mobileye intends to succeed.

What may enable Mobileye to expand autonomy into the realm of the car-owning masses is the collective insight of that crowd itself. For the past five years, Mobileye has been harvesting data from approximately 1 million vehicles on the road that contain its cameras and computer-vision systems.

Each day, the company collects nearly 5 million miles of driving data via this method and uses it to create high-definition maps, which give self-driving vehicles precise knowledge of their location in the world and an additional layer of information with detailed knowledge about their surroundings.

It’s an unusual approach. Most companies use lidar sensors to make these maps. By using cameras, Mobileye says it can make a big impact with just a little data — about 10 kilobytes per kilometer, which lowers the cost. By harnessing the crowd, the company can move beyond geography constraints and build maps from any roads its crowd drives.

“We can build maps of the entire globe, and this is where we are going,” Shashua told Automotive News. “The issue of scale maybe is not that critical right now. You do a robotaxi in maybe Phoenix or San Francisco, and update that map when things change. … But if you want to drive everywhere, we need the high resolution to be at scale, and you can sell this kind of function.”

How much consumers will be willing to spend remains a question.

Collie estimates that a self-driving system will cost approximately $9,000 per vehicle for manufacturers to make. By the time it’s marked up, he expects it would cost consumers $15,000 for self-driving capabilities, and that may be a reach for buyers.

“We think that’s a pretty significant uptick, even for folks in the premium range,” he said. “There’s a strong economic opportunity for robotaxis and in trucking, but in personal vehicles, the overall value proposition isn’t as great in something less than a Level 5 environment.”

But Mobileye believes a much lower price point is possible, starting with a “bill of materials” cost of $3,500 for the components of a self-driving system. Savings are possible, in part, because the company is developing its own sensors. Mobileye will use Luminar’s lidars in vehicles intended for commercial robotaxi operations, which are slated to begin in Israel in 2022. But for personal vehicles, Mobileye will use Intel’s expertise in manufacturing silicon photonics products to develop its own lidar system-on-chip starting in 2025.

No automaker has yet contracted with Mobileye to fit its self-driving systems on personally owned vehicles. But last summer, Geely said it would add the supplier’s SuperVision hands-free driver-assist system. Mobileye has crafted SuperVision as a foundational block in a steppingstone approach; it’s a camera-only system capable of Level 4 operations but is utilized for driver assistance.

When Mobileye begins Level 4 operations in robotaxi and personally owned vehicles, it intends to add lidar and radar on a second, redundant subsystem that cross-checks the actions of the camera-only system. By developing them separately and running them in parallel, Shashua says, the chance of failure is reduced by an order of magnitude.

Beyond Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the company opened test beds in Munich and Detroit in 2020. Last week, it announced that additional test deployments in Shanghai, Paris and Tokyo will commence this year. Depending on the regulatory climate, Shashua hopes New York City will be added to the list.

In each location, Mobileye wants to showcase its system’s ability to evolve from a driver-assist feature to fully autonomous driving, with operations underpinned by the crowd-source maps that make both possible.

“That ability to have the high-resolution map everywhere, simultaneously, is critical, because you cannot sell a self-driving system to a consumer that will only be activated in San Francisco,” Shashua said. “So it’s not just thinking about the scientific experiment of proving to yourself or someone else, ‘Here, I can take a territory like San Francisco and drive there without a driver.’ If you want to build a business, not only now, but three or four years from now, being able to have high-resolution maps at scale is crucial.”