Toyota-backed self-driving tech firm Pony.ai partners with Luminar

Self-driving tech company Pony.ai, backed by Toyota Motor Corp., said on Monday its next-generation technology for robotaxis will be using lidars made by Luminar Technologies Inc.

Lidars are laser-based sensors that are a key component to many autonomous vehicle technologies and help them perceive the environment around the cars.

Pony.ai CEO James Peng said the startup chose Luminar’s Iris lidar for its performance but also because it can be integrated into the car better than traditional lidars.

“It’s actually starting to blur the line between what you see as a very well designed passenger vehicle and the monstrosities that have been on top of some of the AV test vehicles,” said Austin Russell, founder and CEO of Luminar.

Luminar’s Iris lidar is about 10 centimeters high and Peng said four of them will be mounted on top of the car for 360 degree views. He said Pony.ai is aiming for automotive-grade production of autonomous fleets in 2023 globally.

Pony.ai has Robotaxi services in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and Irvine and Fremont in California with a fleet of about 200 autonomous vehicles. Late last year, the startup raised $267 million at a valuation of $5.3 billion.

In addition to Pony.ai, Luminar earlier this year announced a partnership with SAIC Motor Corp., China’s largest automaker and a deal with the self-driving software subsidiary of Volvo Cars, owned by China’s Geely Automobile Holdings.

Luminar, founded in 2012, is one of several U.S. lidar manufacturers in the past year to go public via reverse mergers with blank-check companies.

Muñoz: EVs are a key piece of Hyundai’s growth strategy

Hyundai’s twin goals of reaching 1 million U.S. sales a year by 2025 and introducing an ambitious global green-car portfolio might seem to be discrete ideas. But its North American CEO, Jose Muñoz, says the two objectives go hand in hand.

The South Korean automaker wants to embrace electric and hydrogen vehicles in a way that fuels its sales growth in this decade, Muñoz said last week during Automotive News’ online Congress Conversations.

“The growth is coming from several mainstream businesses,” Muñoz said. “One is the growth of our SUVs. We’ve seen how the Palisade, the Tuscon, Santa Fe have done an outstanding job.”

The second pillar of the plan will be growth of Hyundai’s luxury line. Genesis brought out the GV80 crossover last year and this year plans to introduce the model it expects to become its volume leader, the GV70.

“And we may have some surprises maybe later on this year,” Muñoz hinted.

The third and most important pillar of the growth plan will be what the executive referred to as “green vehicles.”

“We are in the midst of a big transformation of our portfolio,” he said, “bringing plug-in hybrids and bringing hybrids and battery-electric EVs in order to ensure that we are not fast followers but really pioneers in the new emerging green market.”

Hyundai previously announced that it expects to sell about 560,000 EVs a year globally by 2025, Muñoz said.

As part of its global strategy, Hyundai Group is also pursuing a larger role in both hydrogen powertrains and smart mobility solutions, including personal air travel.

Muñoz said Hyundai wants to lead in those new emerging markets by 2040, “achieving somewhere between 8 to 10 percent market share.”

The company managed to steer through much of the pandemic-related disruption. Hyundai brand sales declined 9.7 percent last year, compared with an industry decline of 14 percent, according to the Automotive News Research & Data Center. So its market share rose from 4 percent in 2019 to 4.2 percent in 2020, when it sold 622,269 vehicles.

The automaker’s resilience has made Muñoz more confident about reaching the 1 million sales mark pegged for 2025.

“When we thought the pandemic was a little bit more, let’s say, stabilized, we analyzed the future,” Muñoz said. “We came to the conclusion that we were well on track to deliver our 1 million car sales by 2025 — or earlier, actually.”

Stay competitive with agility, alliances, Magna CEO says

The pace of auto industry change has become more exponential than linear, said Swamy Kotagiri, CEO of Magna International.

And keeping up with it now requires a comprehensive product portfolio, partnerships and alliances — but also agility, Kotagiri said during an Automotive News Congress Conversations webcast last week.

Kotagiri, who took the helm of the Canadian supply giant in January, offered advice for industry incumbents and new entrants as they navigate changing vehicle architectures, trends in electrification and autonomy and mobility as a service.

“How do you develop your strategy so you have the ability to pivot as necessary but stay at the table?” he said. “I think it’s a balance of those two themes that we have to constantly keep in front of us.

“Working in an ecosystem and keeping your differentiation, I would say, is the most important part to be successful in the industry now,” he added. “If you’re waiting for the customer to come and ask you something, I think it’s already late.”

Magna, North America’s largest parts supplier, has been particularly bullish on its electric vehicle product development with partners over the past year.

Last month, the supplier announced a partnership with Israeli startup Ree Automotive to develop a modular electric vehicle using Ree’s platform. Magna also formed a joint venture in December with South Korea’s LG Electronics to make EV powertrains. And last fall, Magna said it will supply the vehicle platform for and build Fisker Inc.’s electric Ocean SUV.

A healthy diet of partnerships is just one way to capitalize on the mobility trends with the fastest growth rates, Kotagiri said.

“Once we decide what is important in this value stream, we decide: What do we have intrinsic within the four walls of Magna?” he said. “In some cases, it is alliances and joint ventures and partnerships. With this ecosystem, the way it is changing at the rate at which it is changing, you need to have a combination of both.”

Though it’s clear that electrification is accelerating, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, he said.

“If you look at the size of the market and the design cycles, it’s over a period of time,” Kotagiri said. “It’s not a switch on, switch off type scenario.

“The key lies in how you develop a strategy that is modular and scalable. We always looked at it as a marathon: Have the sustenance to stay in the race rather than try to address it as a sprint.”

With GM’s help, Honda set to go gasoline-free by 2040

TOKYO — Honda’s new CEO wants the company’s U.S. lineup to be gasoline-free by 2040 as part of an ambitious new electrification plan that will lean on General Motors and solid-state batteries.

Toshihiro Mibe, who took office April 1, pitched the vision last week as a mission to derive all of Honda Motor Co.’s global auto sales solely from electric and fuel cell vehicles by 2040, just 19 years from now. The timeline makes Honda — a company that currently assembles only one EV model — the first Japanese automaker to declare its aspiration to completely ditch the internal combustion engine.

Honda wants to achieve the goal in steps, first getting 40 percent of its sales in major markets from full- electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in 2030, then 80 percent in 2035 and all of them by 2040.

“The hurdles are quite high,” acknowledged Mibe, who formerly was head of Honda’s R&D division. “But I think we can get them. The fact that we have set targets clearly is the first step toward that goal.”

The transformation won’t be cheap. Honda said it expects to invest more than $46 billion in R&D over the next six years to make it possible.

But Honda’s announcement comes as competitors worldwide rush to roll out EVs to meet increasingly stringent emissions regulations. Boston Consulting Group forecast in a study released this month that zero-emission technologies will replace internal combustion engines “as the dominant powertrain” for new light-vehicle sales globally just after 2035.

The consultancy said about 92 percent of light vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2020 were powered solely by gasoline or diesel engines. But it projects that number will fall to just 2 percent in 2035.

Honda, a company that helped pioneer gasoline-electric hybrid technology, currently makes just one EV nameplate, the low-volume subcompact E hatchback, and it is available only in Japan and Europe. On the eve of last week’s Shanghai auto show, Honda showed its SUV e:Prototype, a full-electric crossover that will go on sale in China next year.

In a previous strategy, Honda had wanted to derive two-thirds of its global volume from standard hybrids, plug-ins, battery-electrics and fuel cell vehicles by 2030. But that target leaned heavily on traditional gasoline-electric hybrids. The new vision aims to have 40 percent of its sales in major markets be full-electric and fuel cell vehicles by that year.

North America figures prominently in Honda’s electrification plan, even though today the Honda brand sells only a handful of hybrid vehicles there, including the CR-V, Accord and Insight.

Honda now targets that its North American EV and fuel cell-vehicle sales will mirror its global goals and reach 40 percent in 2030, 80 percent in 2035 and 100 percent by 2040.

A partnership with GM will be one way Honda gets started. The arrangement will supply Honda with two large EVs beginning with the 2024 model year, one for the Honda brand and one for Acura, Mibe said.

Honda is partnering with GM partly for the U.S. company’s batteries. EV power packs are heavy and costly, and difficult to transport, making it critical to have local production. For that reason, Mibe said Honda will initially use GM’s Ultium batteries for electric cars, which are manufactured in North America.

But looking further into the future, today’s lithium ion batteries won’t cut it. Mibe said a breakthrough in battery performance, cost, safety and reliability is needed to realize the full scale of Honda’s EV ambitions.

“The battery will be the key,” Mibe said.

To that end, Honda is banking on a new technology of solid-state batteries. The company plans to deploy solid-state batteries in new models from the second half of the 2020s. It will start verifying production of the new batteries on a demonstration line this fiscal year.

Also in the second half of this decade, Honda will roll out a new dedicated EV platform called e:Architecture. It will first be deployed in North America, then globally.

Mibe also said Honda may need to overhaul its manufacturing strategy in the new era and set up new assembly lines dedicated solely to the production of electric vehicles.

Mibe outlined similar timelines for China and Japan but didn’t detail plans for Europe.

Honda’s new boss said the EV shift is a step toward achieving companywide carbon neutrality by 2050. Last week, he also set lofty 2050 targets for achieving carbon neutrality in all products and corporate activities and of realizing zero traffic fatalities in its motorcycles and automobiles.

He also wants to develop products from 100 percent sustainable materials.

Mibe declined to offer an overall long-range volume target, saying that the goal is not sales numbers but good products and profitability. He said Honda wants to achieve sustainable operating profit margin of 7 percent, even with the shift to electrification.

Waymo ranked No. 1 among automated driving systems companies

Out of 15 companies developing automated driving systems, Waymo is in the lead, while Tesla comes in last, according to the latest leaderboard report from consulting company Guidehouse Insights.

The report, released last week, evaluated the companies and categorized them as leaders, contenders, challengers or followers.

Leaders scored 75 or above in strategy and execution, while contenders earned between 50 and 75. Challengers scored higher than 25 but were deemed not yet contenders, and followers scored below 25.

Guidehouse focused on companies developing automated driving systems rather than on companies directly commercializing autonomous vehicles. The report also focused only on companies developing for light- to medium-duty vehicles.

Waymo was also ranked the top vendor of automated driving vehicles on Guidehouse’s leaderboard last year.

“The trend I’ve seen from Waymo over the last four or five years is building not just the technologies, but building the other aspects of the business that are going to be needed in order to have it be a successful business,” Sam Abuelsamid, Guidehouse principal research analyst, told Automotive News.

On the flip side, “There are certainly areas where Tesla has actually improved, things like the staying power score, which is the financial stability of the company,” he said. “But in terms of their technology, despite the release of the full self-driving data, I don’t really see any evidence that they’ve actually progressed relative to the other companies in this sector.”

Stellantis unit Free2Move to expand subscription service in U.S.

Free2Move, the short-term vehicle rental operation owned by Stellantis, has been pushing its car-sharing services into the U.S. market recently following its success with the model across the globe.

Now Free2Move is bringing its Car on Demand subscription services to the U.S. after operating them in Europe since 2019.

The company has been operating a fleet for its app-based car-sharing service that can be rented by the minute, hour or day in Washington, D.C., since 2018, and recently announced plans to expand to Portland, Ore., this spring or summer, starting with a fleet of 200 Jeep Renegades.

Free2Move will now expand its subscription service to six U.S. states before the end of the year, starting in Los Angeles. The other locations were not disclosed.

Car On Demand gives customers access to vehicles on a monthly basis and includes insurance, roadside assistance, vehicle maintenance, free delivery and up to 1,000 miles per month.

The subscription service starts at $699 a month and will offer premium sedans, SUVs and other vehicles from a variety of automakers. The company’s website says a customer can get a Tesla Model 3 sedan for $899 per month, for example, while a Jeep Wrangler Sport midsize SUV comes in at $749 a month.

Free2Move said Los Angeles was chosen “based on its size and appetite for innovative mobility solutions. With one of the highest penetration rates of luxury vehicle leases, Free2Move research pin-pointed Los Angeles as the logical launch market for Car On Demand.”

“This market is among the most competitive and open to new mobility and vehicle access models, and we’re confident Car On Demand will further broaden consumer interest in this option,” Free2Move CEO Brigitte Courtehoux said in a statement Thursday.

Stellantis is the new corporate entity created by the merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and France’s PSA Group.