Nvidia rolls out array of auto partnerships

Nvidia, the computer-gaming and artificial intelligence company, is furthering its push into automotive development, manufacturing and in-vehicle gaming. In advance of CES this week, the tech titan announced an array of partnerships with automakers from around the world.

* Mercedes-Benz is using Nvidia’s Omniverse platform to create a digital twin of its assembly plant in Rastatt, Germany, allowing the company to plan production changes and test them in a virtual environment before reorganizing the physical plant.

* Foxconn will use Nvidia’s technology in developing its own advanced vehicles and to supply automakers with electronic control units based on Nvidia’s chips and sensors for highly automated driving.

* Hyundai Motor Group, Polestar and BYD are planning to offer Nvidia’s GeForce NOW cloud gaming service in vehicles. No specific models have been identified yet for in-car gaming, but the idea is to help entertain not only rear-seat passengers, but drivers who park to charge an electric vehicle, said Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s vice president for automotive.

The range of the announcements helps show Nvidia’s role as an “end-to-end” partner for automakers, he said.

“We’re not like a Tier 2 chip supplier — that’s not how we operate,” Shapiro said in an interview Monday. “We do make chips that Tier 1s integrate into ECUs and that go into cars. But we tend to have direct relationships with the automakers. We do a lot of collaborative engineering and product development with them.”

Rivian, Lordstown, Tesla try to shake up pickup market with fresh features

Rivian Automotive beat the Detroit 3 to market with an electric pickup last year, challenging traditional truck orthodoxy with a playful design for high-end buyers.

Tesla promises to break the mold entirely this year with its wildly styled Cybertruck. And Lordstown Motors faces its own challenges making an electric work truck in a segment where loyalty reigns supreme.

Each of the three offers a clean-sheet approach to what a pickup can be in the electric era. For Rivian and Tesla, that’s something environmentally friendly, hip and cool, and which outperforms legacy rivals on metrics such as efficiency and range. Lords-town, meanwhile, is trying to undercut the Detroit 3 pickup makers on value.

But the tug of war between startups and legacy automakers is not a zero-sum game. Consumers who would never consider a boxy, gas-guzzling truck are expanding the market by moving from car-based electric vehicles to Rivian R1Ts. And loyal Tesla buyers can move into a new segment with the Cybertruck.

“There are people who desire the practicality of a pickup truck but aren’t keen on the idea of poor fuel economy and emissions,” said Robby DeGraff, industry analyst at AutoPacific. “A pickup truck that’s entirely electric is a lot more enticing to consider.”

For Rivian and Tesla, peeling off traditional pickup owners won’t be easy. But they can make an intriguing pitch to consumers, as the R1T and Cybertruck both promise sports car performance and top-level tech.

“There are always going to be buyers looking for something different, and shoppers looking at Rivian or Tesla pickups aren’t necessarily looking to buy a Chevrolet Silverado or a Ram,” said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions.

Where the challengers may have trouble is price. Rivian already has raised prices for the R1T and could do so again as it burns through its cash pile. Tesla appears to have abandoned its original $40,000 starting sticker for the Cybertruck. And the Lordstown Endurance is no bargain, even for its fleet-only buyers.

With an $87,000 starting price for the version in production, plus shipping, the R1T is squarely a luxury pickup. Its 4.5-foot bed is more geared for camping than hauling building materials. A $73,000 version is expected to begin delivery in 2024.

Still, the R1T is a formidable rival.

It was among the top-selling EVs of 2022 and has won over many reviewers. An AutoPacific survey of future vehicle buyers found that 11 percent of those considering a Rivian in the next three years were Ford owners, followed by 9.3 percent Chevrolet and 3.4 percent Ram.

“The growth of pickups as daily drivers since the 1980s opens a potential market for lifestyle trucks like the R1T,” Fiorani told Automotive News. “Many of these buyers are already spending north of $70,000 for a gas-powered truck. So the leap to a Rivian isn’t as big a deal as it would have been just a few years ago.”

At the same time, Rivian has struggled with production at its Normal, Ill., plant and has a backlog of orders that likely will take until 2024 to clear. The R1T shares the assembly plant with the R1S SUV and EDV electric delivery vans for Amazon.

As a luxury vehicle, the R1T offers more than just a tony interior and distinctive exterior styling. It’s as fast as a sports car, with a sprint to 60 mph in three seconds, and can tow up to 11,000 pounds. It rides on an air suspension that can lower for nimble handling and raise for off-road trails.

It’s also cheaper than top-trim versions of the Ford F-150 Lightning, Chevy Silverado EV and GMC Hummer EV. But it’s smaller, too — and untested in terms of reliability and service.

“Ford, GM and Ram already have a proven, established presence as a result of their combustion-engine pickups and accompanying network of dealers to fix things when issues arise, and that will also be of tremendous benefit,” DeGraff said.

When Tesla CEO Elon Musk presented the Cybertruck in 2019, the pickup’s styling and specifications were shocking. The angular, pyramidlike shape was so extreme that some Tesla fans thought Musk might be playing a prank.

But Tesla has stood by the design, and production is set for late this year. Tesla originally promised that the Cybertruck would be ready for customer deliveries in late 2021. Reservations are believed to be in the hundreds of thousands or even more than 1 million, according to tallies compiled by fans of the EV brand. Tesla has not provided a formal number.

The company has explained that exterior by saying the Cybertruck’s thick, unpainted, cold-rolled steel cannot be easily curved. So the body panels, which form a supportive exoskeleton structure, are flat. The angular top allows for an aerodynamic shape that’s critical for EV efficiency.

Although the Cybertruck has changed since its prototype presentation, likely getting slightly smaller and more expensive, the company said it has not backtracked on its performance promises.

Tesla said its advantages over legacy half-ton pickups include six-passenger seating and a 6.5-foot bed with 100 cubic feet of lockable storage and a 3,500-pound payload capacity. Depending on the trim, the Cybertruck will be able to tow 7,500 to 14,000 pounds, Tesla said.

The automaker has touted range starting at 250 miles and surpassing 500 miles on some versions, with fast charging capability of greater than 250 kilowatts.

The most notable numbers in Musk’s original presentation were the prices: $39,900 plus shipping for the single-motor version with rear-wheel drive, $49,900 for the dual-motor with all-wheel drive and $69,900 for the tri-motor. Musk has since said prices will have to rise because costs have gone up significantly during development.

Musk had suggested in the presentation that the cost of ownership of a Cybertruck would be about half that of a combustion half-ton pickup. That could be compelling for commercial buyers, although analysts can’t imagine the wild Cybertruck proliferating on construction sites.

“Commercial truck buyers are looking for a traditional pickup,” Fiorani said. “Battery-electric pickups can provide a power source for tools, which is very beneficial to many types of work. And the torque offered by electric motors is great for towing and hauling. The Cybertruck, however, will appeal to daily drivers more than commercial truck buyers.”

But Tesla may have a strong hand when it comes to availability, having opened a factory in Texas to build the pickup. Tesla also has strong relationships with battery makers and does some in-house battery production. That makes the Cybertruck the biggest wild card among electric pickups.

“I don’t think there’s 1 million reservation holders,” DeGraff said. “I do think there’s maybe a few hundred thousand firm orders that will translate to sales, especially because Musk has been hyping this truck for what seems like an eternity.”

Even with a motor on each wheel, the Lords-town Endurance might never get enough traction to be a long-term success.

For one thing, the $65,060 Endurance is expensive to build and buy. For another, its estimated 200-mile driving range between charges is significantly shorter than that of rival trucks.

The base model Ford F-150 Lightning, for example, starts at nearly $58,000 and has an estimated 240-mile range. The Lightning is also a four-wheel-drive truck, but it uses only two motors.

For now, the Endurance is available only to fleet owners such as utilities, governments and construction companies. Since fleet operators usually maintain their own vehicles, skipping consumer sales alleviates the need for costly service centers and could help Lordstown conserve scarce cash as it ramps up production.

The first trucks in a planned 500-vehicle build entered production in September. Fleet customer deliveries of the first 50 began in late November after the Endurance received its federal safety certifications and efficiency ratings from California and the EPA.

Lordstown officials won’t identify the early customers.

The company plans to deliver the next 450 pickups by spring. After that, it’s unclear whether the company has enough cash to continue. Last year, Foxconn, the Taiwan-based manufacturer best known for assembling Apple’s iPhone, bought Lordstown’s Ohio plant and injected about $170 million into the venture. A further cash infusion of $70 million from Foxconn helped kick-start Endurance production.

But soaring costs for microchips, rare-earth magnets for electric motors and materials for the trucks’ lithium ion batteries likely have eroded any profit.

That said, the Endurance appeared in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show and looked like a well-made vehicle. Its wheel-hub motors are unique and give the truck several advantages, including better traction and fewer moving parts, which can reduce maintenance costs.

Company officials at one time said a consumer version of the Endurance would be available, but those plans appear to have been scrapped.

Ford reports most U.S. vehicle recalls for second year, partial NHTSA data shows

WASHINGTON — For the second consecutive year, Ford Motor Co. has reported the most U.S. vehicle recalls of any automaker, partial NHTSA data shows.

Through Dec. 19, Ford had issued 65 recalls affecting more than 8.6 million vehicles in 2022. In 2021, the automaker issued 53 recalls covering nearly 5.4 million vehicles.

The U.S. recall data comes as Ford continues to work on improving manufacturing operations and combating quality issues, particularly on its high-profile vehicles.

In November, Ford recalled nearly 634,000 Bronco Sport and Escape crossovers globally for fire risks. Months before, the automaker had issued a stop-sale to dealers as part of its recall of nearly 50,000 Mustang Mach-E crossovers for potential power loss. Federal investigators also launched an investigation last year into “catastrophic engine failures” in the popular 2021 Bronco SUV.

“While we don’t ever want customers inconvenienced by problems with our products, when it’s necessary, we’re going to use recalls to call attention to them,” Ford spokesperson Maria Buczkowski told Automotive News.

She added that, as Ford CEO Jim Farley has said, “we’re improving our launch and initial quality, but our overall quality isn’t as good as it should and can be. That’s why we’re deploying a comprehensive end-to-end process to raise quality and keep it high — in design, production, delivery and after-sale service and support.”

Ford’s overarching goal is to prevent quality issues from happening in the first place, Buczkowski said, but “when that doesn’t happen, we’re using technology to detect and resolve them before they become a bigger deal for more customers.”

The recall numbers could mean Ford is taking a more conservative approach to addressing potential defects, said Ray Roth III, who leads the automotive recall practice at investment bank and advisory firm Stout.

“NHTSA can’t look at every single defect and initiate the recalls,” he said. “To a large extent, it’s self-reporting.”

Roth also said recall totals would need to factor in production volume to make comparisons among automakers.

“Ford is a very large manufacturer, so they’re producing a lot of vehicles,” he said.

More new models also can mean more problems when they first enter the market, said Chris Sutton, vice president of automotive retail at J.D. Power.

“If you have a lot of new models out in the market, it’s more likely that you’re going to see quality issues surface in the first year and then those will smooth out over the subsequent years,” Sutton said.

The impact of recalls on a customer’s likelihood to return for service or to repurchase a vehicle from the brand is “pretty minor,” he said.

“Most customer service work, depending on the type of work that was, 35 percent of the customers said they’ll definitely come back and repurchase that brand,” said Sutton, citing a 2022 J.D. Power Customer Service Index study. “If a customer comes in on a recall, that goes down to 32 percent of the customers [who] said they definitely will repurchase the brand.”

As vehicles are equipped with more high-tech features, the number of callbacks related to electrical systems and rearview camera defects also appear to be rising, recall experts said.

“Any time you add new tech, it does come with new risks that OEMs have to be aware of,” said Chris Harvey, senior vice president of client services at Sedgwick, which helps businesses across industries, including automotive, manage product recall and remediation challenges. “I think we’ll continue to see some of those issues when the technology in the auto industry increases, just like we’ve seen with other industries.”

Michael Brooks, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said he tracked 34 recalls related to rearview cameras that are used to prevent back-over accidents through mid-December.

“There were 19 the year before, 16 in 2020, 13 in 2019,” Brooks said. “In 2018, they were just mandated.”

Brooks also expressed concern about the longevity of electrical components as vehicles age.

“We’re still not sure that the manufacturers have found a great way to make sure that some of these bells and whistles they’re putting on cars are going to be able to last for the average life span of the vehicle,” he said. “So we’re a little worried that into the future — 10 years from now, maybe less — that some of these components are going to start to fail early.”

Former NFL standout finds parallels between football, auto retailing

Peter Boulware, an NFL veteran turned franchised dealer, wants his two Toyota stores to reach top potential before expanding his holdings. The retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker will consider opportunities if they arise but sees no reason to rush.

“I’m open to anything, but I’d say I’m really more in the mindset of, ‘I just want to be excellent with what I have right now,’ ” Boulware told Automotive News.

Boulware in April 2021 bought the former Fred Anderson Toyota of Columbia, in West Columbia, S.C., a store he renamed Peter Boulware Toyota of Columbia. That deal came nearly two decades after he — while still on the gridiron — became a part owner in the former Legacy Toyota in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2003. In 2020, Boulware became majority owner of the Florida store, renaming it Peter Boulware Toyota.

The 2021 purchase represented a route home for the Columbia, S.C., native, a connection that played a crucial role in his decision to buy the store when Toyota talked with him about the opportunity, according to Robert Costa, director of market representation and business management for Southeast Toyota Distributors, which covers five Southeast states including South Carolina and Florida.

“Peter’s strong ties to the Columbia, South Carolina, community and his commitment to excellent customer service make him a fantastic representative for Toyota in the region,” Costa told Automotive News via email.

Boulware, 48, said he initially had no intentions of a life in auto retail when he invested into a dealership. “In the off-season, I just wanted to go check on my investment,” Boulware said, adding that during the visits he would ask many questions.

But ultimately he had discovered one of his post-football careers.

Boulware also dabbled in politics, running for a Florida House of Representatives seat, winning the Republican primary in August 2008 before losing a close general election race that November. Boulware also is a former Florida State Board of Education member and, in 2009, he and his wife, Kensy, founded the Community Leadership Academy, a private Christian school in Tallahassee.

Boulware said he’s grateful to have a second store but noted it has brought new challenges.

“The Columbia market is a little different than the Tallahassee market,” Boulware said. “The team in Columbia has a different flavor, a different style. As much as I’d like both to be carbon copies and everything done exactly the same way, as easy as that would make it, you just have to manage both stores a little differently.”

The four-time Pro Bowler said operating stores in different states provides traveling challenges. He said he can only get to South Carolina a few times a month. He said his day-to-day work is in the Tallahassee store, the city he lives in full time and where he attended college.

Boulware studied management information systems at Florida State University, where he had a standout junior season as one of the nation’s top pass rushers. During that season, he recorded a nation-leading, single-season FSU record 19 sacks and was named the 1996 ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

The Baltimore Ravens drafted Boulware with the No. 4 pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. He played for the team through the 2005 season, though a knee injury sidelined him in 2004. His stellar defense contributed to the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XXXV.

The NFL’s 1997 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Boulware racked up 70 career sacks, good for No. 2 on the Ravens’ all-time list. A favorite hit that Boulware remembers didn’t register as a sack, but he did take former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino to the ground.

“I remember just sitting on the ground, holding his leg, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m grabbing onto one of my heroes,’ ” he said. “And I almost had to shake myself out of it and remember, ‘No, no, he’s the competition now.’ ”

He sees parallels between football and automotive retailing beyond competition. He said the great coaches he played for, including Bobby Bowden at FSU and Brian Billick in Baltimore, taught him sportsmanship, how to sacrifice for a common goal, how to win the right way and how to pick yourself up after a loss, he said.

“I was able to learn those [lessons] on the gridiron and I definitely use those in our day-to-day operations,” Boulware said.

Boulware would like to see more dealership owners who look like him. “As a minority, an African-American dealer, there’s not many of us out there,” Boulware said. “I feel like I have a responsibility to try to grow our numbers.”

According to the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, just 1,366 of U.S. dealerships were owned by minorities in 2021. And about 95 percent of those are first-generation owners, according to NAMAD.

Boulware’s Tallahassee dealership participates and helps fund an automotive franchising track within a degree program at Florida State’s Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship. As part of the program, college students intern at Boulware’s dealership.

“We want them interning at our stores and we want them to see how great this industry is, No. 1, but even before that, we want them to know that they can make it in this industry,” Boulware said. 

Data that drives us

In the discordant, skeptical, argumentative era we’re living in, two words are vital for any discussion: “according to.”

The truth is the truth when it comes to business information. Or maybe it isn’t. A trustworthy source is important.

Auto industry decision-makers are barraged by facts and near facts. They are preyed upon by assertions and ulterior motives, pulled by spin and pushed by parsing.

How can anybody make a sound decision?

Luckily, established data sets are available that provide the building blocks to help managers reach their decisions.

Auto executives are not known for blundering into misread market opportunities — at least not very often. They are counseled by economists, analysts and consultants who can see through the dust to the light ahead. But they, too, must scour the industry and the economy for reliable data.

Many data sets are established, tried and true. But newer ones are offering insight where it wasn’t possible before.

Dealership business systems are linked together so that market numbers and trends can be pulled out of the haystacks of monthly operations. Supply chain events can be analyzed for insight into global and regional warnings. Pricing can be collated and tracked. Consumer attitudes can be surveyed and processed into quantifiable indicators.

These are some of the bedrock data sets that drive decision-making with explanations of what they are and where they come from, how they are used and how they might be misused.

Breaking language barrier for sales success

Audi Dominion in San Antonio is one of the top-performing Audi dealerships in the country, averaging more than 100 new vehicles and 170 used vehicles sold a month.

Martin Silva, the dealership’s general manager, attributes that success to building a staff that reflects the Alamo City’s diverse population and cultural backgrounds.

“When you live in a community like that and decide to go into any kind of retail business, the easiest decision is to provide opportunities to anyone who wants to put their head down and hustle and grind in an industry that’s competitive — but also to make sure that our customer has someone they can relate to at the dealership level when it comes to sales, technicians and service advisers.”

San Antonio is one of the fastest growing areas in the U.S., and Latino residents account for much of it.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, two-thirds of San Antonio’s 1.45 million residents in 2021 were Latino or Hispanic, and about 14 percent of the market’s population was born outside the U.S.

That means there are a significant number of San Antonians who are most comfortable speaking Spanish, particularly when making a decision about buying a new vehicle, Silva said. Roughly a fourth of Audi Dominion’s 180 employees are fluent in Spanish.

“Is speaking Spanish a prerequisite? No, it’s absolutely not,” Silva said. “But we want as many of our clients as possible to be comfortable when coming in, and seeing someone that’s able to communicate with them clearly is so important to that.”

The philosophy has led to higher customer retention and satisfaction scores, as customers return for maintenance or for their next purchase, Silva said.

But it goes beyond speaking Spanish.

Silva said his favorite thing to ask job candidates for an open position is to tell him a story about how they’ve had to overcome a challenge in their life by talking to strangers. It’s a question that tells Silva how comfortable that person is when talking with someone who might be different from them.

“Our clients are going to have a wide range of questions, needs, problems and concerns, and they’ll need to seek direction,” he said. “We need to have people who are comfortable with that. The diversity of our clientele shouldn’t be something we shy away from, but something that we embrace.”

The dealership also regularly produces a Spanish-language infomercial detailing the inventories of Audi Dominion, as well as that of Cavender Toyota.

Audi Dominion and Cavender Toyota are part of Cavender Auto Group, which operates 10 new-vehicle dealerships in the area.

The infomercial, broadcast on Spanish-language TV channels, is produced so that potential customers know before they come in that someone can speak with them in Spanish about a vehicle purchase.

“We wanted to be at the forefront in our community, making sure our Spanish-speaking population knew there was an option,” Silva said.

Other dealership employees reflect the broader diversity of the San Antonio region, particularly with regard to its Asian and Middle Eastern populations.

The region is also home to several military bases and boasts a large veteran population.

“The best way we know how to perform is to make sure our staff reflects the community at large,” he said, “and that means all cultures.”