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Bet Everything on Electric: Inside Volkswagen’s Radical Strategy Shift

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If Volkswagen realizes its ambition of becoming the global leader in electric cars, it will be thanks to a radical and risky bet born out of the biggest calamity in its history.

The German giant has staked its future, to the tune of 80 billion euros ($91 billion), on being able to profitably mass-produce electric vehicles – a feat no carmaker has come close to achieving.

So far mainstream automakers’ electric plans have had one main goal: to protect profits gleaned from high-margin conventional cars by adding enough zero-emission vehicles to their fleet to meet clean-air rules.

Customers have meanwhile largely shunned electric vehicles because they are too expensive, can be inconvenient to charge and lack range.

The biggest strategy shift in Volkswagen’s 80 years has its roots in a weekend crisis meeting at the Rothehof guesthouse in Wolfsburg on October 10, 2015, senior executives told Reuters.

At the meeting hosted by then VW brand chief Herbert Diess, nine top managers gathered on a cloudy Saturday afternoon to discuss the way forward after regulators blew the whistle on the company’s emissions cheating, a scandal that cost it more than 27 billion euros in fines and tainted its name.

“It was an intense discussion, so was the realization that this could be an opportunity, if we jump far enough,” said Juergen Stackmann, VW brand’s board member for sales.

“It was an initial planning session to do more than just play with the idea of electric cars,” he told Reuters. “We asked ourselves: what is our vision for the future of the brand? Everything that you see today is connected to this.”

Just three days after the Rothehof meeting of the VW brand’s management board, Volkswagen announced plans to develop an electric vehicle platform, codenamed MEB, paving the way for mass production of an affordable electric car.

For months after the Volkswagen scandal blew up in 2015, rival carmakers treated diesel-cheating as a “VW issue”, according to industry experts. But regulators have since uncovered excessive emissions across the sector and unleashed a clampdown that undermines the business case for combustion engines, forcing a sector-wide rethink.

Now the “villain” of dieselgate is likely to become the largest producer of electric cars in the world in coming years, analysts say, putting it in pole position to flood the market – should the demand materialize.

“Decisions to convert the Emden factory (in Lower Saxony) to build electric cars, would never have happened without this Saturday meeting,” said Stackmann, one of five senior VW executives who spoke to Reuters.

However the full scale of VW’s ambitions were only revealed two months ago when it took the industry by surprise by pledging to spend 80 billion euros to develop electric vehicles and buy batteries, dwarfing the investment of rivals.

It plans to raise annual production of electric cars to 3 million by 2025, from 40,000 in 2018.

STRATEGIC PERILS

It’s a risky bet.

With regulators and lawmakers, rather than customers, dictating what kind of vehicles can hit the road, analysts at Deloitte say the industry could produce 14 million electric cars for which there is no consumer demand.

It’s also an all-or-nothing bet in the long run.

VW, whose ID electric car will hit showrooms in 2020, has set a deadline for ending mass production of combustion engines. The final generation of gasoline and diesel engines will be developed by 2026.

Arndt Ellinghorst, analyst at Evercore ISI, said betting on electric vehicles (EVs) could be risky because customers did not want to own cars dependent on street-charging facilities.

“What if people are still not ready to own EVs? Will adoption be the same in the U.S., Europe and China?” he said.

But he added that EU and Chinese emissions regulations made electric vehicle adoption inevitable and that being an early industry mover in that direction offered a “positive risk-reward”.

Another by-product of dieselgate that quickened VW’s electric drive, according to the senior executives, was a purge of the company’s old guard, who became the focus of public and political anger.

This empowered Diess, a newcomer who had joined as VW brand boss shortly before U.S. regulators exposed the carmaker’s emission test cheating.

Diess, who joined from BMW where he helped pioneer a ground-breaking electric vehicle, has since been appointed CEO of Volkswagen Group, a multi-brand empire that includes Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Seat, Skoda, Lamborghini and Ducati.Slideshow (3 Images)

Carmakers have failed to mass-produce electric cars profitably largely because of the prohibitive cost of battery packs which make up between 30 percent and 50 percent of the cost of an electric vehicle.

A 500 km-range battery costs around $20,000, compared with a gasoline engine that costs around $5,000. Add to that another $2,000 for the electric motor and inverter, and the gap is even wider.

Even electric start-up Tesla’s cheapest car, the Model 3, is on sale in Germany at 55,400 euros, priced just below a base model Porsche Macan, a compact SUV. In the United States, Model 3 prices start at $35,950.

VW believes its scale will give it an edge to build an electric vehicle costing no more than its current Golf model, about 20,000 euros, using its procurement clout as the world’s largest car and truck maker to drive down the cost.

“We are Volkswagen, a brand for the people. For electric cars we need economies of scale. And VW, more than any other carmaker, can take advantage of this,” a senior Volkswagen executive told Reuters, declining to be named.

The carmaker’s electric-vehicle budget outstrips that of its closest competitor, Germany’s Daimler, which has committed $42 billion. General Motors, the No.1 U.S. automaker, has said it plans to spend a combined $8 billion on electric and self-driving vehicles.

Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi said in late 2017 they would spend 10 billion euros by 2022 on developing electric and autonomous cars.

“On a 2025 view, we expect Volkswagen to be the number one electric vehicles producer globally,” UBS analyst Patrick Hummel said. “Tesla is likely to remain a niche player.”

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STRICTER TESTING

VW’s test cheating using engine management software – “defeat devices” – resulted in the introduction of tougher pollution tests which revealed in 2016 and 2017 that emissions readings across the industry were up to 20 percent higher under real-world driving conditions compared with lab conditions.

This has raised the bar on the auto sector’s efforts to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, blamed for causing global warming.

EU lawmakers in December agreed a cut in carbon dioxide emissions from cars of 37.5 percent by 2030 compared with 2021 levels. This was after the European Union forced a 40 percent cut in emissions between 2007 and 2021.

“This goal is no longer reachable using combustion engines alone,” Volkmar Denner, chief executive of Bosch, the world’s biggest auto supplier, said about the 2030 proposals.

Every gram of excessive carbon dioxide pollution will be penalized with a 95 euros fine from this year onwards.

Strategy firm PA Consulting forecasts VW will face a 1.4-billion-euro penalty for overstepping average limits in Europe by 2021, while Ford and Fiat-Chrysler face fines of 430 million euros and 700 million euros respectively.

Daimler, BMW, PSA, Mazda and Hyundai will miss their 2021 average emissions targets, PA Consulting forecasts. Toyota, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Volvo, Honda and Jaguar Land Rover are on track to meet their goals.

PA Consulting’s forecasts were extrapolated using 2017 registration data for each powertrain type and consumer buying trends, but do not include more recent sales trends.

Ford, VW and BMW said they would meet their targets because of a push to sell more hybrid and electric cars in 2018. Daimler said it aimed to meet the targets, PSA said it would respect the targets while Fiat-Chrysler declined to comment. Mazda had no immediate comment, while Hyundai did not respond to a request for comment.

Carmakers have struggled to lower their average fleet emissions because of a shift in customer taste toward heavier, bigger SUVs (sports utility vehicles), which make it harder to maintain the same levels of acceleration and comfort without increasing fuel consumption and pollution.

SUVs are now the most popular vehicle category in Europe, commanding a market share of 34.6 percent, according to JATO Dynamics. Even Porsche, which makes lightweight sportscars, relies on sports utility vehicles for 61 percent of sales.

As the industry-wide scale of excessive emissions prompted Brussels to push through tougher laws late last year, VW executives concluded that purely electric cars were the most efficient way to meet carbon dioxide goals across its fleet.

This was the point of no return, according to executives, when the company made the final electric investment decisions and committed to staying the course it had plotted after dieselgate.

“After evaluating alternatives, we opted for electromobility,” chief operating officer Ralf Brandstaetter told Reuters about VW’s deliberations in November. -Reuters

-Ilona Wissenbach and Agnieszka Flak

Current Affairs

Morocco Looks To French As Language Of Economic Success

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Morocco’s economy is getting lost in translation.

With so many students dropping out of university because they don’t speak French, the government has proposed reintroducing it as the language for teaching science, maths and technical subjects such as computer science in high schools.

It also wants children to start learning French when they start school.

The country’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh, or Berber. Most people speak Moroccan Arabic – a mixture of Arabic and Amazigh infused with French and Spanish influences.

In school, children are taught through Arabic although they don’t use it outside the classroom. When they get to university, lessons switch to French, the language of the urban elite and the country’s former colonial masters. Confused? Many are.

Two out of three people fail to complete their studies at public universities in Morocco, mainly because they don’t speak French.

The linguistic morass has stymied economic growth and exacerbated inequalities in the North African country, where one in four young people are unemployed and the average annual income runs at approximately $3,440 per person, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – less than a third of the world average.

The plans to broaden the teaching of French go to the heart of Morocco’s national identity.

They would overturn decades of Arabisation after independence from France in 1956 and have triggered a furor in parliament, where members of the Islamist PJD party, the senior partner in the coalition government, and the conservative Istiqlal party view them as a betrayal.

The disagreement has delayed a vote on the changes.

“Openness to the world should not be used as an excuse to impose the primacy of French,” said Hassan Adili, a PJD lawmaker.

Proponents say the changes reflect the reality that French reigns supreme in business, government and higher education, giving those who can afford to be privately schooled through French a huge advantage over the majority of the country’s students.

“In the Moroccan job market, mastery of French is indispensable. Those who do not have command of French are considered illiterate,” said Hamid El Otmani, head of talent and training at the Confederation of Moroccan Employers.

Even before parliament votes on the changes, Education Minister Said Amzazi has okayed the roll-out of French in some schools, declaring its use in teaching scientific subjects as an “irreversible choice”.

Like many Moroccan politicians, his children received a private education.

“When decision-makers start sending their children to public schools, only then can we say that we have a successful education system,” said Jamal Karimi Benchekroun of the co-ruling socialist PPS party.

Amzazi did not respond to a request for comment.

Frustration over jobs and poverty has fueled periodic protests in Morocco, but the country has avoided the sort of instability suffered by other North African states, where pent-up anger has triggered uprisings and provided fertile ground for Islamist extremism.

King Mohammed VI, the ultimate power in Morocco, has proven adept at introducing limited reforms in response to popular protest. He has spoken publicly about the need to teach foreign languages to students to reduce unemployment and has made the economy a top priority.

Last year, he sacked the minister for finance after calling on the government to do more to boost investment.

C’EST LA VIE

Problems with language are not unique to Morocco. In neighboring Algeria, another former French colony, students are also schooled in Arabic only to be greeted “en francais” in university and the workplace.

French’s pre-eminence reflects Paris’ continuing influence in the region. France is the biggest foreign direct investor in Morocco and large companies such as carmakers Renault and Peugeot employ tens of thousands of people.

Privately-run universities such as the International University of Rabat (UIR) have courses geared toward high-growth industries such as aerospace and renewable energy and offer tuition in French and English.

But a year at UIR can cost up to $10,000 in fees, way beyond the budget of most Moroccans. They go instead to non-fee paying public universities, where the abrupt transition to studying in French is frequently a burden for students and their lecturers.

“Sometimes we find ourselves giving French language courses during economy classes,” said Amine Dafir, economy professor at Hassan II University, a public institution in Mohamedia, near Casablanca.

Hamid Farricha, 37, dropped out of his applied physics and computer science degree at Hassan II University during the first year. He dreamed of becoming an engineer but the language barrier meant he struggled to keep up.

Trying to find Arabic translations for French scientific words was a drain on his time.

He switched instead to studying mechanics at a vocational school. He still had to master French to get hired.

“The biggest challenge after earning my diploma was writing a CV and sitting for job interviews in French,” Farricha said.

He got a job as a technician at a plant repairing car frames, paid below Morocco’s minimum monthly salary of 2570 dirhams, or $270.

Farricha was one of the lucky ones. Morocco’s economy cannot absorb all the young people looking for work. Around 280,000 graduates entered the labor force last year but only 112,000 jobs were created.

The unemployment rate for graduates is 17 percent, above the national rate of 9.8 percent, according to data from Morocco’s planning agency.

Morocco’s reliance on small and medium-sized companies which do not typically employ graduates, and austerity drives which have cut public sector jobs are part of the reason for the high rate of graduate unemployment.

The education system is also failing to prepare students for work.

In addition to high dropout rates, Moroccan students score badly compared to peers on international tests, and at university level, students oversubscribe to social science fields at the expense of technical subjects, according to an IMF report in late 2017. That means many don’t have the skills employers are looking for when they graduate.

Even for roles not requiring a degree, French is a must. On the French website of Morocco’s job promotion agency, almost all employers were looking for French speakers, including for jobs as guards, waiters, cooks and drivers.

Determined to get ahead, Farricha worked on his French while employed at the plant. He read newspapers and books in his spare time and gave himself a daily list of new expressions and vocabulary to learn.

He went back to university in 2014 for a degree in French law and is studying for a masters in diplomacy and international arbitration.

To meet his living costs, he teaches French to other students. -Reuters

Ahmed Eljechtimi

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Focus

Software Pirates Use Apple Tech To Put Hacked Apps On iPhones

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Software pirates have hijacked technology designed by Apple Inc to distribute hacked versions of Spotify, Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, Minecraft and other popular apps on iPhones.

Illicit software distributors such as TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox have found ways to use digital certificates to get access to a program Apple introduced to let corporations distribute business apps to their employees without going through Apple’s tightly controlled App Store.

Using so-called enterprise developer certificates, these pirate operations are providing modified versions of popular apps to consumers, enabling them to stream music without ads and to circumvent fees and rules in games, depriving Apple and legitimate app makers of revenue.

By doing so, the pirate app distributors are violating the rules of Apple’s developer programs, which only allow apps to be distributed to the general public through the App Store. Downloading modified versions violates the terms of service of almost all major apps.

TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Apple has no way of tracking the real-time distribution of these certificates, or the spread of improperly modified apps on its phones, but it can cancel the certificates if it finds misuse.

“Developers that abuse our enterprise certificates are in violation of the Apple Developer Enterprise Program Agreement and will have their certificates terminated, and if appropriate, they will be removed from our Developer Program completely,” an Apple spokesperson told Reuters. “We are continuously evaluating the cases of misuse and are prepared to take immediate action.”

After Reuters initially contacted Apple for comment last week, some of the pirates were banned from the system, but within days they were using different certificates and were operational again.

“There’s nothing stopping these companies from doing this again from another team, another developer account,” said Amine Hambaba, head of security at software firm Shape Security.

Apple confirmed a media report on Wednesday that it would require two-factor authentication – using a code sent to a phone as well as a password – to log into all developer accounts by the end of this month, which could help prevent certificate misuse.

Major app makers Spotify Technology SA, Rovio Entertainment Oyj and Niantic Inc have begun to fight back.

Spotify declined to comment on the matter of modified apps, but the streaming music provider did say earlier this month that its new terms of service would crack down on users who are “creating or distributing tools designed to block advertisements” on its service.

Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds mobile games, said it actively works with partners to address infringement “for the benefit of both our player community and Rovio as a business.”

Niantic, which makes Pokemon Go, said players who use pirated apps that enable cheating on its game are regularly banned for violating its terms of service. Microsoft Corp, which owns the creative building game Minecraft, declined to comment.

SIPHONING OFF REVENUE

It is unclear how much revenue the pirate distributors are siphoning away from Apple and legitimate app makers.

TutuApp offers a free version of Minecraft, which costs $6.99 in Apple’s App Store. AppValley offers a version of Spotify’s free streaming music service with the advertisements stripped away.

The distributors make money by charging $13 or more per year for subscriptions to what they calls “VIP” versions of their services, which they say are more stable than the free versions. It is impossible to know how many users buy such subscriptions, but the pirate distributors combined have more than 600,000 followers on Twitter.

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Security researchers have long warned about the misuse of enterprise developer certificates, which act as digital keys that tell an iPhone a piece of software downloaded from the internet can be trusted and opened. They are the centerpiece of Apple’s program for corporate apps and enable consumers to install apps onto iPhones without Apple’s knowledge.

Apple last month briefly banned Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc from using enterprise certificates after they used them to distribute data-gathering apps to consumers.

The distributors of pirated apps seen by Reuters are using certificates obtained in the name of legitimate businesses, although it is unclear how. Several pirates have impersonated a subsidiary of China Mobile Ltd. China Mobile did not respond to requests for comment.

Tech news website TechCrunch earlier this week reported that certificate abuse also enabled the distribution of apps for pornography and gambling, both of which are banned from the App Store.

Since the App Store debuted in 2008, Apple has sought to portray the iPhone as safer than rival Android devices because Apple reviews and approves all apps distributed to the devices.

Early on, hackers “jailbroke” iPhones by modifying their software to evade Apple’s controls, but that process voided the iPhone’s warranty and scared off many casual users. The misuse of the enterprise certificates seen by Reuters does not rely on jailbreaking and can be used on unmodified iPhones. -Reuters

-Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave

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Economy

Fintech Companies Raised a Record $39.6 Billion in 2018: Research

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Venture capital-backed financial technology companies raised a record $39.57 billion from investors globally in 2018, up 120 percent from the previous year, according to research by data provider CB Insights published on Tuesday.

Funding was raised through 1,707 deals, up from 1,480 in 2017, the research said.

The surge in funding was due in large part to 52 mega-rounds, or investments larger than $100 million, which were worth $24.88 billion combined, the research said.

A $14 billion investment in Ant Financial, the payment affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, accounted for 35 percent of total fintech funding alone last year, the research said.

In the last three months of the year, five companies joined the coveted ranks of fintech “unicorns”, or companies valued at more than $1 billion. These include credit card provider Brex, digital bank Monzo and data aggregator Plaid.

Venture capital investors have been pouring billions of dollars into fintech companies, in the hopes that they can gain market share from incumbent financial institutions by offering easier to use and cheaper digital financial services.

Fintechs have emerged globally across all sectors of finance, including lending, banking and wealth management.

While the large rounds minted new unicorns and led funding to hit a record high in 2018, CB Insights estimates these will likely delay initial public offerings.

“IPO activity is likely to remain lackluster in 2019,” the research reads.

Asia saw the biggest jump in number of deals in 2018, growing 38 percent from the previous year and accounting for a record $22.65 billion, according to the study.

In the United States, fintechs raised a record $11.89 billion through 659 investments, while the number of deals dropped in Europe, but funding reached a record $3.53 billion. -Reuters

-Anna Irrera

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