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.
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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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
How Virtual Therapy Apps Are Trying To Disrupt The Mental Health Industry
Millions of Americans deal with mental illness each year, and more than half of them go untreated. As the mental health industry has grown in recent years, so has the number of tech startups offering virtual therapy, which range from online and app-based chatbots to video therapy sessions and messaging.
Still a nascent industry, with most startups in the early seed-stage funding round, these companies say they aim to increase access to qualified mental health care providers and reduce the social stigma that comes with seeking help.
While the efficacy of virtual therapy, compared with traditional in-person therapy, is still being hotly debated, its popularity is undeniable. Its most recognizable pioneers, BetterHelp and TalkSpace, have enrolled nearly 700,000 and more than 1 million users respectively. And investors are taking notice.
Funding for mental health tech startups has boomed in the past few years, jumping from roughly $100 million in 2014 to more than $500 million in 2018, according to Pitchbook. In May of this year, the subscription-based online therapy platform Talkspace raised an additional $50 million, bringing its total funding to just under $110 million since its 2012 inception.
The ubiquity of smartphones, coupled with the lessening of the stigma associated with mental health treatment have played a large role in the growing demand for virtual therapy. Of the various services offered on the Talkspace platform, “clients by far want asynchronous text messaging,” says Neil Leibowitz, the company’s chief medical officer.
Users seem to prefer back-and-forth messaging that isn’t restricted to a narrow window of time over face-to-face interactions. At BetterHelp, founder Alon Matas notes that older users are more likely to go for phone and video therapy sessions, whereas younger users favor text messaging.
“Each generation is getting progressively more mobile-native,” says John Prendergass, an associate director at Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ healthcare investment group, “so I think we’re going to see people become increasingly more accustomed, or predisposed, to a higher level of comfort in seeking care online.”
The ease and convenience of virtual therapy is another draw, particularly for busy people or those who live in rural areas with limited access to therapy and a range of care options.
Alison Darcy, founder and CEO of Woebot, a free automated chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to provide therapeutic services without the direct involvement of humans, says that with Woebot and other similar services, there is no need to schedule appointments weeks in advance and users can receive real-time coaching at the moment they need it, unlike traditional therapy. The sense of anonymity online can also lead to more openness and transparency and attracts people who normally wouldn’t seek therapy.
Along with stigma, the cost of therapy has historically acted as a barrier to accessing quality mental-health care. Health insurance is often unlikely to cover therapy sessions. In most cities, sessions run about $75 to $150 each, and can go as high as $200 or more in places like New York City. Web therapists don’t have to bear the expense of brick-and-mortar offices, filing paperwork or marketing their services, and these savings can be passed on to clients.
BetterHelp offers a $200-a-month membership that includes weekly live sessions with a therapist and unlimited messaging in between, while Talkspace’s cheapest monthly subscription at $260-a-month, offers unlimited text, video and audio messaging.
But virtual therapy, particularly text-based therapy, is not suitable for everyone. Nor is it likely to make traditional therapy obsolete. “Online therapy isn’t good for people who have severe mental and relational health issues, or any kind of psychosis, deep depression or violence,” says Christiana Awosan, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
At her New York and New Jersey offices, she works predominantly with black clients, a population that she says prefers face-to-face meetings. “This community is wary of mental health in general because of structural discrimination,” Awosan says. “They pay attention to nonverbal cues and so they need to first build trust in-person.”
Virtual therapy apps can still be beneficial for people with low-level anxiety, stress or insomnia, and they can also help users become aware of harmful behaviors and obtain a higher sense of well-being.
Sean Luo, a psychiatrist whose consultancy work focuses on machine learning techniques in mental health technology, says: “This why some of these companies are getting very high valuations. There are a lot of commercialization possibilities.” He adds that from a mental health treatment perspective, a virtual therapy app “isn’t going to solve your problems, because people who are truly ill will by definition require a lot more.”
Relying on digital therapy platforms might also provide a false sense of security for users who actually need more serious mental-health care, and many of these apps are ill-equipped to deal with emergencies like suicide, drug overdoses or the medical consequences of psychiatric illness. “The level of intervention simply isn’t strong enough,” says Luo, “and so these aspects still need to be evaluated by a trained professional.
– Ruth Umoh, Diversity and Inclusion Writer, Forbes Staff.
AI 50 Founders Say This Is What People Get Wrong About Artificial Intelligence
Forbes’ new list of promising artificial intelligence companies highlights how the technology is creating real value across industries like transportation, healthcare, HR, insurance and finance.
Naturally, the founders of the honoree companies are excited about the technology’s benefits and, in their roles, spend a lot of time thinking and talking about its strengths and limitations. Here’s what they think people get wrong about artificial intelligence.
Affectiva CEO Rana el Kaliouby says she’s too often encountered the idea that AI is “evil.”
“AI—like any technology in history—is neutral,” she says. “It’s what we do with it that counts, so it’s our responsibility, as an AI ecosystem, to drive it in the right direction.”
Companies need to be aware of how AI could widen bounds of inequality, she adds: “Any AI that is designed to interact with humans—Affectiva’s included—must be evaluated with regards to the ethical and privacy implications of these technologies.”
Sarjoun Skaff, CTO and cofounder of Bossa Nova Robotics, says that the biggest misconception he encounters is that artificial intelligence is actually, well, intelligent.
“The truth is much more mundane,” he says. “AI is a very good pattern-matching tool. To make it work well, though, scientists need to understand the details of how it internally works and not treat it as an ‘intelligent’ black box. At the end of the day, making good use of great pattern matching still belongs to humans.”
Similarly, Aira cofounder Suman Kanuganti says that the public has “over-inflated expectations” for artificial intelligence.
“Garry Kasparov sums it up nicely: ‘We are in the beginning of MS-DOS and people think we are Windows 10,’” Kanuganti says. “AI realistically is still like a 3-year-old child at this stage. When it works, it feels magical. It does some things well, but there’s still a long way to go.”
So, no, we are nowhere close to “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI, where machines are actually as smart as humans.
“We’re still a long way from AI having the general intelligence of even a flea,” says David Gausebeck.
Despite the tendency to overestimate what artificial intelligence can do, the difficulty of building an effective system is often underestimated, some founders say.
“The systems you need to implement and manage machine learning in production are often much more complex than the algorithms themselves,” says Algorithmia CEO Diego Oppenheimer. “You can’t throw models at a complex business problem and expect returned value. You need to build an ecosystem to manage those models and connect their intelligence to your applications.”
Put another way, you can’t just “sprinkle on some artificial intelligence like a magic sauce,” says Feedzai CEO Nuno Sebastiao.
One of the most common tropes that a handful of founders brought up was the idea that artificial intelligence is primarily a job killer.
People.ai founder Oleg Rogynskyy says that AI should be seen as a creator of new opportunities instead of a destroyer of jobs.
“In a nutshell, AI does two things: It automates repetitive low-value-add work for humans (which will indeed take low-complexity jobs away), which we think of as ‘Autopilot,’ and it guides people on how to do their work or other activities better (which makes humans more effective at what they do), which we call ‘Copilot,’” he says. “While Autopilot can take simple, repetitive and boring jobs away, Copilot is absolutely the best way to guide, train and educate humans on how to do new things.”
– By Jillian D’Onfro, Forbes
‘AI Is A Powerful Tool’
Research forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans. Murat Sonmez, member of the managing board, and Head of the Centre for the WEF Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, expands on the role humans might play.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is at the center of the current economic frontier. In reality, is Africa prepared for such changes?
Moving quickly and being agile are key principles of success in the 4IR. Any country can succeed if they take on this mindset. A few years ago, Rwanda saw the opportunities drones, a 4IR technology, brought to their country.
They helped save over 800 lives by delivering blood to remote villages. To scale this, the government worked with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) drones’ team to create the world’s first agile airspace regulation. Now, we see countries in Africa and around the world looking to the Rwandan model.
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What feasible solutions can artificial intelligence (AI) offer in terms of forecasting natural disasters, droughts food security on the African continent?
AI can help predict diseases, increase agriculture yields and help first responders. It is a powerful tool for governments and businesses, but it needs a lot of data to be effective.
For AI to be all that it can be, countries and companies need to work together to build frameworks for better management and protection of our data and ensure that it is shared and not stored in silos. Data is the oxygen of the (4IR). If countries do not leverage data and have their policies in place, they will be left behind.
There is a growing concern that the 4IR will strip people of jobs, of which there is already a shortage. How true is this?
The world is going through a workplace revolution that will bring a seismic shift in the way humans work alongside machines and algorithms.
Latest research from the WEF forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans, compared to 71% being performed by humans today.
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The rapid evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles in place of 75 million that will be displaced between now and 2022.
Consumers have real concerns around the potential harm technology can cause in areas such as privacy, misinformation, surveillance, job loss, environmental damage and increased inequality. What ethical precautions are being considered in the robotics space?
Now more than ever, it is important to incorporate ethics into the design, deployment and use of emerging technology. Innovating in the 4IR requires addressing concerns around privacy and data ownership, while attracting the skills and forward-looking thinkers of the future.
There are big challenges and bigger opportunities ahead. We have seen many companies and countries create ethical and human rights-based frameworks. What’s important is they are co-designed with members of both communities along with academia, civil society and start-ups.
A multi-stakeholder approach will result in a more holistic set of guidelines and principles that can be adopted in many different industries and geographies.
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What changes need to take place for the African continent to be on par with global developments, and are there tangible goals set?
The 4IR provides governments the opportunity to be global leaders in shaping the next 20 to 30 years of science and technology. It is important they create an environment where companies can innovate.
The other tenet is to be open to working across borders and learning from each other. The global health industry has access to mountains of data on rare diseases, but it is trapped within countries and sometimes even within the hospital walls.
If we can build trust and find innovative ways to share the data while protecting privacy, we can employ tools like AI to help us cure disease faster. Countries and companies need to have the right governance frameworks and mechanisms in place for these breakthroughs to happen. It is possible to do these things now, but we need to work together to make it happen.
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