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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.”

U.S. shale boosts BP profits to five year high

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

Entrepreneurs

31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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A Bottom-Up Approach To Cheaper, Next-Gen Electric Vehicles

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REE Automotive thinks the way to get electric vehicles into the mainstream is to flatten things out–by using a skateboard platform that integrates the battery, motors and driving controls into a flush floor and allows for independent steering of wheels. And while this tech startup’s concept is radical, it’s finding support from traditional automotive partners.

The latest to sign on is Tokyo-based KYB Corp., one of the world’s biggest makers of shock absorbers. The companies said today they’ve formed a partnership to develop suspension capabilities for electric vehicles that will be built off of Tel Aviv-based REE’s platform. Financial details of the arrangement, the first EV project for KYB, weren’t disclosed. REE emerged from stealth mode in 2019 and is also working with Toyota-affiliated truckmaker Hino, Mitsubishi Corp. and FiatChrysler.

CEO and cofounder Daniel Barel

REE AUTOMOTIVE

KYB is “excited to partner with REE Automotive and share its revolutionary EV vision by engineering a suspension subsystem that supports the needs of tomorrow’s mobility ecosystem,” Kazunori Masumoto, KYB’s general manager of engineering, said in a statement. 

For more than a decade, many companies have touted the benefits of standardized, flat undercarriages that could support multiple vehicle types, from sedans and crossovers to vans and commercial trucks, to dramatically eliminate costs to create individual platforms for each. Most recently, electric truck startup Rivian, automotive tech firm Canoo and the U.K.’s Arrival have promoted flat platforms for a range of battery-powered vehicles, but REE cofounder and CEO Daniel Barel says his company takes the approach even farther. 

“They’re great, but they are not skateboards. Only the middle is a skateboard,” Barel tells Forbes. The difference is how much battery REE’s design can accommodate and the complete integration of drive controls into the floor, he says. “We hold the most batteries per footprint than anybody else in the industry.” 

Barel says his company, which is not building complete vehicles, intends to have its technology on the road in 2021. One possible version was shown in October at the Tokyo Motor Show by Hino, with its FlatFormer electric concept vehicle riding on an REE-based platform. The Japanese truckmaker showed variations of the concept modified to serve as delivery trucks, food service and sanitation vehicles, mobile offices and salons and even agricultural and sanitation trucks, with different tops riding on the platform.

“KYB’s technology will play a crucial role in the rapid development of our next-generation EV architecture, which reinvents the electric vehicle with a completely flat, scalable and fully modular platform, ready to carry the future of e-mobility,” Barel said.

Along with lowering development costs, electric vehicles using REE’s technology will be lighter and considerably more compact. “We’re not only 33% lighter, but we’re almost 70% smaller in footprint” relative to Tesla Model 3, with the same interior volume, Barel claims. The business plan would rely mainly on supplying its design to different companies, ranging from auto and truck manufacturers to delivery and logistics companies, that he declined to identify. 

To date, REE has raised “about $100 million” from investors and automotive partners, Barel said, without elaborating. That’s more than double the $40.2 million the company had raised through its Series C round in 2018, according to Crunchbase. Additional fundraising is planned for 2020, though he didn’t provide details. 

If REE or other startups can bring viable platforms to market, demand could be strong, says Gartner IT transportation tech analyst Mike Ramsey. “There’s a lot of reasons to think that this would be super appealing. You’ve opened up the world of automakers very large, potentially, you know, with this platform approach,” he said. “But it does still require a lot of additional work–the crash testing, the assembly system and everything needed to support it.”     

Whether REE’s approach works in the real world remains to be seen, but it’s an approach that could help speed the slow shift away from conventional internal combustion engine designs if it helps make EVs easier to build and much cheaper. Barel sees flat platforms as doing just that. 

“To keep on building vehicles the same way we’ve been doing it for a hundred years doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Alan Ohnsman, Forbes Staff, Transportation

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Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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