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Bracing for a Hazy Robo-Future, Ford and VW Join Forces

Sensor partnerships. Subsidiary acquisitions. Software collaborations. The autonomous driving world is about as incestous a place as Caligula’s palace, and it got a little more so today, when Ford and Volkswagen announced a formal and long-anticipated alliance.

“The alliance we are now building, starting from first formal agreement, will boost both partners’ competitiveness in an era of rapid change,” Herbert Diess, the CEO of Volkswagen, said on a call with reporters. He and Ford CEO Jim Hackett said the partnership—which is not a merger—will begin with the companies jointly developing and building medium-sized pickups and commercial vans, to debut as early as 2022. The automakers said the arrangement should “yield improved annual pre-tax operating results” by 2023. So hopefully, this makes everyone richer.

After that, well, the companies have signed a “memorandum of understanding” to collaborate on electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and mobility services. The shape and details of those partnerships are yet to be determined.

Diess is right about that “rapid change” bit. The automotive industry has shifted remarkably in the last decade, with new vehicle and vehicle-adjacent tech players—Tesla, Waymo, Aurora, Argo AI—injecting fresh blood (and panic) into the business of building cars. Ford and VW seem to believe that banding together will help them not only survive, but thrive.

The companies will need to do that in a world where, eventually, someday, the human driver is obsolete. The path to self-driving domination is not yet clear. What services will automotive manufacturers manage for themselves? Which technologies will they build and own? Ford and VW have spent the last few years toying with different answers to these questions, and by joining forces, each has diversified its AV portfolio. It might be evidence, as automotive writer Pete Bigelow points out, that the companies are making smart, strategic decisions about how to spend their R & D dollars in this confusing, in-between time. Or that they’re flailing. Maybe both.

Both VW and Ford already have (quasi) in-house automated vehicle software teams. VW has built up a 150-person “Autonomous Intelligent Driving” unit as part of its Audi brand, which is building a full AV software stack. (Audi itself has pledged to spend $16 billion on electric and self-driving vehicles through 2023.) And the German automaker is working on self-driving with the AV developer Aurora, which is headed up by self-driving tech veterans.

Ford has a large stake in Pittsburgh-based AV software company Argo AI, whose work is a key element of the automaker’s pledge to have a fully automated robotaxi in operation by 2021. And it has spent time and money boning up on “mobility” tech, purchasing companies like transit software-maker TransLoc, transportation cloud platform Autonomic, (recently killed) shuttle service Chariot, and scooter-share company Spin. It’s trying to figure out how best to connect customers to transportation, and what they’d like to see out of a transportation service, anyway.

It’s not clear yet how these various minglings will affect Ford and VW’s work. Argo AI is involved in the discussions between the companies, but specifics are scarce. “We’re not going to speculate on the details of the advanced discussions that are ongoing,” says Alan Hall, a spokesperson for Ford.

Khobi Brooklyn, a spokesperson for Aurora, did not say what role the company might play in the alliance. “As we continue to build relationships across the transportation ecosystem with providers of vehicles, transportation networks and fleet management operations, we are confident that we will be able to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly,” she wrote in a statement. Aurora has said that it has not ruled out working with other automotive manufacturers on self-driving cars; it also has partnerships with Hyundai and EV startup Byton.

Another element of this “diversification” that should benefit both companies: They get easier access to the others’ regional strengths—and regulatory environments. VW has invested serious money in South America, Africa, and China. But despite a new plan to establish a plant in Tennessee, the German carmaker is weaker in the US, Ford’s home turf. “From Volkswagen’s perspective, it would make a lot of sense to cooperate with an American player given that the regulatory conditions for preparing the breakthrough of autonomous driving are more advanced in the US than they are in Europe,” Diess told reporters. Break out those German-English dictionaries.


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Tech Workers Unite to Fight Forced Arbitration

Tech workers may be new to labor organizing, but they’re learning quickly. When a November walkout by 20,000 Google employees protesting the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment claims led to small changes that fell short of the organizers’ demands, some activists inside Google decided to broaden the fight.

On Tuesday, the group, called Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration, will launch a public awareness campaign about mandatory arbitration agreements, arguing that employers use them to suppress workers facing harassment and discrimination. “Ending forced arbitration is the gateway change needed to transparently address inequity in the workplace,” the group wrote in a blog post on Medium.

From 9AM to 6PM ET on Tuesday, the group will post information about arbitration on a dedicated Twitter account, while a companion Instagram account will post testimonials from both experts and survivors of sexual harassment and assault. The purpose of the social media blitz is to bring awareness to the fine print in arbitration clauses, mobilize workers to call on Congress to act, and encourage employees at other companies to demand changes.

“This isn’t just a Google issue. If they all have these arbitration agreements, then there is really is no way for employees to negotiate,” says Vicki Tardif, a staff linguist on Google’s search team, who organized and spoke at the Google walkout in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mandatory arbitration agreements, often signed as part of an employment contract, have come under fire during the #MeToo movement for silencing survivors, while shielding serial predators, because the agreements force employees to take their claims to a private arbiter, rather than public court.

The social media campaign represents a real leap for tech’s nascent labor movement because it involves employees of several companies. Thus far, most of the action has come from within Google. But in December, the anti-arbitration group started soliciting copies of employment contracts from colleagues at Facebook, Uber, and other tech companies, as well as third-party contractors, in order to understand how tech employers convince both workers and contractors to sign arbitration agreements that inhibit their right to bring sexual harassment or discrimination claims in front of a jury.

Tanuja Gupta, a Google employee and one of the organizers behind the Google Walkout, says the group evaluated the contracts they received against three criteria: that arbitration be optional; that employees be allowed to bring class actions; and that employees be allowed to speak out about their claim. “When we went through what people sent us, no [company] was able to meet those three criteria,” she says.

Some female engineers who faced sexual harassment at Uber were prohibited from seeking their day in court because of mandatory arbitration agreements, which also lowered monetary settlements for their claims.

After the Nov. 1 walkout, CEO Sundar Pichai said Google would no longer require arbitration, but only in cases of sexual harassment, not discrimination, and only for individual claims, not class action lawsuits. Lawyers representing women who sued Google, Uber, and Twitter called the change superficial, since harassment and discrimination are often inextricably tied and because it precluded class action, which has shown to be a catalyst for industry-wide change on other labor issues.

In a blog post announcing the social media blitz, the employee group wrote, “The change yielded a win in the headlines, but provided no meaningful gains for worker equity, nor an actual change in employee contracts or future offer letters. (As of this publication, we have confirmed Google is still sending out offer letters with the old arbitration policy.)”

Google is facing two shareholder lawsuits filed last week that also demand more transparency around its sexual harassment policies. The company did not immediately respond to request for comment.


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Desalination Is Booming. But What About All That Toxic Brine?

If only humans could drink seawater without dying, we wouldn’t find ourselves floundering in a water crisis. To not die, first you have to boil saltwater and collect the pure vapor, or get yourself a fancy membrane that filters out all the salt and, conveniently, sea life.

This is the controversial idea behind large-scale desalination—great, big, expensive facilities that turn saltwater into a liquid that won’t kill you. The classic criticism of desal is that it takes a tremendous amount of energy to process seawater, and we really shouldn’t be burning any more fossil fuels than we need to be. But a less chattered-about problem is the effect on the local environment: The primary byproduct of desal is brine, which facilities pump back out to sea. The stuff sinks to the seafloor and wreaks havoc on ecosystems, cratering oxygen levels and spiking salt content.

Unfortunately, scientists haven’t had a good idea of just how much brine the 16,000 operating desal facilities worldwide have been producing. Until now. Researchers report today that global desal brine production is 50 percent higher than previous estimates, totaling 141.5 million cubic meters a day, compared to 95 million cubic meters of actual freshwater output from the facilities. Bad news for the environment, to be sure, but things aren’t altogether dire: Desal tech is rapidly evolving, so plants are getting far more efficient, both in the brine they produce and the energy they use.

Desalination facilities typically fall into one of two categories: thermal and membrane. With thermal, you suck in seawater, heat it up to get the pure vapor, and pump the remaining brine back out to sea. With membranes, you push seawater at great pressures through a series of filters, which pull out all the salt and other contaminants.

Thermal is the more old-school method—prior to the 1980s, 84 percent of desalinated water went through this process. Since the beginning of the new millennium, though, a particular kind of membrane technology, reverse osmosis (we’ll call it RO for short), has proliferated exponentially. RO facilities now produce 69 percent of desalinated water worldwide.

Why? Because RO is cheaper and more efficient. Advances in membrane technology mean facilities require less and less pressure, and therefore energy, to filter seawater. As an added benefit, RO produces less brine. With thermal, 75 percent of the water you bring in might leave as brine. With RO, it’s more 50-50 freshwater to wastewater.

“It also depends on the feedwater,” or input water, says Edward Jones, coauthor on the new study and an environmental scientist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Reverse osmosis is least efficient when you’re desalinating highly saline water, such as seawater. And it gets more and more efficient as feedwater salinity drops.”

Jones et al./Science of the Total Environment

This is an important consideration because not all desal facilities are processing seawater. In fact, if you take a look at the map above, you’ll see a great number of them are inland. These are processing brackish (i.e., only slightly salty) water from aquifers or rivers for drinking, or for use in industry and agriculture. They’re by nature more efficient than coastal plants that process seawater.

That’s part of the reason why coastal plants in the Middle East and Northern Africa produce an astounding proportion of the world’s desal brine. A total of 173 countries and territories run desal plants, but only four nations—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar—produce 55 percent of global desal brine, according to the new study.

The second reason for the discrepancy is that in the Middle East they’re using older, inefficient thermal plants, while the rest of the world has been shifting to RO. “These plants are very, very expensive to build, so it’s not likely they’ll be taken offline,” says Jones. “So there’s still going to be these plants operating which produce vast quantities of brine, particularly in the Middle East, where they’ve got a very established network of thermal desalination plants.”

Countries in the Middle East can afford to keep running these energy-hungry things because they’re awash in oil money but poor in water resources. But as populations grow elsewhere around the world, and climate change drives droughts, desal has become an increasingly attractive option. (Analysts forecast an annual growth rate for the industry of close to 9 percent for at least the next four years. You can see just how much desal has boomed recently in the graph below.) For instance, last year Cape Town rushed to bring temporary RO plants online so the city wouldn’t wither amid a vicious drought.

Jones et al./Science of the Total Environment

“Increasing water scarcity is the major driver,” says Manzoor Qadir, coauthor on the new study and assistant director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health. “At the same time, if you look at the countries where desalination has tremendously increased, those are the countries that can afford it.”

The boom in desal brings with it a tidal wave of brine. Because this stuff is denser than typical seawater, it sinks to the seafloor and disrupts vibrant communities of life, which find themselves wanting far less salt and far more oxygen. Facilities can mitigate the environmental impact by, for example, mixing the brine with seawater before pumping it out, to dilute it. They might also take care to expel the byproduct where currents are strongest, thus dissipating the brine quicker. Inland, a plant might evaporate the water in pools and cart away the remaining salt.

But brine is more than just hypersaline water—it can be loaded with heavy metals and chemicals that keep the feedwater from gunking up the complicated and expensive facility. “The antifoulants used in the process, particularly in the pretreatment process of the source water, accumulate and discharge to the environment in concentrations that can potentially have damaging effects on the ecosystems,” says Jones. Dilution may help with the hypersalinity problem, but it doesn’t get rid of the chemical toxins.

But herein lies opportunity: The discharge can also contain precious elements like uranium. This might be enough incentive to turn desal brine from a noxious byproduct into a source of revenue. Or you might use evaporative pools inland to produce commercial road salt for deicing roads. And that could help clean up the industry, because capitalism.

“There’s definitely economic opportunities available,” says Jones. “That’s why we stress there is positive news here as well. There’s an opportunity as well as it currently being a big challenge.”

Desal, for all its faults, isn’t going anywhere. As it gets cheaper, adoption will continue to grow. Middle Eastern countries full-tilt rely on it, while other regions, like Southern California, use it to supplement traditional—and increasingly unpredictable—sources of water. A plant run by Poseidon Water, for instance, produces 10 percent of San Diego County’s water supply.

“That is enough water to serve 400,000 residents,” says Jessica Jones, spokesperson for Poseidon. “This is the only new water supply in the county that is not dependent on snowpack in the Sierras or local rainfall—truly climate-resilient.”

Except, that is, for the fact that sea levels are rising due to climate change, which threatens seaside desalination plants the world over. And ironically enough, these facilities are sucking up massive amounts of energy, thus contributing to the emissions problem. “From an impact perspective, the energy intensity is huge,” says Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at UC Berkeley, who wasn’t involved in this study. “Even if powered by renewable energy sources such as solar or wind, you’re still using a tremendous amount of energy, which in principle could go elsewhere to displace fossil fuel consumption.”

“Desalination is not a panacea,” Kiparsky adds. In a place like California, it can be a complement to more traditional sources of water like snowpack. And while the efficiency of these plants will improve, this is still a fundamentally energy-ravenous technology. “There are theoretical limits to the energy intensity reductions that are possible for seawater desalination,” says Kiparsky. “It will never be cheap.”

This is a terrifying world we’ve built for ourselves, to be sure. But perhaps it’s not too late to clean up our act.


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Corporate investors pile into electric vehicle startups

DETROIT (Reuters) – Corporate investors from outside the auto industry are placing increasing bets on electric vehicles, vying with automakers and suppliers to bankroll startup companies working on everything from advanced batteries to charging devices and all-new EVs.

FILE PHOTO: A Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid vehicle is being charged at Stewart Chevrolet in Colma, California, U.S., October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Some 250 startups involved in some aspect of electrification have attracted more than $20 billion in venture capital, notably from a broad array of corporations across multiple industries, according to a Reuters analysis of publicly available data.

“Electrification will set off a number of economic changes in the traditional value chain in and around vehicles,” said Reilly Brennan, managing director of San Francisco-based Trucks Venture Capital.

Because of those changes, in addition to funding EV development, investors see revenue opportunities in related markets, such as consumer products and home energy, Brennan said.

Such opportunities are underpinned by steady improvements in lithium-ion batteries’ energy, prompting forecasts for a surge in fleet electrification amid global efforts to fight fuel consumption and emissions from traditional internal combustion engines.

Big oil companies such as BP PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC see EV-related investments partly as a hedge against dwindling demand for fossil fuels for privately owned vehicles, according to venture investor Evangelos Simoudis, managing director of Synapse Partners.

But they also see an opportunity to provide electric vehicle charging at fuel stations that now dispense gasoline and diesel.

Simoudis, who advises corporate executives on new mobility innovation strategy, said aerospace companies have a vested interest, too, in startups working on advanced battery systems: “Boeing and Airbus are both working on electric planes.”

Large telecommunication companies such as Verizon Communications Inc will play a role in connected electric vehicles, while semiconductor makers such as Intel Corp and Qualcomm Inc see their computer chips being used in an increasing number of applications in future electric and self-driving vehicles, Simoudis added.

Far and away the most active corporate investor in electrification so far is Intel, which has backed battery startups Prieto, Qnovo and Enovix and charging startups WiTricity and Chargifi.

Global automakers are heavily invested in battery startups. The field includes General Motors Co, BMW AG, Daimler AG, Renault SA, Nissan Motor Co, Hyundai Motror Co and SAIC Motor Corp.

Outside the auto industry, corporate investors in battery startups include technology companies Samsung Electronics and Motorola Solutions Inc and energy company Schlumberger NV.

Dozens of the startups focused on EV charging and infrastructure have been funded by many of the same corporate investors, including Chevron Corp and ABB AG [ABB.UL].

The greatest interest from investors, however, is in EV startups. There are more than 50 globally, including several high-profile and well-funded Tesla wannabes based in China.

Corporate investment in China’s startups has come from big Chinese companies such as automaker FAW Car Co and battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology Co, which have backed Byton; automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group [GEELY.UL] and technology firm Baidu Inc, which have funded WM Motor, and internet giant Alibaba Group Holding, which has invested in Xiaopeng Motors.

In the United States, GM and BMW have backed Proterra, the electric bus maker, while Caterpillar Inc, which is best known for heavy construction machinery, has invested in Henrik Fisker’s latest electric vehicle project, Fisker Inc.

Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Tom Brown

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