Archives for January 16, 2019

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The companies will need to do that in a world where, eventually, someday, the human driver is obsolete.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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Exclusive: Facebook brings stricter ads rules to countries with big 2019 votes

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook Inc told Reuters on Tuesday that it would extend some of its political advertising rules and tools for curbing election interference to India, Nigeria, Ukraine and the European Union before significant votes in the next few months.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

As the largest social media service in nearly every big country, Facebook since 2016 has become a means for politicians and their adversaries to distribute fake news and other propaganda.

Buying Facebook ads can widen the audience for such material, but some of those influence efforts may violate election rules and the company’s policies.

Under pressure from authorities around the world, Facebook last year introduced several initiatives to increase oversight of political ads.

Beginning on Wednesday in Nigeria, only advertisers located in the country will be able to run electoral ads, mirroring a policy unveiled during an Irish referendum last May, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s director of global politics and outreach, said in an interview.

The same policy will take effect in Ukraine in February. Nigeria holds a presidential election on Feb. 16, while Ukraine will follow on March 31.

In India, which votes for parliament this spring, Facebook will place electoral ads in a searchable online library starting from next month, said Rob Leathern, a director of product management at the company.

“We’re learning from every country,” Leathern said. “We know we’re not going to be perfect, but our goal is continuing, ongoing improvement.”

Facebook believes that holding the ads in a library for seven years is a key part of fighting intereference, he added.

The library will resemble archives brought to the United States, Brazil and Britain last year.

The newfound transparency drew some applause from elected officials and campaign accountability groups, but they also criticized Facebook for allowing advertisers in the United States to obfuscate their identities.

The Indian archive will contain contact information for some ad buyers or their official regulatory certificates. For individuals buying political ads, Facebook said it would ensure their listed name matches government-issued documents.

The European Union would get a version of that authorization and transparency system ahead of the bloc’s parliamentary elections in May, Leathern said.

The ad hoc approach, with varying policies and transparency depending on the region, reflects local laws and conversations with governments and civil society groups, Harbath said.

That means extra steps to verify identities and locations of political ad buyers in the United States and India will not be introduced in every big election this year, Leathern said.

In addition, ad libraries in some countries will not include what the company calls “issue” ads, Leathern said.

Facebook’s U.S. archive includes ads about much-debated issues such as climate change and immigration policy even though they may not directly relate to a ballot measure.

Australia, Indonesia, Israel and the Philippines are among nations holding key votes this year for which Facebook said it is still weighing policies.

Leathern and Harbath said they hoped to have a set of tools that applies to advertisers globally by the end of June. They declined to elaborate, saying lessons from the next couple of months would help shape the worldwide product.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Facebook is pictured during the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris, France, May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

“Our goal was to get to a global solution,” Harbath said. “And so, until we can get to that in June, we had to look at the different elections and what we think we can do.”

Other Facebook teams remain focused on identifying problematic political behavior unrelated to ads.

Last month, researchers working for a U.S. Senate committee concluded that the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency used social media ads and regular posts on inauthentic accounts to promote then presidential candidate Donald Trump to millions of Americans. Russia has denied the accusation.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Clarence Fernandez