Electric Car Makers Woo Chinese Buyers with Range, Features

Automakers are showcasing electric SUVs and sedans with more driving range and luxury features at the Shanghai auto show, trying to appeal to Chinese buyers in their biggest market as Beijing slashes subsidies that have propelled demand. 

Communist leaders wanting China to lead in electric vehicles have imposed sales targets. That requires brands to pour money into creating models to compete with gasoline-powered vehicles on price, looks and performance at a time when they are struggling with a Chinese sales slump. 

General Motors, Volkswagen, China’s Geely and other brands on Tuesday displayed dozens of models, from luxury SUVs to compacts priced under $10,000, at Auto Shanghai 2019. The show, the global industry’s biggest marketing event of the year, opens to the public Saturday following a preview for reporters.

On Monday, GM unveiled Buick’s first all-electric model for China. GM says the four-door Velite 6 can travel 301 kilometers (185 miles) before the battery needs charging. 

VW showed off a concept electric SUV, the whimsically named ID. ROOMZZ, designed to travel 450 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge. Features include seats that rotate 25 degrees to create a lounge-like atmosphere. 

Communist leaders have promoted “new energy vehicles” for 15 years with subsidies to developers and buyers. That, along with support including orders to state-owned utilities to blanket China with charging stations, is helping to transform the technology into a mainstream product. 

“People’s mindset and governmental policies are more encouraging toward e-cars than in any other country,” said VW CEO Herbert Diess. 

Electric vehicles play a key role in the ruling Communist Party’s plans for government-led development of Chinese global competitors in technologies from robotics to biotech. 

Those ambitions set off Beijing’s tariff war with President Donald Trump. Washington, Europe and other trading partners complain Chinese subsidies to technology developers and pressure on foreign companies to share know-how violate its market-opening commitments. 

Electric car subsidies end next year, replaced by sales quotas. Automakers that fall short can buy credits from competitors that exceed their targets or face possible fines. 

“Most of the traditional car makers are under huge pressure to launch NEVs,” said industry analyst John Zeng of LMC Automotive. 

Last year’s Chinese sales of pure-electric and hybrid sedans and SUVs soared 60% over 2017 to 1.3 million, or half the global total. At the same time, industry revenue was squeezed by a 4.1% fall in total Chinese auto sales to 23.7 million vehicles. 

That skid that worsened this year. First-quarter sales fell 13.7% from a year ago. 

Still, China is a top market for global automakers, giving them an incentive to go along with Beijing’s electric ambitions. Total annual sales are expected eventually to reach 30 million, nearly double last year’s U.S. level of 17 million. 

Under Beijing’s new rules, automakers must earn credits for sales of electrics equal to at least 10% of purchases this year and 12% in 2020. Longer-range vehicles can earn double credits. That means some brands can fill their quota if electrics make up as little as 5% of sales. 

Also Tuesday, Nissan Motor Co. and its Chinese partner displayed the Sylphy Zero Emission, an all-electric model designed for China. Based on Nissan’s Leaf, the lower-priced Sylphy went on sale in August.

Mercedes Benz displayed its first all-electric model in China, the EQC 400 SUV. The Germany automaker says it can travel 400 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge and can go from zero to 100 kph (62 mph) in 5.2 seconds. 

Mercedes plans to release 10 electrified models worldwide, with most built in China, according to Hubertus Troska, its board member for China. 

Some Chinese rivals have been selling low-priced electrics for a decade or more. 

China’s BYD Auto, the biggest global electric brand by sales volume, unveiled three new pure-electric models last month. All promise ranges of more than 400 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge. 

Last week, Geely Auto unveiled a sedan under its new electric brand, Geometry, with an advertised range of up to 500 kilometers (320 miles) on one charge. 

Geely’s parent, Geely Holding, launched a joint venture with Mercedes parent Daimler AG in March to develop electrics under the smart brand. Geely Holding is Daimler’s biggest shareholder and also owns Sweden’s Volvo Cars. 

Beijing wants to force automakers to speed up innovation and squeeze out producers that rely too heavily on subsidies. But the technology minister acknowledged in January that China faces a difficult transition as that spending is ending. 

Keeping development on track “will be a challenge,” said Miao Wei, according to a transcript on his ministry’s website. 

The shift creates an opportunity for fledgling Chinese automakers that lag global rivals in gasoline technology. They have just 10% of the global market for gasoline-powered vehicles but account for 50% of electric sales. 

The end of subsidies should lead to dramatic changes, said Zeng of LMC Automotive. He said longer-range, feature-rich models from global majors will replace small producers that cannot survive without subsidies. 

Electric vehicles “will be much more competitive,” said Zeng. 

As the cost of batteries and other components falls, industry analysts say electrics in China could match gasoline vehicles in price and become profitable for manufacturers in less than five years. 

EVs carry a higher sticker price in China than gasoline models. But industry analysts say owners who drive at least 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) a year save money in the long run, because maintenance and charging cost less. 

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Sending Data Via Light

Most wireless communications use RF or radio frequency communications to send data back and forth. But all that information can slow things down. One National Science Foundation supported researcher is using light to send information, and, as we hear from VOA’s Kevin Enochs, it’s quicker and more secure than RF.

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Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Tackles Visitors’ Color Blindness

The vibrant colors and hues that make up Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings soon will be on full display for color blind visitors

The vibrant colors and hues in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings soon will be on full display for color blind visitors.

The Santa Fe museum announced Monday it’s teaming up with California-based EnChroma to expand the gallery experience through special glasses.

Starting May 3, visitors with red-green color blindness can borrow glasses to see O’Keeffe’s work in the way that she intended. 

One of the museum’s curators, Katrina Stacy, says O’Keeffe in her later years developed visual impairment from macular degeneration and turned her attention to sculpture. 

Stacy says the project with EnChroma has ties to that part of the artist’s story.

EnChroma co-founder Andrew Schmeder says O’Keeffe juxtaposed colors from nature in ways that evoked emotion and seeing that relationship between colors has been challenging for people with color blindness.

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Israeli Nonprofit Vows New Moon Mission After 1st Crashes

The Israeli start-up behind last week’s failed lunar landing has vowed to create a second mission to steer a privately funded spacecraft onto the moon.

Morris Kahn, Israeli billionaire and chairman of SpaceIL, the nonprofit that undertook the botched lunar mission, says he’s already formed a task force of engineers and donors that will build another spacecraft. He called the new mission a lesson in persistence for “the younger generation.”

 

SpaceIL confirmed Monday that the crew will convene in the coming weeks to figure out how to fix the technical glitches that caused the first mission to crash, while still keeping the venture relatively fast and cheap.

 

The crash ended an ambitious eight-year effort to make Israel the fourth nation to land on the moon.

 

 

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Tech Program Turns Low Income S. Africa Girls Into High Achievers

Women are woefully underrepresented in technology, science, engineering and mathematics jobs in South Africa. But for the last decade, a homegrown, UNICEF-supported program has worked to bring 11,000 lower-income high school girls into these industries.

Among those students was Raquel Sorota.

Sorota has come a long way from her humble upbringing in Johannesburg’s Tembisa township. She now works as a risk engineer at a top South African insurance company.

She was those one of those South African high school girls who went through the UNICEF-supported TechnoGirls program, which started in 2005. She was selected for the program in 2009.

Now 24, she says it changed her life.

“My life has literally never been the same again,” she said. “So, before the program, I wanted to be a doctor and today I’m an engineer, through that program. So I think a lot of what I think I took from that program was how it exposed me to the world of engineering. I think for the longest time I never knew how broad that world was and that I could have a place in that world, most importantly.”

Bright, disadvantaged girls

The program selects bright high school girls from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, gives them exposure to professions in science, technology, engineering and math, pairs them with mentors, and follows them through their university studies.

The program’s founder, Staff Sithole, says this is about much more than creating a new crop of workers. This, she says, is about changing the world — and who runs it.

“It is more an instrument, or a program, which is contributing towards gender equality. So rather than just running advocacy programs, let’s come with something that can change the circumstances, can be a purposeful targeted intervention of contributing towards gender equality,” she said.

Challenging obstacles

For high school students Gugulethu Zungu and Queen Makaile, the obstacles are more than just lack of opportunity. Both are physically challenged; they were both born with different, rare genetic defects that have affected their appearance and their health. Both were chosen to participate in the program this year for their high grades in math and science.

Zungu says the program led her to identify her dream career — forensics — but also to expand her horizons.

“I like investigating and solving mysteries. And it actually makes me believe that, indeed, nothing is impossible. You just have to think out of the box,” she said.

Makaile, who has struggled with hearing and vision problems as a result of her rare defect that has also given her asymmetrical facial features, says she now wants to be come a journalist, to show the world that her thoughts matter more than her looks.

For these girls, nothing, they say, will stand in their way.

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Who Runs the World? TechnoGirls

Women are woefully underrepresented in technology, science, engineering and mathematics jobs in South Africa. But for the last decade, a homegrown, UNICEF-supported program has worked to bring 11,000 lower-income high school girls into these industries. VOA’s Anita Powell catches up with a few such “TechnoGirls” in Johannesburg and brings us their stories.

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World’s Largest Plane Makes First Flight Over California

The world’s largest aircraft took off over the Mojave Desert in California Saturday, the first flight for the carbon-composite plane built by Stratolaunch Systems Corp., started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as the company enters the lucrative private space market.

The white airplane called Roc, which has a wingspan the length of an American football field and is powered by six engines on a twin fuselage, took to the air shortly before 7 a.m. Pacific time (1400 GMT) and stayed aloft for more than two hours before landing safely back at the Mojave Air and Space Port as a crowd of hundreds of people cheered.

First flight ‘fantastic’

“What a fantastic first flight,” Stratolaunch Chief Executive Officer Jean Floyd said in a statement posted to the company’s website.

“Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems,” Floyd said. “We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team, today’s flight crew, our partners at Northrup Grumman’s Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port.”

The plane is designed to drop rockets and other space vehicles weighing up to 500,000 pounds at an altitude of 35,000 feet and has been billed by the company as making satellite deployment as “easy as booking an airline flight.”

Saturday’s flight, which saw the plane reach a maximum speed of 189 mph and altitudes of 17,000 feet, was meant to test its performance and handling qualities, according to Stratolaunch.

Demand for satellite deployment

Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, announced in 2011 that he had formed the privately funded Stratolaunch.

The company seeks to cash in on higher demand in coming years for vessels that can put satellites in orbit, competing in the United States with other space entrepreneurs and industry stalwarts such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Stratolaunch has said that it intends to launch its first rockets from the Roc in 2020 at the earliest. Allen died in October 2018 while suffering from non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, just months after the plane’s development was unveiled.

“We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” said Jody Allen, Chair of Vulcan Inc and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust. “The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”

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Israeli Probe Crashes Moments Before Historic Moon Landing

Even though the U.S. first landed on the moon 50 years ago this year, it’s never been — nor will it ever be — an easy thing to accomplish. The Israelis learned just how difficult it is. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Trump Vows to Win 5G Race

In the race to beat China in the fifth generation of wireless technology, known as 5G, U.S. President Donald Trump is announcing the largest-ever auction of radio frequencies and a $20 billion fund to build a rural fiber-optics backbone.

“We cannot allow any other country to outcompete the United States in this powerful industry of the future,” Trump said in the White House Roosevelt Room, flanked by a group of telecommunications tower climbers and farmers. “The race to 5G is a race that we must win.”

Starting Dec. 10, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will begin auctioning three chunks of millimeter-wave frequencies (upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz) for cellphone companies to use.

Some Trump allies had tried to persuade him to effectively nationalize this technology as a matter of national security.

Trump acknowledged that he considered such a plan — opposed by the FCC and others — but ultimately backed away from it.

“We don’t want to do that. It wouldn’t be nearly as good, nearly as fast,” Trump said.

“The idea of state-designed and -operated 5G networks in the U.S. makes no sense on its own terms. A competitive, lightly regulated market is the hallmark of the U.S. system. This has delivered success in 4G and will encourage investment and innovation in 5G,” London-based Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst at telecommunications research firm Heavy Reading, told VOA.

“It also makes no sense in relation to competition with China — these are different markets in different phases of development.”

Riley Walters, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, agreed, saying the “private sector is the most efficient way to distribute 5G capabilities, even if it’s not at the pace nationalization proponents would like to see. Deregulation should help cut the costs for domestic developers to move up their time horizon.”

Connecting America

5G — with speeds 100 times faster than the current 4G mobile internet — will allow the emergence of everything from so-called smart cities and farms to self-driving cars.

“We want Americans to be the first to benefit from this new digital revolution while protecting our innovators and our citizens,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We don’t want rural Americans to be left behind.”

The $20.7 million Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, to come from existing FCC subsidy coffers, is intended to connect up to 4 million American homes over the next decade.

The expensive fiber rollout is seen as essential for carrying wireless network communications back to internet hubs.

“Intervention at this level will encourage private investment and accelerate coverage in these hard-to-reach areas — the economic and social benefits of rural coverage make it worth intervening to help make the market work,” Brown said.

“Creating a national fund to support these innovators is a great idea,” said Prakash Sangam, the founder of Tantra Analyst, which is involved in marketing and business development of wireless technology. “I also suggest that the U.S. government intervene and facilitate the resolution of conflicts between American technology companies so that they collaborate and effectively compete against the companies sponsored by foreign governments.” 

Security concerns

One challenge is the lack of U.S. manufacturers of 5G network equipment, an arena where China’s Huawei and ZTE are set to dominate.

Trump’s 5G goals are in conflict with the Federal Trade Commission’s stance on Qualcomm, the world’s largest chipmaker. The FTC has sued the American company over anti-competitive pricing, according to technology analyst Patrick Morehead.

“Qualcomm is the country’s only hope for 5G and 6G leadership and with the FTC about to potentially hobble it, the U.S. will never be a leader, China will,” predicted Morehead, a former industry executive.

A State Department senior official on Wednesday said the security concerns about Huawei and ZTE extend to all companies headquartered in China, contending they are effectively “under direction” of the Chinese Communist Party.

“It’s very important to distinguish how Western democracies operate relative to their private sector companies and vendors, and how the Chinese government operates with its companies,” said Ambassador Robert Strayer, deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international communications and information policy.

Strayer and other officials have warned that Huawei and ZTE could give China’s intelligence services secret access to sensitive communications networks and the ability to send commands to disrupt communications.

Trump did not mention the Chinese companies in his remarks Friday, but he said America’s 5G networks will “have to be guarded from the enemy.”

Riley, at the Heritage Foundation, told VOA that the United States “can still limit the proliferation of imports that have a security concern, but it will be hard for U.S. companies to compete in price in external markets.”

South Korea last week switched on its nationwide 5G network. South Korea-based Samsung is offering itself as a global alternative to Chinese equipment manufacturers, but it still lags Huawei and ZTE, as well as Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia.

Wireless companies operating in the United States, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, are deploying 5G this year, but widespread service for the majority of Americans could still be a decade away.

The radio spectrum coming up for auction will have very limited range, meaning small cell antennas will have to be mounted on about every fourth utility pole along streets, making 5G practical only in central business districts and other congested locations, such as stadiums, convention centers and shopping malls.

Lower frequencies, which are being licensed for 5G in several other countries, would need fewer cell sites, but that spectrum in the United States is held by satellite operators who are reluctant to give it up. 

“There are proposals to free some of it for fixed wireless, and the mobile industry wants it for 5G,” Brown said.

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Facebook Fined for Failing to Tell Russia Where User Data Is Stored

A Russian court fined Facebook on Friday for failing to tell authorities where it stores Russian user data, Russian news agency reported, a ruling that highlights wrangling between tech giants and Russia as it ramps up Internet controls.

The court fined Facebook 3,000 roubles ($47) for not providing the information in line with legislation that requires social media companies to store user data on servers located in Russia.

The only tools Moscow currently has to enforce its data rules are fines that often amount to very small sums or blocking the offending online services, an option fraught with technical difficulties.

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