Panasonic sees the future of solar on car rooftops.

TOKYO — Panasonic Corp. sees the future of solar on car rooftops.

The Japanese electronics giant has started producing a 180-watt array of solar cells that can be fixed to the roof of an automobile. In February, Panasonic announced that its photovoltaic module would be used on the roof of Toyota Motor Corp.’s latest Prius plug-in hybrid.

Cars represent a potentially lucrative new outlet for solar cells in an industry where intense competition from Chinese manufacturers has pushed down prices sharply. That’s prompting some manufacturers to adapt solar cells for everything from home roofing tiles and the outer skins of buildings to backpacks and tents.

“Car roofs have the potential to become a new market for solar panels,” said Shingo Okamoto, the general manager at Panasonic who was in charge of developing the technology. “We made history in the auto industry and in the solar industry with the sun powering mass-produced cars for the first time in the world.”

New market

Cars could hold the promise of a giant new market for solar panels from Panasonic, which also is partnered with Tesla Inc. in making batteries at its Gigafactory outside Las Vegas. There are 264 million cars and light trucks in operation in the U.S., according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Others are noticing the potential. Tesla Chairman Elon Musk tweeted in November that his company’s Model 3 car may come with a solar roof. He’s also beginning to sell a type of roof tile for homes featuring embedded photovoltaics. Nissan Motor Co. offers an add-on solar panel option for its Leaf electric cars, giving extra charge to systems such as the air conditioners and radios, according to Nicholas Maxfield, a spokesman for the company.

Hanergy Holding Group Ltd. unveiled four concept solar cars last year but has yet to begin commercial production. It’s seeking to develop car roofs using thin-film solar chips with Fuyao Glass Industry Group.

As of the end of April, Toyota had sold 1,350 units in Japan of the new Prius plug-in equipped with solar panels, nearly 9 percent of the total, according to the car maker.

Range estimates

The latest Prius is the first mass-produced model to be outfitted with solar panels that provide juice for the car’s main battery, according to Toyota. Because of seasonal variations in sunlight, the amount of charge will fluctuate, meaning the average distance traveled on a single charge will range from an average of 2.9 kilometers (1.8 miles) to 6.1 kilometers depending on the time of year.

“That means you get about 10 percent of annual mileage from solar just by letting your car sit,” Okamoto said in an interview in Tokyo.

While that’s modest, developers say the amount of charge will improve over time and that the range could be extended by adjusting a car body’s design and the amount of surface upon which the panels can be affixed.

“We are aware that the panels are supplying only a small amount of electricity,” said Shoichi Kaneko, chief engineer for Prius. “But this system is still a breakthrough as we are making use of the energy we would be wasting otherwise. By filling all available space with cells, it is possible to extend the range easily to 10 kilometers.”

In its current iteration, the solar rooftop represents a step forward for Toyota as it aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new cars by 90 percent by 2050 from 2010 levels.

Main battery

This is Toyota’s second attempt to outfit a Prius with a solar roof. A Prius released back in 2009 had the option of a solar panel capable of producing 56 watts of power, but it was only used to charge the ventilation systems.

To come up with the panels needed for the new Prius, Panasonic engineers first began compiling a set of conditions and constraints they figured solar panels would face when affixed to the roof of a car instead of a house.

The list included constant vibration, the unpredictable appearance of shadows, and the limited amount of space for installation. Engineers also considered how to make panels fit the contours of a car’s roof instead of the flat surfaces found on residential rooftops.

To handle the variable sunlight expected from shade, Panasonic also adjusted the way bypass diodes are configured in the solar panels to ensure a smooth flow of electric current, according to Panasonic’s Okamoto.

“You’ll see panels become more common as an option, particularly on high-end electric sedans and SUVs,” said Colin McKerracher, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “But the range benefits are always going to be limited. This is mostly about feeling smug.”

Waymo hires ex-Tesla engineer to lead self-driving hardware

SAN FRANCISCO — Waymo has hired Satish Jeyachandran, Tesla Inc.’s former director of hardware engineering, as the mobility division created by Google parent Alphabet Inc. moves closer to commercializing its self-driving vehicle technology.

Jeyachandran, 38, spent nearly seven years at Tesla before leaving earlier this year. He will lead Waymo’s hardware team, overseeing the development and integration of cameras, radar, lidar, and computer vision, while working closely with the company’s software team.

“I wanted to join Waymo because it has a talented, mission-driven team that has made impressive advancements in self-driving hardware,” Jeyachandran said in a statement on LinkedIn. “This technology offers incredible potential to save millions of lives.”

The hire is the latest in a series of high-profile talent acquisitions and departures that have rocked the fiercely competitive autonomous driving landscape.

Established automakers, suppliers, tech companies and a raft of startups are racing to bring self-driving cars to market on the promise that the technology will save lives and transform vehicle ownership. Engineers with expertise in hardware, software, artificial intelligence, and computer vision — particularly those with experience leading teams — are in incredibly high demand.

Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s car project, is now running an autonomous driving startup with another former Tesla executive. And the prior hardware chief at Waymo, Bryan Salesky, co-founded his own self-driving startup, Argo AI, which received the majority of its investment from Ford Motor Co.

Since Waymo spun out of Alphabet’s X lab in December, it has thrown resources and talent at the hardware underpinning its autonomous vehicles, aggressively hiring engineers specializing in the field.

“A few years ago, Waymo made the decision to start building our own self driving vision system, radar and LiDAR in house,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a statement on LinkedIn.

“This has been crucial to improving the quality of our self-driving technology, and bringing down cost. With Satish’s expertise, we’ll be able to further advance our self-driving hardware, and bring our technology to more people, more quickly.”

Waymo recently started a free, experimental service to ferry hundreds of people around Phoenix in an effort to get consumers comfortable with the technology.

Tesla in talks with labels for music-streaming service, report says

LOS ANGELES — Tesla Inc. is in talks with record labels about creating its own music-streaming service, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg.

It’s unclear if the automaker will ultimately decide to go forward with the service or continue with its current music partners, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. Tesla offers Spotify Ltd.’s streaming service in Europe, Hong Kong and Australia, and works with Slacker in the U.S. and Canada.

“We believe it’s important to have an exceptional in-car experience so our customers can listen to the music they want from whatever source they choose,” Tesla said in a statement, without directly addressing talks with labels.

Recode reported the Tesla talks earlier Thursday.

Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service with more than 50 million paying subscribers, has become a major source of growth for the music industry. Record labels wary of its expansion have encouraged more competitors to enter the industry, including Apple Inc. and Pandora Media Inc.

Spotify, Pandora and other digital-music companies have been pushing to get into more cars as wireless networks offer better wireless internet coverage, creating new threats against traditional radio and satellite radio.

Ford demonstrates self-driving Fusion at Mcity

PHOTO GALLERY: Ford Fusion self-driving demonstration








PHOTO GALLERY >>

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In controlled “geofenced” areas, today’s technology already enables cars to drive themselves automatically, safely and very smoothly. The challenge remains moving from tests on closed courses to the real world.

At the University of Michigan’s Mcity proving grounds for autonomous cars, Ford engineers on Wednesday rolled out a fleet of self-driving Fusions and let reporters ride in the backseat. The cars successfully piloted themselves around the faux city landscape, top speed around 25 mph. The cars correctly read stop lights, negotiated turns, identified pedestrians — real ones, not dummies — and cyclists in the road, and interacted without drama. More than that, the cars drove themselves smoothly.

But there is still a long road ahead before Ford’s, or anyone else’s self-driving cars, are ready to pilot themselves on public streets. For one thing, high-definition mapping of the nation’s roads, which can overcome some of the country’s infrastructure issues, is not nearly complete enough.

James McBride, a Ford senior leader for autonomous vehicles, said high-definition mapping can help a vehicle “see” the environment, such as around corners, where cameras and lidar can’t.

Ford is aiming to have Level 4 autonomous vehicles commercially available by 2021. The vehicle would drive itself with no human interaction in a pre-mapped area, such as a section of a city or say, the parking lot of Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Interpol seeks five ex-VW managers over emissions fraud, report says

BERLIN — The U.S. has issued international arrest warrants for five former Volkswagen managers accused of wrongdoing in connection with the carmaker’s diesel emissions-cheating scandal, Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported on Thursday.

The five ex-managers and developers, including two executives under former CEO Martin Winterkorn, were indicted by U.S. authorities for conspiracy to commit fraud and violation of U.S. environmental rules, Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported.

A spokesman at VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters declined comment.

A sixth person, former VW manager Oliver Schmidt, was arrested in February in Miami as he was about to fly to Germany. He is awaiting trial in a U.S. prison after being denied bail.

German authorities were unlikely to extradite the five accused to the U.S., Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported.

Under the constitution, German citizens can only be extradited to other European Union countries or to an international court. But leaving Germany could pose the risk of being extradited to the United States from a third country.

VW, the world’s largest automaker by sales, admitted to U.S. regulators in September 2015 that it had cheated on emissions tests there using software installed in as many as 11 million diesel vehicles sold worldwide.

Interpol seeks 5 ex-VW managers over emissions fraud, report says

BERLIN — The U.S. has issued international arrest warrants for five former Volkswagen managers accused of wrongdoing in connection with the carmaker’s diesel emissions-cheating scandal, Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported on Thursday.

The five ex-managers and developers, including two executives under former CEO Martin Winterkorn, were indicted by U.S. authorities for conspiracy to commit fraud and violation of U.S. environmental rules, Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported.

A spokesman at VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters declined comment.

A sixth person, former VW manager Oliver Schmidt, was arrested in February in Miami as he was about to fly to Germany. He is awaiting trial in a U.S. prison after being denied bail.

German authorities were unlikely to extradite the five accused to the U.S., Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported.

Under the constitution, German citizens can only be extradited to other European Union countries or to an international court. But leaving Germany could pose the risk of being extradited to the United States from a third country.

VW, the world’s largest automaker by sales, admitted to U.S. regulators in September 2015 that it had cheated on emissions tests there using software installed in as many as 11 million diesel vehicles sold worldwide.

Tesla exploring China car plant with Shanghai government

BEIJING — Tesla Inc. said it is exploring the possibility of establishing a Chinese manufacturing plant with the Shanghai municipal government.

Tesla has said it wants to build electric cars in China to avoid a 25-percent tariff on imported vehicles.

In a statement on Thursday, it said, “While we expect most of our production to remain in the U.S., we need to establish local factories to ensure affordability for the markets they serve.”

Tesla said it expects to “more clearly define” its China production plans by year end.

China’s central government requires foreign companies such as Tesla to have a Chinese partner in new auto manufacturing ventures, with the foreign company owning no more than 50 percent.

Tesla did not say which companies it might partner with. Speculation has centered on Tencent Holdings Ltd., the internet giant that is China’s largest company. Earlier this year, Tencent acquired a 5 percent stake in Tesla for $1.8 billion.

Tesla has not said which vehicles it plans to build in China. However, a supplier familiar with the company’s thinking said it was considering the Model 3 sedan and a crossover companion called Model Y. The Model 3 is slated to begin production in July at Tesla’s Fremont plant in California, with the Model Y tentatively scheduled to follow in mid-2019.

Tesla is currently the most valuable U.S.-based automaker, with a market capitalization of more than $60 billion, but it has yet to turn an annual profit.

U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer ‘troubled’ by Ford’s China move

WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said on Thursday he would support taking action against U.S. automaker Ford’s decision to move some production to China if the shift was because of “non-economic reasons.”

Lighthizer, who was appearing before a panel of U.S. senators, did not give details on the factors that could trigger action from the administration of President Donald Trump or what sort of action it might take.

But he made clear he was not enthused about Ford Motor Co.’s announcement earlier this week that it will move some production of its Focus small car to China and import the vehicles to the U.S.

“I find that very troubling,” Lighthizer said. “It doesn’t necessarily make sense to me.”

Ford’s plan suggests China could play a much larger role in future vehicle production for North America, perhaps eclipsing Mexico as a low-cost manufacturing source.

Trump has had harsh words for both China and Mexico, accusing the two countries of unfairly competing with U.S. industries. Automaker Tesla Inc. said on Thursday it was exploring the possibility of establishing a Chinese manufacturing plant.

Ford has painted the production shift from Mexico to China, slated for mid-2019, as a purely financial move that will save the company $500 million in reduced tooling costs.

Lighthizer said he wanted to know more about the incentives for the move.

“If it happened for reasons that are non-economic reasons, then I think the administration should take action,” he said.

FCA backs new public education campaign on auto recalls

WASHINGTON — The National Safety Council on Thursday launched Check To Protect, a national campaign to encourage drivers to check for and quickly resolve open recalls on their vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is providing initial funding for an online tool and advertising to help comply with broad terms of a 2015 consent agreement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that resolved alleged lax handling of nearly two dozen recalls over several years.

Getting greater recall response rates has proved vexing for automakers even though repairs are done for free at authorized dealerships. Having vehicles on the road with outstanding defects is a liability for car companies by potentially exposing them to large claims, and bad publicity, if the defect contributes to an accident.

“Too many drivers are complacent when it comes to recalls, or they are unsure whether their car is subject to one. Check To Protect should help close that knowledge gap and, by extension, make our roads safer,” National Safety Council President Deborah Hersman said in a statement.

More than 53 million vehicles — about a quarter of the total on U.S. roads — are operating with unresolved safety recalls, according to NHTSA. Automakers legally are required to send letters to owners within 60 days of a recall notifying them about the defect and how to get it fixed. Recalls involve outreach efforts, having adequate replacement parts on hand and inducing owners to bring their vehicle in for repairs. Efforts to narrow the number of open recalls varies by manufacturer.

The problem is most acute among owners of older and used vehicles. According to automotive trade groups, 83 percent of owners with newer vehicles get their cars fixed under a recall, but the compliance rate drops to 44 percent for vehicles five to 10 years old. Older vehicles tend to be resold, and tracking down non-original owners is a challenge.

FCA acknowledged in 2015 that it failed to provide prompt remedies in three recall campaigns and to keep up with federal reporting and notification requirements governing recalls. Under the consent agreement, FCA is obligated to spend $20 million on internal controls, supplier training, product buybacks, industry education and raising awareness about the safety reason for recalls and how to address them.

FCA said it commissioned a survey in December showing about one-third of owners of older vehicles (sample size of 1,000) received a recall on their vehicle, but 40 percent of them said they wait to take a car in for repairs rather than fixing it immediately, while 5 percent said they wouldn’t take their car in at all.

The National Safety Council created a website, www.checktoprotect.org, where drivers enter their vehicle identification number to find out the recall status of their vehicle, replicating a tool already available on the NHTSA website. Check To Protect also will begin running advertisements in July encouraging drivers to check the recall status of their vehicles.

Online advertising will be appearing on used-car, parenting and Facebook sites, with an emphasis on seven southeastern states.

The National Safety Council characterized Check To Protect as a coalition, suggesting that other automakers, traffic safety advocacy groups and regulatory agencies also could join the effort.

Dodge Grand Caravan output idled to meet U.S. airbag safety rule

Production of the Dodge Grand Caravan will continue this fall — just not for dealers in the United States, according to a union official at Fiat Chrysler’s Windsor, Ontario, assembly plant, where the minivan is built.

U.S. dealers were told this month to stock up on the Dodge Caravan because, after August, they wouldn’t receive any additional stock for at least seven months.

The dealer communication indicated that there would be “No Grand Caravan production” until December, when output of the 2018 model year Grand Caravan will begin.

FCA plans to suspend Grand Caravan output for the U.S. market starting in August.

Though a reason for the suspension wasn’t given, a former FCA engineer who worked on the Grand Caravan program told Automotive News that the current Grand Caravan does not comply with a new federal safety regulation on ejection mitigation.

The new safety rule is set to go into full effect in September. The regulation, FMVSS 226, requires manufacturers to modify side impact air curtains, making them larger to more fully cover window openings and more robust so that they stay inflated longer. The new standard also requires that side-curtain airbags deploy in the event of either a side-on collision or a rollover. The rule was adopted in 2011, with a phase-in beginning in 2013.

A spokesman for FCA declined to confirm or comment on the plan to idle minivan output for U.S. customers.

However, a spokeswoman for FCA Canada issued a statement on the company’s plans to the Windsor Star, confirming that the suspension in output “is being taken to address U.S. regulatory actions. Production of the Grand Caravan for the Mexican and Canadian markets is not [affected].”

Unifor Local 444 President Dino Chiodo, who represents workers at FCA’s Windsor assembly plant, said production of Grand Caravans will not stop altogether this summer. Chiodo said Grand Caravans will continue to be assembled and shipped without any engineering changes to dealers in Canada and Mexico through the fall.

Allpar.com, an FCA-centric website, reported last week that a source inside FCA confirmed that the automaker is accelerating an internal project to meet the new U.S. side-impact standards for the 2018 model year.

FCA originally planned to kill off the Grand Caravan this year, before the new safety standard went into effect. However, Chiodo said the automaker’s plan now appears to be to meet the new safety rule and keep the Grand Caravan alive until at least mid-2019. He said the Grand Caravan is still popular and profitable for FCA.

The Grand Caravan is by far Dodge’s best-selling vehicle in the U.S., with sales through May up 7.8 percent to 63,657, though registration data indicates that more than 60 percent of Grand Caravan deliveries are to fleet customers. That is by design, as FCA uses the Grand Caravan to meet minivan demand from daily rental fleet customers to protect the residual value of its more expensive Pacifica minivan, which launched last year.

The Grand Caravan is also a lower-priced alternative to the Pacifica for many families.

Dealers also were told this month that only the two lowest-trim — and lowest priced — versions of the Grand Caravan will be available through August: the $27,090 SE and the $29,790 SE Plus. Prices include shipping. By comparison, the least costly Pacifica starts at $36,090, including shipping.

Grand Caravan stockpiles are also the lowest of any vehicle in FCA’s lineup. The automaker began June with just 11,967 units in unsold inventory, a 22-day supply.

Greg Layson of Automotive News Canada contributed to this report.