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Global Carmakers to Invest at Least $90B in Electric Vehicles

Ford’s plan to double its electrified vehicle spending is part of an investment tsunami in batteries and electric cars by global automakers that now totals $90 billion and is still growing, a Reuters analysis shows.

That money is pouring in to a tiny sector that amounts to less than 1 percent of the 90 million vehicles sold each year and where Elon Musk’s Tesla, with sales of only three models totaling just over 100,000 vehicles in 2017, was a dominant player.

With the world’s top automakers poised to introduce dozens of new battery electric and hybrid gasoline-electric models over the next five years — many of them in China — executives continue to ask: Who will buy all those vehicles?

“We’re all in,” Ford Motor Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said of the company’s $11 billion investment, announced on Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “The only question is, will the customers be there with us?”

“Tesla faces real competition,” said Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation Inc, the largest U.S. auto retailing chain. By 2030, Jackson said he expects electric vehicles could account for 15-20 percent of New vehicle sales in the United States.

Investments in electrified vehicles announced to date include at least $19 billion by automakers in the United States, $21 billion in China and $52 billion in Germany.

But U.S. and German auto executives said in interviews on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show that the bulk of those investments are earmarked for China, where the government has enacted escalating electric-vehicle quotas starting in 2019. 

Mainstream automakers also are reacting in part to pressure from regulators in Europe and California to slash carbon emissions from fossil fuels. They are under pressure as well from Tesla’s success in creating electric sedans and SUVs that inspire would-be owners to flood the company with orders.

While Tesla is the most prominent electric car maker, “soon it will be everybody and his brother,” Daimler AG Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche told reporters on Monday at the Detroit show.

Daimler has said it will spend at least $11.7 billion to introduce 10 pure electric and 40 hybrid models, and that it intends to electrify its full range of vehicles, from minicompact commuters to heavy-duty trucks.

“We will see whether demand will drive our (electric vehicle) sales or whether we will all be trying to catch the last customer out there,” Zetsche said. “Ultimately, the customer will decide.”

For now, Nissan’s 7-year-old Leaf remains the world’s top-selling electric vehicle and the company’s sole battery-only car — an offering soon to be swamped by new rivals bringing tougher competition that could add pressure to pricing.

“Everybody will find out that if you push you will have a lot of bad news on residual values,” Nissan Chief Performance Officer Jose Munoz told Reuters.

Jim Lentz, chief executive of Toyota’s North American operations, said it took Toyota 18 years for sales of hybrid vehicles to reach 3 percent share of the total market. And hybrids are less costly, do not require new charging infrastructure and are not burdened by the range limits of battery electric vehicles, he said.

“What’s it going to take to get to 4 to 5 percent” share for electric cars, Lentz said. “It’s going to be longer.”

The largest single investment is coming from Volkswagen AG , which plans to spend $40 billion by 2030 to build electrified versions of its 300-plus global models.

In the United States, General Motors has outlined plans to introduce 20 new battery and fuel cell electric vehicles by 2023, most of them built on a new dedicated, modular platform that will be introduced in 2021.

GM Chief Executive Mary Barra has not said how much the automaker will spend on electric vehicles. Much of the investment will be made in China, where GM’s Cadillac brand will help spearhead the company’s more aggressive move into electric vehicles, according to Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen.

In an interview on Monday at the Detroit show, de Nysschen said Cadillac would “play a central role” in GM’s electric vehicle strategy in China, and will introduce an unspecified number of models based on GM’s future electric-vehicle platform.

Some of those Cadillacs could be assembled in China, de Nysschen said.

Chinese automakers, including local partners of Ford, VW and GM, all have publicized aggressive investment plans.

Not every multinational automaker is moving so aggressively into electric vehicles.

In Detroit on Monday, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said it did not make sense to announce a specific number of new electric vehicles — and he said the company was not under pressure, but working to meet emissions requirements. 

“We do not have a gun to our head,” Marchionne said. He said EVs will likely become mandatory in Europe because of emissions rules.

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Rural Women in India, Elderly in Japan Open Homes to Airbnb Guests

Mobile apps that help women in the Indian countryside and tiny villages in Japan to open their homes to visitors from across the world are generating incomes, revitalizing remote communities and helping to curb migration to cities.

A women’s organization in the western Indian state of Gujarat has tied up with Airbnb, the short-term home rental service, to train rural women to be hosts and list their homes on its site.

A year in, the number of women earning from home sharing has doubled, according to the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which has about 2 million members, mostly in villages.

“At first, we weren’t sure how the women would fare and if people would respond to homestays in these areas,” said Reema Nanavaty, a director at SEWA.

“But once they began getting guests, the women invested in upgrading their homes and started using Google Translate to communicate with guests. It has become a significant source of income for them,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Guests to the colorful homes are treated to home-cooked Gujarati food, and can participate in kite flying and garba dancing with sticks in traditional costume, she said.

The partnership will extend to 14 more states, aiming to boost incomes of women in rural areas and help boost tourism in otherwise neglected areas, she said.

Cheap smartphones are also aiding those looking for work, with job matching sites helping even illiterate job seekers from rural Cambodia to India find employers without middlemen who may dupe them.

Airbnb also has partnerships in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan for rural tourism.

In Japan, the Yoshino Cedar House, a collaboration with Tokyo-based architect Go Hasegawa and the local community, came about as a response to shrinking rural populations in the rapidly ageing country.

It was inspired by a host whose listing helped rejuvenate her village, said Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia.

Hundreds of villages and towns “will disappear in the next decade if we do not find ways to create regenerative and adaptive systems”, he said via e-mail.

The Cedar House is run by a cooperative of about two dozen community members who take turns at being the host.

Most of the proceeds remain in the community, with a percentage of profits reinvested in local projects, Gebbia said.

“If we can get community-driven empowerment right in Japan, we can find ways of adapting this to other countries,” he said.

In India, the 50 rural homes listed on Airbnb are drawing guests from the United States and Europe, Nanavaty said.

“Some of the villages were not even on Google Maps. For the women, it is a new way to make money, be independent,” she said.

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Intel Underfoot: Floor Sensors Rise as Retail Data Source

The next phase in data collection is right under your feet.

Online clicks give retailers valuable insight into consumer behavior, but what can they learn from footsteps? It’s a question Milwaukee-based startup Scanalytics is helping businesses explore with floor sensors that track people’s movements.

The sensors can also be used in office buildings to reduce energy costs and in nursing homes to determine when someone falls. But retailers make up the majority of Scanalytics’ customers, highlighting one of several efforts brick-and-mortar stores are undertaking to better understand consumer habits and catch up with e-commerce giant Amazon.

Physical stores have been at a disadvantage because they “don’t have that granular level of understanding as to where users are entering, what they’re doing, what shelves are not doing well, which aisles are not being visited,” said Brian Sathianathan, co-founder of Iterate.ai, a small Denver-based company that helps businesses find and test technologies from startups worldwide.

But it’s become easier for stores to track customers in recent years. With Wi-Fi — among the earliest available options — businesses can follow people when they connect to a store’s internet. One drawback is that not everyone logs on so the sample size is smaller. Another is that it’s not possible to tell whether someone is inches or feet away from a product.

Sunglass Hut and fragrance maker Jo Malone use laser and motion sensors to tell when a product is picked up but not bought, and make recommendations for similar items on an interactive display. Companies such as Toronto-based Vendlytics and San Francisco-based Prism use artificial intelligence with video cameras to analyze body motions. That can allow stores to deliver customized coupons to shoppers in real time on a digital shelf or on their cellphones, said Jon Nordmark, CEO of Iterate.ai.

With Scanalytics, Nordmark said, “to have [the sensors] be super useful for someone like a retailer, they may need to power other types of things,” like sending coupons to customers.

Using the data

Scanalytics co-founder and CEO Joe Scanlin said that’s what his floor sensors are designed to do. For instance, the sensors read a customer’s unique foot compressions to track that person’s path to a digital display and how long the person stands in front of it before walking away, he said. Based on data collected over time, the floor sensors can tell a retailer the best time to offer a coupon or change the display before the customer loses interest.   

“Something that in the moment will increase their propensity to purchase a product,” said Scanlin, 29, who started developing the paper-thin sensors that are 2-square feet (0.19-sq. meters) as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012. He employs about 20 people.

Wisconsin-based bicycle retailer Wheel and Sprocket uses Scanalytics’ sensors — which can be tucked under utility mats — to count the number of customers entering each of its eight stores to help schedule staff.

“That’s our biggest variable expense,” said co-owner Noel Kegel. “That sort of makes or breaks our profitability.”

Privacy and surveillance

Kegel wants to eventually have sensors in more areas throughout his stores to measure where customers spend most of their time and what products are popular, but he said it’s too expensive right now.

The cost of having the sensors ranges from $20 to $1,000 per month, depending on square footage and add-on applications to analyze data or interact with digital signs, Scanlin said. He said he’s working with 150 customers in the U.S. and other countries and estimates that about 60 percent are retailers.  

The emergence of tracking technologies is bound to raise concerns about privacy and surveillance. But Scanlin noted his sensors don’t collect personally identifying information.

Jeffrey Lenon, 47, who was recently shopping at the Shops of Grand Avenue mall in Milwaukee, said he wasn’t bothered by the idea of stores tracking foot traffic and buying habits.

“If that’s helping the retailer as far as tracking what sells and what no, I think it’s a good idea,” Lenon said.

These technologies have not become ubiquitous in the U.S. yet, but it’s only a matter of time, said Ghose Anindya, a business professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“In a couple of years this kind of conversation will be like part and parcel of everyday life. But I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.

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Energy Agency Sees Oil Price Decline, But Analyst Predicts a Boom

Crude oil prices reached a 30-month high this week. But the government agency that analyzes and disseminates energy information says the rally may have run its course. The Energy Information Administration predicts U.S. crude prices will stabilize to about 55 dollars a barrel for West Texas Crude and 60 dollars a barrel for Brent Crude, with slightly higher prices for both in 2019. One energy expert disagrees and says oil prices are on their way up. Mil Arcega explains.

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Wahlberg Donates $1.5 Million After Pay Gap Outcry

Following an outcry over a significant disparity in pay between co-stars, Mark Wahlberg agreed Saturday to donate the $1.5 million he earned for reshoots for All the Money in the World to the sexual misconduct defense initiative Time’s Up.

Wahlberg said he’ll donate the money in the name of his co-star, Michelle Williams, who reportedly made less than $1,000 on the reshoots.

“I 100% support the fight for fair pay,” Wahlberg said in a statement.

Williams issued a statement Saturday, saying: “Today isn’t about me. My fellow actresses stood by me and stood up for me, my activist friends taught me to use my voice, and the most powerful men in charge, they listened and they acted.”

She noted that “it takes equal effort and sacrifice” to make a film.

“Today is one of the most indelible days of my life because of Mark Wahlberg, WME (William Morris Endeavor) and a community of women and men who share in this accomplishment.”

The announcement Saturday came after directors and stars, including Jessica Chastain and Judd Apatow, shared their shock at reports of the huge pay disparity for the Ridley Scott film. The 10 days of reshoots were necessary after Kevin Spacey was replaced by Christopher Plummer when accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Spacey. USA Today reported Williams was paid less than $1,000 for the 10 days.

Both Williams and Plummer were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances.

Talent agency William Morris Endeavor, which represents both Williams and Wahlberg, said it will donate an additional $500,000 to Time’s Up. The agency said in a statement that wage disparity conversations should continue and “we are committed to being part of the solution.”

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Protests in Tunisia Spur Government to Pledge Aid to Poor

Tunisia plans to increase aid for poor families by $70.3 million, after nearly a week of protests over austerity measures, an official said Saturday.

“This will concern about 250,000 families,” Mohamed Trabelsi, minister of social affairs, said. “It will help the poor and middle class.”

President Beji Caid Essebsi was also scheduled to visit the poor district of Ettadhamen in the capital, Tunis, which was hit by protests.

Essebsi was set to give a speech and open a cultural center, Reuters reported. It was to be the president’s first visit to the district.

Several hundred protesters took to the streets Saturday in Sidi Bouzid, where a 2011 uprising began, touching off the Arab Spring protests. And on Friday, protesters in cities and towns across the country waved yellow cards — a warning sign to the government — and brandished loaves of bread, a symbol of the day-to-day struggle to afford basic goods.

Anger has been growing since the government introduced price hikes earlier this month, which came atop already soaring inflation.

WATCH: Protests Erupt Again in Tunisia, Cradle of 2011 Arab Spring

Since Monday, security forces have been deployed in Tunis and across the country. Several hundred people have been arrested, including opposition politicians, while dozens have been injured in clashes with police. A 55-year-old man died earlier this week, though the circumstances of his death remained unclear.

The scenes of protest are reminiscent of January 2011, when demonstrations swept across the country, eventually toppling dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali before spreading across the region.

“Why did we do the revolution? For jobs, for freedom and for dignity. We obtained freedom, sure — but we’re going hungry,” unemployed protester Walid Bejaoui said Friday.

One of the main protest organizations is using the Arabic social media hashtag “Fesh Nestannew?” or “What Are We Waiting For?” The group is urging a return to the spirit of the 2011 revolt.

“We believe a dialogue is still possible and reforms are still possible. The yellow card is to say, ‘Attention: Today we have the same demands that we have been having for years. It’s time to tackle the real problems, the economic crisis, the high cost of living,’ ” said Henda Chennaoui, a Fesh Nestannew protester.

The government enacted a new law this month raising taxes to try to cut the deficit, a move largely driven by Tunisia’s obligations to its international creditors, said analyst Max Gallien of the London School of Economics.

“I think that this government feels that its ability to make its own economic policy or its ability to roll back these austerity reforms is very much limited by the demands of international financial institutions,” he said, “primarily the IMF,” or International Monetary Fund.

The government has condemned the violence but pledged to listen to the protesters.

“No matter what the government undertakes, its top priority — even during tough decisions — is improving the economic and social conditions of the people,” Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told reporters Thursday.

So could the region witness a repeat of 2011, with the protests gaining momentum?

“We’re looking at a different region now. But at the same time, there are similarities: the issue of austerity, of socioeconomic nationalization, of corruption and predation by elites,” analyst Gallien said.

The Tunisian government’s task is to address those deep-rooted problems before the protests spin out of control.

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Report: Traffic Fatalities Hold Back Developing Economies

Deadly traffic accidents are more than just individual tragedies. They’re a drag on economic growth in developing countries, according to a new World Bank report.

The study is among the first to show that investing in road safety in low- and middle-income countries would raise national incomes.

Ninety percent of the world’s annual 1.25 million traffic deaths happen in the developing world. The World Health Organization says traffic accidents are the leading cause of death worldwide for people between 15 to 29 years old. That includes crashes that kill pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.

But the issue does not get much official attention, according to World Bank transportation expert Dipan Bose.

“There is not a lot of political will in many low and middle income countries to take definitive actions to reduce road deaths and injuries,” he said.

Bose co-authored a study focused on five countries: China, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Tanzania. The authors used economic models to estimate what each country’s overall economy would gain over a 24-year period by cutting traffic deaths in half.

“The results were quite startling,” he said.

Thailand would see a 22 percent boost to national income. The country’s high rates of both economic growth and traffic accidents meant it had the most to gain.  

Tanzania would gain seven percent. The other countries fell in between.

These kinds of economic gains are “something which no national government can ignore,” Bose said. The report “gives the economic story of why it is important to take strong actions on road safety.”

Enforcing speed limits, helmet and seat belt laws and cutting down on drunk driving are “low-hanging fruit” to reduce traffic injuries, the report says.

Not only drivers at fault

But drivers are only partly responsible for traffic deaths, according to a separate report co-authored by the World Bank and the World Resources Institute. City planners and government officials are responsible for building safety into the transportation system.

“If the system’s not safe – if people don’t have the opportunity to cross the road safely, or drive in a safe vehicle – then a small error can result in a fatality,” said report co-author Anna Bray Sharpin at the World Resources Institute. “And that should not be the case.”

For example, she said, “many cities have applied highway design guidelines even to their city streets.” Wide, multi-lane boulevards are designed for “maximum traffic flow and speed,” but not for cyclists or pedestrians.

“People tend to take risks to try and cross the road,” she said. “And that comes back to this issue of whether this is a personal responsibility, or a co-responsibility between governments and planners and people using the road.”

The report offers guidance for incorporating safety into road design. Public transit, walking and biking lower the number of cars on the road and the number of accidents. Installing sidewalks, raised crosswalks and protected cycle lanes helps keep these road users out of harm’s way. On rural roads, median barriers can reduce head-on collisions.

Bray Sharpin notes that many developing countries are currently planning major road infrastructure projects.

“There’s a window of opportunity now to integrate safety into their planning,” she said. It’s much cheaper than trying to retrofit it later. Plus, once these roads are built, they’ll be around for decades.

If they don’t build in safety now, she added, they will be “locked into their dangerous infrastructure for the very long term.”

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Awash in Corn, Soybeans, US Farmers Focus on Trade Deals

For Illinois farmer Garry Niemeyer, it’s a slow time of year, spent indoors fixing equipment, not outdoors tending his fields, which now lie empty.

All of his corn and soybeans were harvested in what has turned out to be a good year.

“This is the largest amount of corn we’ve had ever,” he said.

And this bounty is not limited to Niemeyer’s farm. It can be seen throughout the United States.

“We’re talking 14½ billion bushels of corn,” Niemeyer told VOA. “That’s a lot of production.”

WATCH: Awash in Corn, Soybeans, US Farmers Focus on Trade Deals

Piles of corn, soybeans

That production is easy to see at nearby elevators, where large piles of corn under white plastic wrap extend into the sky. There is more corn and soybeans than existing storage facilities can hold.

“You can drive by just about any elevator out here in the country and see some pretty large piles of corn that are covered outside of the bins,” said Mark Gebhards, executive director of Governmental Affairs and Commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “That is a direct result of a lot of carry-over from last year; i.e., we need to move this and create market demand to get the product moving.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports record harvests of corn and soybeans in the United States in 2017, with stocks overflowing at elevators and storage bins across the country.

In Illinois, Gebhards notes that up to half of the state’s corn supply, and even more soybeans, will eventually reach foreign shores.

“Usually we say every other row of beans is going into the export market,” Gebhards said.

But Niemeyer wants even more of his crop to find a market overseas.

“We have overproduced for our domestic market,” he told VOA. “Our profits will lie in the amount of exports we are able to secure in the future.”

​The NAFTA question

Which is why the Illinois farmer is looking for some indication from U.S. President Donald Trump on the current efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

“NAFTA is huge,” Niemeyer said. “NAFTA consumes $43 billion worth of our crops and livestock and other things we exported out of this country in 2016.”

Niemeyer is pleased with Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations and institute tax reform. But there was little hint of NAFTA’s fate during Trump’s Jan. 8 speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.

“If anything was maybe left as an area of concern, it’s still what’s going to happen to that trade agreement,” said Gebhards, who warns the U.S. withdrawing from NAFTA could impact prices.

“On the livestock side, it’s estimated you would see $18 per hog or $71 per cow if we were to withdraw. It’s estimated that we would see potentially a $0.30 per bushel decrease in the corn price and $0.15 on the soybean side.”

Prices are a factor growers like Niemeyer maintain a close watch on.

“(The) price of corn is about $3.30 a bushel, so $3 corn, it’s hard to make anything work, even with a large yield,” which, Niemeyer said, is why many farmers are holding on to what they have.

“Everybody’s sitting still, that’s the reason you aren’t seeing much corn move right today because the price has done absolutely nothing,” he said.

Niemeyer wants a final NAFTA agreement soon, so negotiators can focus on new trade agreements that could help create more demand, improve prices and ultimately move the supply that has piled up in the U.S.

Gebhards said the world is watching the negotiations for clues on how reliable the U.S. is as a trading partner under Trump.

“It’s a short term issue for us not to lose ground as we try to renegotiate NAFTA,” Gebhards said. “But I think the long term is what kind of a signal do you send as a reliable trading partner to the rest of the world that if you enter into this agreement with the United States you know that you will be able to get that product that you’ve agreed to buy.”

Trump has recently suggested a deadline extension for modernizing NAFTA, which means the uncertainty for farmers like Niemeyer could extend into March or April, when he is preparing to put a new crop in the ground.

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