Major automakers Toyota, Honda, FCA extend factory closures

Toyota, Honda and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will not reopen North American factories at the end of the month as planned as the COVID-19 disease spreads and dampens demand for new cars, trucks and SUVs.

FCA said Thursday that plants across the U.S. and Canada, as well as headquarters operations and construction projects, are intended to remain closed until April 14, dependent upon the various states’ stay-in-place orders and the readiness of each facility to return to production.

FCA’s Mopar Parts Distribution centers, which have been deemed essential to keeping first responders and commercial vehicles on the road, will continue to operate with paid volunteers. The status of production for FCA’s Mexico operations will be subject to a separate announcement, the company said in a statement emailed Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ford, Toyota and Honda also announced plans to extend closures. Ford will also said it will extend its closure until April 7.

Honda also said will keep all of its automobile, engine and transmission plants in the U.S. and Canada closed into the first week of April. Operations will resume on April 7, Honda said.

“This extension is in response to the continued steep decline in market demand across the automotive industry due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, resulting in the inability of consumers in many markets to purchase new vehicles,” Honda said in an emailed statement. “As the market impact of the fast-changing COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, Honda will evaluate conditions and make additional adjustments as necessary. In undertaking this production adjustment, Honda is continuing to manage its business carefully through a measured approach to sales that aligns production with market demand.”

Toyota said its manufacturing facilities will remain closed through April 17 and will resume production on April 20. Toyota has numerous factories in North America, including Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Baja California, Mexico and Guanajuato, Mexico.

Toyota said its service parts depots and vehicle logistics centers will continue to operate.

Earlier this month, major automakers suspended productions at factories across the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Most had planned to restart March 31. Now as that date gets closer, a number of automakers are pushing back plans to restart production.

COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has caused upheaval across every major industry as governments issue stay-at-home orders or directives for nonessential businesses to close in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic. Closures first hit China, where the first cases of COVID-19 popped up three months. Those factories are now coming back online as plants in Europe and North America shut down temporarily.

Fox Sports to broadcast the full season of NASCAR’s virtual race series

Esports racing, helped by record-setting viewership, is hitting the big time.

Fox Sports said Tuesday it will broadcast the rest of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series, following Sunday’s virtual race that was watched by 903,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

While those numbers are far below the millions of viewers who watch NASCAR’s official races — the last one at Phoenix Raceway reached 4.6 million — it still hit a number of firsts that Fox Sports found notable enough to commit to broadcasting the virtual racing series for the remainder of the season, beginning March 29.

The races will be simulcast on the FOX broadcast network, Fox Sports iRacing and the FOX Sports app. Races will be available in Canada through FOX Sports Racing.

Virtual racing, which lets competitors race using a system that includes a computer, steering wheel and pedals, has been around for years. But it’s garnered more attention as the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has prompted sports organizers to cancel or postpone live events, including the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, NBA, NHL and MLB seasons as well as Formula 1 and NASCAR racing series.

NASCAR ran its first virtual race in the series on Sunday in lieu of its planned race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Not only was it the most watched esports event in U.S. television history, it was Sunday’s most-watched sports telecast on cable television that day.

“This rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television viewers across the country in a very positive way,” Brad Zager, FOX Sports executive producer said in a statement. “We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time, and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand-new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.”

Granted, there aren’t any live sports to watch in this COVID-19 era. Still, it bodes well for the future of esports, perhaps even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“The response on social media to last Sunday’s race has been incredible,” said four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who is announcer for Fox NASCAR. “We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of ‘normalcy’ back to the weekend, and I can’t wait to call the action Sunday at Texas.”

You can see what the virtual racing looks like here in this clip from Fox Sports.

NASCAR isn’t the only racing series to turn to esports. Formula 1 announced last week that it would host an esports series, the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, with a number of current F1 drivers alongside a number of other stars.

The virtual Formula 1 races will use Codemaster’s official Formula 1 2019 PC game and fans can follow along on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, as well as on F1.com. The races will be about half as long as regular races, with 28 laps. The first race took place March 22. The first-ever virtual round of the Nürburgring Endurance Series kicked off on March 21.

Ford won’t restart North American plants March 30

Ford said Tuesday won’t restart its factories in the U.S., Canada and Mexico on Monday, March 30 as the automaker had originally planned.

The company, which suspended production at its North American factories due to the continued spread of COVID-19, has decided not to restart operations in light of various governments’ orders to stay and work from home, Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of North America said in a statement.

“We are assessing various options and working with union leaders – including the United Auto Workers and Unifor – on the optimal timing for resuming vehicle production, keeping the well-being of our workforce top of mind,” Galhotra added.

Ford’s closures in North America follows a decision to shutter factories in Cologne and Saarlouis in Germany as well as its Craiova facility in Romania. Earlier this week, Ford asked all salaried employees — except those performing business critical roles that can’t be done off site —to work remotely until further notice.

On March 15, the UAW along with GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles formed a coronavirus task force to work on ways to protect worker and lessen the spread of the disease.

GM and FCA also suspended operations last week. Those automakers haven’t said if they will restart production March 30.

Fiat Chrysler to start producing 1 million face masks a month

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said Monday it will start manufacturing face masks in the coming weeks and donate the critical medical equipment to first responders and healthcare workers — the latest automaker to direct its manufacturing expertise toward the COVID-19 pandemic.

The automaker confirmed to TechCrunch that production capacity is being installed this week at one of its factories in China. Manufacturing will start in the coming weeks and distribution will be focused on the U.S., Canada and Mexico. FCA said it plans to produce 1 million face masks a month. All masks will be donated to police, EMTs and firefighters and workers in hospitals and healthcare clinics.

“Protecting our first responders and healthcare workers has never been more important,” FCA CEO Mike Manley said in a statement. “In addition to the support we are giving to increase the production of ventilators, we canvassed our contacts across the healthcare industry and it was very clear that there is an urgent and critical need for face masks. We’ve marshalled the resources of the FCA Group to focus immediately on installing production capacity for making masks and supporting those most in need on the front line of this pandemic.”

The FCA announcement follows a plea last week from Vice President Mike Pence for construction companies to donate their stocks of N95 respirator masks to hospitals. Construction companies have responded, Pence said in a subsequent press conference. Other companies have started donating their caches of face masks as well, including Apple, Facebook, IBM and Tesla.

COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus, has led to a shortage of protective equipment such as N95 respirator masks, gloves and gowns.

Vice President Pence asked construction companies to donate to their local hospitals their stocks of N95 respirator masks and stop ordering more for the time being. This call comes in the middle of a major shortage of these kinds of masks, which get their name from being able to block at least 95% of 0.3 micron particles.

Other manufacturers such as GM, Ford, VW and Tesla have started to work on the complex task of producing ventilators, another critical piece of medical equipment for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The disease attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week that he had a discussion with Medtronic about ventilators. Medtronic later confirmed those talks in a tweet. Musk had previously tweeted that SpaceX and Tesla will work on ventilators, without providing specifics.

U.S. and Canada border to close to all but essential travel and trade, says Trump

The U.S./Canada border has remained open despite measures by both countries to block and limit international flights and mobility in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but that is changing today as the two countries have agreed, “by mutual consent,” to suspend any movement between the two beyond “essential traffic” and “trade,” as first revealed via President Donald Trump on Twitter.

Earlier this week, Canada announced during a press conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that it would be closing its borders to all non-citizens and residents, with the exception of American citizens. He was asked multiple times during the Q&A session at that briefing about why the U.S. was exempted, given that the rate of new cases in the U.S. was now large and growing larger at a rapid pace.

Trudeau said that closing the border to the U.S. was still on the table as an option, but emphasized the intertwined nature of the economies of both countries as one key factor in why they were not included in the original travel limitations. The exception for traffic deemed “essential” as well as for trade transportation between the two countries in the measures announced by Trump today appear to be an attempt to keep at least part of that economic activity intact.

Early reports, including from the Globe and Mail, suggest that the definition of non-essential travel as barred in this case applies primarily to “tourism and cross-border shopping.” We don’t yet know the full extent of the border closure, or what will qualify as “essential” travel between Canada and the U.S. in detail, so stay tuned as we learn more about this latest travel restriction development.

Developing…

American Airlines cuts long-haul international flights by 75%

American Airlines said it will suspend 75% of its long-haul international flights from the U.S., beginning March 16 in response to decreased demand and government travel restrictions put in place to lessen the spread of COVID-19.

American Airlines had already reduced its capacity. This latest move, which was announced Saturday evening, will slash international capacity 75% year-over-year. The suspended service will last through May 6, the airline said, adding that it will cut back on flights gradually over the next seven days to re-accommodate passengers and crew.

American Airlines said it will continue to operate one flight daily from Dallas-Fort Worth to London, one flight daily from Miami to London. It will also continue to fly three times a week from Dallas to Tokyo . American Airlines will also continue short-haul international flying, which includes flights to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Central America and certain markets in the northern part of South America. American Airlines said it anticipates its domestic capacity in April will be reduced by 20% compared to last year and May’s domestic capacity will be reduced by 30% on a year-over-year basis.

Other airlines have reduced capacity, including Delta, Lufthansa and United. However, American Airlines’ actions surpass other reductions in service.

The reductions follow an executive order by President Donald Trump last week to ban non-U.S. citizens who are from or have recently been in China, Iran or 26 European countries from traveling to the United States for the next 30 days. The ban was extended on Friday to Ireland and the UK.

The Department of Homeland Security has also issued a Notice of Arrival Restrictions that requires American citizens, legal permanent residents and their immediate families who are returning home to the U.S. to travel through one of 13 airports upon arrival to the U.S., and then submit to an enhanced entry screening. They must then self-quarantine for 14 days once they reach their final destination, according to Homeland Security.

The 30-day travel ban does not apply to U.S. citizens or cargo.

Canadian online pharmacy, PocketPills has raised $7.35 million as it expands into Quebec

PocketPills, which bills itself as the sole online pharmacy operating in Canada, has raised $7.35 million in new financing as it expands across the country.

Through partnerships with insurers like Pacific Blue Cross the company provides co-insurance reductions for prescriptions. “We have an option for you to come and join our platform just like any pharmacy,” says company co-founder and chief operating officer, Harj Samra.

Samra launched the company in 2018 with Raj Gulia, a fellow proprietor of pharmacies across Canada, and the serial entrepreneur and co-founder of RocketFuel Abhinav Gupta. After RocketFuel’s public offering, Gupta was toying with several ideas for direct to consumer companies when he was approached by Gulia and Samra.

Together the three men launched PocketPills to bring the online pharmacy model to Canada as a way to save money for insurers.

The problem for insurers is that the use of generic drugs in Canada lags behind that of the U.S., says Gupta. “The difference is quite substantial. The U.S is about 90% generic fill rate and in Canada that number is at 70%,” he says. 

PocketPills covers everything that a regular Canadian pharmacy would outside of controlled substances and narcotics. The bulk of the company’s prescriptions to date are for medications for chronic conditions.

Now the company is looking to expand across the country, opening fulfillment locations in Nova Scotia and soon in Quebec.

To back that growth and continue its development, PocketPills turned to a large Canadian family office and the investment firm Waterbridge to finance its $7.35 million round.  

“PocketPills is timed well for massive value creation in the Canadian health care industry through its technology innovations. It has captured a sweet spot at the intersection of cost (insurers and employers), convenience (patients) and care (chronic diseases),” said Manish Kheterpal, Managing Partner, WaterBridge Ventures, in a statement.

 

Why Kepler is building its full-stack satellite business in Canada

Toronto-based telecommunications startup Kepler Communications surprised many recently when it revealed plans to establish its own satellite assembly and base the operation in its own hometown instead of contracting the work to an existing manufacturer.

It might seem a perplexing and unnecessarily costly choice at first, but I spoke to Kepler CEO and co-founder Mina Mitry about what his startup stands to gain by being based in Canada while the small-satellite industry heats up in the U.S.

“We’ve been running a global survey of available supply chain for this particular type of small satellite for the past two years or so and conducting some pretty extensive experiments, like buying parts, seeing where they end up, etc.,” Mitry told me. “The output of that global survey is really that the supply chain is immature, that it doesn’t exist in a way that’s robust enough to meet our price, performance and timeline expectations. Historically, the type of business that is now delivering on small satellites has been built on selling one-off government contracts or a small component of the satellite, and now they’re transitioning upmarket to try and sell complete satellites and try to do that at scale, which is a totally different problem that they haven’t yet addressed.”

After figuring this out through multiple years of investigation and inquiry, Mitry says it eventually resulted in the realization that meeting the startup’s goals of getting its 440 satellites in orbit in a timely manner would be best served by building them in-house. That’s not unlike the conclusion reached by Elon Musk and SpaceX for many of the components used in developing their own launch vehicles.

“We started to evaluate what countries and where and how that would all get done,” Mitry said. “It ended up that Toronto would make a lot of sense because of the surrounding technical talents we get from the key universities in the area, and then above and beyond that, we’re not doing a whole lot of manual labor in this process. Most of that is outsourced labor to a variety of different locations where they’re building circuit boards, or they’re building like metal machine parts, etc. And then in-house, we’re doing mostly assembly integration and testing, and a lot of that kind of stuff gets automated. So there was no material overhead costs that gets incurred because we’re in Toronto as opposed to any other location.”

GM adds automated lane changes to its hands-free Super Cruise driving system

GM has improved its hands-free driving assistance system Super Cruise, adding a feature that will automatically change lanes for drivers of certain Cadillac models, including the upcoming 2021 Escalade.

This enhanced version of Super Cruise, which will include better steering and speed control, puts it back in competition with Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system (specifically the Navigate on Autopilot feature), which is considered the most capable on the market today.

The improved version will be introduced starting with the 2021 Cadillac CT4 and CT5 sedans, followed by the new 2021 Cadillac Escalade. The vehicles are expected to become available in the second half of 2020. 

Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS, cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they’re paying attention. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

The automatic lane change feature in Super Cruise will still require the driver to keep their eyes on the road. When the system is engaged, the driver can engage the turn signal to indicate a desire to change lanes. Once the system has determined that the lane is open, the vehicle will merge. Meanwhile, the gauge cluster will display messages to the driver such as “looking for an opening” or “changing lanes.”

GM’s new digital vehicle platform, which provides more electrical bandwidth and data processing power, enabled engineers to add to Super Cruise’s capabilities. The company also improved its rear-facing sensors and software to be able to better track vehicles approaching from the rear, Super Cruise chief engineer Mario Maiorana said.

The new version of Super Cruise will change lanes for the driver on highways where the feature is allowed. The user interface and hands-free driving dynamics have also been improved, according to Maiorana.

Super Cruise, which launched in 2017, was limited to just one model — the full-size CT6 sedan — and restricted to divided highways. That began to change last year when GM announced plans to expand where Super Cruise would be available. A software update expanded the thousands of miles of compatible divided highways in the United States and Canada . Super Cruise is now available on more than 200,000 miles of highways.

The automaker has also started to make the system available in more models. GM is expanding Super Cruise as an option on all Cadillac models this year. GM has said the Super Cruise system will start hitting its other brands such as Chevrolet, GMC and Buick after 2020.

Instacart gets into ready-to-eat food deliveries with build your own sub service

Grocery picking service Instacart is dabbling with on-demand food delivery, announcing the launch in Florida of a pre-made meals delivery option that shoppers can tag onto a bigger supermarket order.

It’s partnering with US supermarket chain Publix for the initial launch of Instacart Meals — offering what it dubs a “digital deli counter” where app users can build their own sub and have it picked up and delivered alongside a grocery order.

“We know that when customers grocery shop, they’re thinking about both the food they need for the week in addition to what’s for dinner that night,” it writes in a blog post announcing Instacart Meals.

It says the service will be rolling out to Publix locations across Florida “in the coming weeks”, and to “nearly all Publix stores across the Southeast in the months ahead”.

“We see the highest volume of orders placed on the Instacart marketplace between 2 and 4pm and at less than half the price of an average fast-casual food order, made-to-order grocery meals offer access to a fresh, easy and more affordable option when life is hectic and dinner is soon,” it adds.

Instacart says the meals product integrates with existing grocery order management systems to generate what’s touted as “precise preparation and counter pickup windows at the end of the Instacart shopper’s shopping route”.

“This ensures that the customer’s sandwich gets from the store to their door as fresh as possible,” it adds.

Although quite how long a ready-to-eat sandwich might end up waiting around getting soggy before it’s picked up and delivered to the customer as lunch is one question. (As fresh “as possible” is a pretty open-ended promise.)

It’s notable that Instacart is touting the premade meals service as a price competitive option vs an “average fast-casual food” — presumably such as those a consumer might order via an on-demand food delivery app such as PostMates or Uber Eats.

So “more affordable” seems likely to translate to ‘not as quickly as those kind of services’ — but, hey, you’re getting cheaper eats.

Instacart also makes a point of noting that the pre-made meals feature will automatically apply any relevant deals vis-a-vis the rest of the shopping cart — so that app users will get “all applicable combo options and discounts”, just as an in store shopper would.

The move is the latest sign of the category overlap going on between on-demand food delivery and grocery delivery services, as startups in the space search for ways to cross-sell existing users on additional products that can boost the unit economics, per delivery.

Spain’s Glovo, for example, has expanded from on-demand food delivery into running its own dark supermarkets — where it stocks and sells (via app only) a limited selection of groceries which can be tagged onto a ready-to-eat food order. Though it’s also focused on very fast delivery as the differentiating factor for this ‘Super Glovo’ service, and does partner with select supermarkets for larger grocery deliveries.

Instacart, meanwhile, looks to be hoping to gobble some of the lunch of on-demand food delivery app rivals by being able to undercut them on price, as the meals are coming from supermarket deli counters not a standalone fast food brand. So speed of delivery can be handled as a secondary consideration.

Instacart Meals is the latest product expansion from the company — which, in recent years, has been building out an alcohol delivery service. It is also piloting prescription deliveries with Costco in select states.

The company has a network of 350 partner retailers operating 25,000+ stores across more than 5,500 cities in the U.S. and Canada — from which it could seek to build out the pre-made food offer.

Earlier this month Instacart also announced upgraded pick-up options. The move came after the business had come under fire for how it compensates the army of professional shoppers who do the picking and delivering of customer orders.