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Sony Honda Mobility is touring around with its AFEELA prototype, and we got a chance to have a look at it up close in LA.

AFEELA is the official name of Sony’s fledgling electric car brand, which Sony first showed off as the “VISION-S” at CES in 2020, and has evolved bit by bit every year since then, now with an eventual release date of 2026. Since then, it has formed a joint venture with Honda, called Sony Honda Mobility (SHM), to bring the car to market.

The AFEELA booth was set up in Westfield Topanga, north of LA, where the car will be on display until April 1. We got a chance to have a sit in it and get a technology demo of some of the interior and UI features, though it was still quite limited and in prototype form.

To recap, Sony’s concept was originally stated to have 400kW (536hp) dual-motor all-wheel-drive, 0-100km/h (0-62mph) in 4.8 seconds, and a top speed of 240km/h (149mph). That said, we don’t know if those are still the specs they’re aiming for. And we still have no information on price or battery size (though they have said they want to offer ten-year leases), but we do have two more years until this project bears fruit after all.

And things could change a lot before then. While the original VISION-S concept was pitched with the specs above, we haven’t heard them mentioned since. Sony did show off the car doing road testing in Europe in 2021, but ever since the joint venture with Honda, Sony’s demonstrations have been characterized more as tech demos of potential in-car experiences for a software-defined vehicle.

So… this was sort of a car demo, but more of a technology demo (as they reminded us many times). Despite being only 2 years away, anything that we saw could and probably will change, so keep all of that in mind.

As I and another journalist arrived for a tour, our tour guide stepped aside for a moment and then brought us around to the front of the car, where we saw the first of the AFEELA’s neat features: a customizable front “media bar” which greeted us for our tour.

This feature is currently controlled by a phone app for demo purposes, and responded quickly as our guide swiped through various display possibilities. These included various themes, a battery display to check your charge level, or messages that could be relevant while driving (e.g. flashing “WARNING” when hazard lights are active).

Heading into the car, the doors are intended to have facial recognition (or perhaps were opened by our tour guide furtively pressing a button on his phone app) and are auto-opening and closing, though there is also a small button at the edge of the door that we could use to open it.

From the driver’s seat, the cockpit view is pretty satisfying. Visibility felt good and the cabin is quite spacious. The yoke steering wheel – which may or may not be standard or an option, SHM hasn’t decided yet – does offer a nice clear view of the instrument cluster. And it may use steer by wire, though that again has not yet been decided.

The giant wraparound screen offers important instruments in front of the driver (along with a HUD, which wasn’t activated for the demo), and a wide screen for nav or entertainment in the center and in front of the passenger.

Various apps can be brought up on the screen, and swiped between middle-screen and passenger-side (whether or how they’ll be active while the car is in motion is still being investigated), and themes are customizable and can affect the car’s ambient lighting, exterior media bar, and even motor sounds (and in my opinion, they better let us turn them off).

The side portions of the screen are for digital side mirrors, though the car is also expected to come with physical side mirrors as US regulators do not allow all-digital mirrors yet. The rear-view mirror is a hybrid optical/digital mirror, but wasn’t active in the prototype.

Many of the apps were not active in the tech demo, but we got a general sense of the snappiness and design of this (albeit restricted) version of the UI. And, like we’ve seen from many of the “EV startup” companies, it worked a lot better than what you generally expect out of traditional automaker UIs. Chalk one up to Sony’s software expertise here, they are clearly taking the lead on the in-car experience parts of this joint venture (and plan to offer over-the-air updates, something that is very popular among Tesla/Rivian owners, that traditional automakers are slowly getting around to implementing).

We got a short chance to demo playing Horizon Zero Dawn: Forbidden West in the car, but given how wide and short the screen is, the window was quite small. Maybe it would look better on the back seat screens.

And, it doesn’t actually run on the in-car system – we were using the PlayStation 5’s “remote play” feature, which lets you stream gameplay over the internet from a PS5 connected somewhere off-site. This adds latency depending on your distance from servers and your connection type (i.e., mobile data, from a car), so it’s not great for games with quick action or reaction times, but could work for e.g. story and puzzle games (there also seemed to be some additional latency/bluetooth interference when holding the controller in a lower position, but again, prototype).

That said, one weird thing about the in-car experience is that it was really hot in there. As soon as we closed the doors, it felt like the heater was on, and the touchscreen was also quite warm to the touch. It’s clear that Sony has packed some serious computing power in the vehicle, and that computer seems to have been really pumping out the processor cycles to ensure the best UI demo. Heat management is still on the to-do list.

Moving to the back seat, each seat has a large screen for the rear passengers, which will eventually offer various features, but as-is only showed us a static image of a map (very useful for backseat drivers) and a button to bring up an app-switcher with several inactive apps. You’ll eventually be able to use it for games, music, movies, climate control functions and so on.

Back seat space was quite good, with exceptional legroom and just-about adequate headroom. With the front seat set to a comfortable position for a 6′ driver, I still had a good ~5 inches of knee room, suggesting that legroom won’t be a problem in the vehicle. Headroom isn’t quite as expansive, but was still fine for someone like myself who is prone to slouching. And our tour guide was about ~6’3″ and seemed to fit alright, as you can see in this video.

We didn’t get to see in the trunk, or under the hood (frunk?), or in the charge ports – which are on both sides of the vehicle, but we don’t know if they’ll use NACS or not (but they had better, considering literally everyone else will soon).

The AFEELA will have a full suite of sensing abilities for safety and driver assistance, with the goal of achieving “level 2+ or level 3” autonomy, according to the reps we talked to (though previously SHM has said level 3/4). The difference between levels 2 and 3 is quite significant, though – the only level 3 system on (some) US roads currently is Mercedes DRIVE PILOT, and the big jump here is that level 3 systems can take responsibility for the driving task in certain situations, whereas level 2 cars are always the responsibility of a human driver.

So not only is there a big step between those two, but there’s a lot of variation within level 2 systems. SHM says that it will utilize machine learning to develop its autonomous software – which is a bit of a nod to that AI buzzword it dropped a lot at CES this year, but which is indeed an effective way to develop autonomous software.

That said, currently, even with the newest “mind-blowing” version of FSD, Teslas are still level 2 vehicles that require human drivers. And Tesla has a lot more driving data to comb through with its machine learning algorithms (which it only recently started doing with FSD v12) than SHM (or anyone) has. So we think it’s ambitious to suggest the AFEELA will be level 3 capable anywhere near its 2026 release target.

But – SHM does have more sensors than Tesla does. Tesla has waffled between using vision-only, vision-plus-radar, and vision/radar/ultrasonics systems, but AFEELA uses all of those plus LiDAR – complete with a LiDAR “taxi bump” above the windshield.

And SHM does have Honda behind it, which means that all of these in-car experiences that Sony showed off will be paired with Honda’s global-scale manufacturing and distribution network. The plan is to build the car in Ohio (which means potential US tax credit availability, though SHM hasn’t announced a battery supplier yet – though Honda is co-invested in an Ohio facility with LG), though Sony would like to establish direct customer relationships rather than going through dealers. That decision is still somewhat up in the air, though – either option has its positives and negatives.

Now – as I’ve mentioned many times, and as SHM told me many times, this was more of a tech demo than anything. We asked SHM a lot of questions about what will happen with this car, and they couldn’t really answer many of them (including no comment on the SUV variant). There are a lot of decisions still to be made – or at least, that have not yet been publicized – in the next 2 years before this car hits the road. As you’ve probably noticed throughout the above text.

The sheer scale of the decisions that still need to be made does make us question whether 2026 is still in the cards. Sony has been working on this car for a long time now – since before 2020 – so 2026 isn’t an unreasonable timeline in that respect. And I’ve long been impressed by the gradual nature of Sony’s, and now SHM’s, reveals about this vehicle. They’re not promising the world or anything too unrealistic (well, until this last CES – it got too buzzwordy, with AI and AR and what-have-you), now they just have to execute on what have mostly been realistic goals.

But there’s still a whole lot to do, or at least a whole lot to announce, before we get there. And they’ve said they plan to take preorders in the US starting first half of 2025, so that’s only a year away.

It feels like a daunting task – but unlike other “EV startups,” this one is funded by two of the largest companies in Japan who have tons of experience both in software/UX and auto manufacturing (though perhaps not much in EV manufacturing, yet). So it’s a little different than evaluating a prototype of a starting-from-scratch EV startup. They’ve certainly got the resources to bring this over the line, and we’re excited to see what it looks like when they do.

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Ukraine’s attacks on Russian oil refineries shows the growing threat AI drones pose to energy markets

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Ukraine’s attacks on Russian oil refineries shows the growing threat AI drones pose to energy markets

Smoke billows after Ukraine’s SBU drone strikes a refinery, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Ryazan, Ryazan Region, Russia, in this screen grab from a video obtained by Reuters, March 13, 2024. 

Video Obtained By Reuters | Via Reuters

Ukraine’s campaign of attacks against Russian oil refineries is demonstrating how relatively cheap drones that utilize artificial intelligence could pose a major threat to global energy markets.

Ukraine-launched drones have hit 18 Russian oil refineries this year with a combined capacity of 3.9 million barrels per day, according to report published by JPMorgan earlier this month. Some 670,000 bpd of Russian refining capacity is currently offline due to the strikes, according to the bank.

Ukraine’s capabilities are growing with its drones now demonstrating a substantially longer range. Earlier this month, Kyiv hit Russia’s third-largest oil refinery, Taneco, which is located up to 1,300 kilometers — roughly 800 miles — from the frontlines, according to JPMorgan.

Ukraine is increasingly using drones that are enabled with AI, which helps the weapons navigate and avoid jamming, according to the bank.

“The AI guidance also delivers strike precision, maximizing the impact of the strikes by targeting specific areas like distillation towers, repairs of which requires Western technology,” Natasha Kaneva, head of global commodities strategy at JPMorgan, told clients in the April report. “This makes the repairs costly and often require equipment that the country is not able to produce.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made clear Tuesday that the Biden administration is worried about the strikes in a rare airing of public disagreement with U.S. allies in Kyiv.

“Certainly, those attacks could have a knock-on effect in terms of the global energy situation,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Quite frankly, I think Ukraine is better served in going after tactical and operational targets that can directly influence the current fight.”

The U.S. has urged Ukraine to stop the attacks on Russian energy infrastructure out of concern that they could drive up crude oil prices and instigate retaliation from Moscow, three people familiar with the discussions told the Financial Times last month.

The losses to Russian refining capacity could worsen as Ukraine aims to build a full-fledge drone industry and produce a million units domestically this year, according to the JPMorgan report. If Kyiv is able to extend the drones’ range to 1,500 kilometers (about 932 miles), they could potentially hit 21 refineries with more than 4.4 million bpd of refined capacity, according to the report.

“There’s room for this to become a bigger problem, because we’ve come to count on Russian supply getting to the global market, which allows other non-Russian supply to go to other places,” said John Kilduff, an energy expert and founding partner at Again Capital.

The deployment of AI drones also has broader implications for global energy markets, according to Bob Brackett, a senior research analyst at Bernstein. The drones are cheap to produce compared to the millions of dollars in damage they can cause and could empower nonstate actors to challenge superior fighting forces, Brackett told clients in Friday note.

“These drones can easily and asymmetrically disrupt global seaborne trade,” Brackett wrote, warning that oil exporters such as Russia aren’t the only countries that need to be worried. Oil importers, like China and India, will now have to worry about disruptions to crude flows from drone attacks, he said.

Impact on oil, gasoline prices

Ukraine’s campaign of drone strikes comes at the same time as tensions are running red hot in the Middle East, with OPEC member Iran and Israel now teetering on the brink of a direct confrontation.

U.S. crude oil has rallied nearly 20% this year, while the global benchmark Brent has gained 17% as the wars in Middle East and Eastern Europe rage against the backdrop of rising crude demand and tightening supply. Gasoline futures have surged about 33% since the year began.

Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy, said the drone strikes are not a major issue for oil prices right now because the attacks on refineries are primarily affecting Russia’s production of diesel at a time when the market is already glutted.

But Russia is also major exporter of a gasoline feedstock called naphtha. If naphta markets were to tighten because of the attacks it could have an impact on gas prices and balances, said McNally, who served as a senior energy official in the George W. Bush administration.

Goldman Sachs said in a research note last month that the strikes are bullish for diesel prices, but the impact on crude oil is mixed. Outages can lead to reduced oil demand from refineries, which is bearish for prices. But the market is worried Ukraine could increasingly hit oil production and transportation infrastructure, which would weigh on Russian crude exports, according to Goldman.

Bart Melek, head of commodity strategy at TD Securities, said the current strikes could have an indirect effect on oil markets. As Russian fuel exports decline due to the attacks, countries that rely on those exports then need to source fuel from refineries in other jurisdictions, Melek said. Those refiners need more crude to meet the demand which can stress oil supplies, he said.

Russian production already poses a problem for the Biden administration. Moscow has pledged to cut its oil output and exports by an additional 471,000 barrels per day in the second quarter to meet its commitments to OPEC+.

Those cuts could push the price of Brent crude to $100 by September, which will put pressure on the Biden administration just before the presidential election, according to a JPMorgan report last month.

The investment bank expects U.S. gas prices to hit $4 per gallon by May, the highest level since the summer of 2022.

“There are few issues that terrify a sitting American president in an election year more than surging gasoline prices,” said Rapidan’s McNally.

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MAN to build 200 hydrogen trucks — to prove that hydrogen doesn’t work?

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MAN to build 200 hydrogen trucks — to prove that hydrogen doesn't work?

Europe’s second-largest commercial truck maker is going to build 200 hydrogen-powered semi trucks, but remains skeptical about the viability of hydrogen as a transport fuel.

It’s a strange announcement, as far as these things go. MAN even went so far as to reiterate its commitment to battery-electric vehicles for “most” applications, strange for an announcement about a hydrogen-fueled product that the company plans to try and actually sell to a select number of customers who carry extra-heavy loads like timber or parts for offshore wind turbines. Other hydrogen strangeness includes claims that “it will still be a few years before the technology is truly market-ready and competitive.”

Those claims don’t come from MAN Truck’s notoriously hydrogen-skeptical CEO, Alexander Vlaskamp, who told reporters that it was, “impossible for hydrogen to effectively compete with battery electric trucks,” back in January. “Today you cannot buy hydrogen for less than 13 or 14 euros … and it is not green. And when we have green hydrogen it will be needed for the heavy industry of steel, cement, or plastic.”

So — if all that’s true, why is MAN continuing to invest in hydrogen-powered vehicle programs?
Only to test our hypothesis,” said Vlaskamp (emphasis mine). “We may use hydrogen for transportation in 2035, but only if there is enough green hydrogen at the right price and the necessary infrastructure is in place.”

MAN CEO expresses doubts about H

MAN CEO, Alexander Vlaskamp; via Expansión.
MAN CEO, Alexander Vlaskamp; via Expansión.

And, as noted above, Vlaskamp isn’t alone. MAN’s board member for research and development, Frederik Zohm, said that the company is the one saying hydrogen still has years to go. “(MAN) continues to research fuel cell technology based on battery electrics,” he said, in a statement quoted by Hydrogen Insight, before another board member added that, “we (MAN) expect that, in the future, we will be able to best serve the vast majority of our customers’ transport applications with battery-electric trucks.”

As far as the hydrogen trucks themselves go, the H2 combustion engine appears to have taken center stage in MAN’s hydrogen product road map, with the company’s previously stated plans to put its FCEV semi into limited production in 2025 seemingly pushed back to make way for this run.

Dubbed the MAN gTGX, the trucks are fitted with a 56 kg tank that it says can be filled with hydrogen compressed at 700 bar in 15 minutes. And, with tailpipe emissions coming in at less than 1kg of CO2 per km, the truck will be categorized as a “zero-emissions vehicle” under the EU’s road transport regulations.

MAN says its H2 combustion engine will deliver a massive 1800+ lb-ft. of torque (2500 Nm), enough to haul more 220,000 lbs. (100 tonnes) of payload.

Electrek’s Take

This whole thing is strange, right? Imagine RAM trucks announcing a new diesel pickup and including quotes from several executives about the technology being a step or two behind the electric trucks from Ford and Tesla. It would be bizarre.

That said, the message here seems to be that, if Europe wants to keep spending money on hydrogen trucks, MAN will be happy to take it. That’s what I’m getting, anyway — what about you guys? Scroll on down to the comments and let us know.

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Monarch delivers first 70 hp electric tractor to City of Berkeley

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Monarch delivers first 70 hp electric tractor to City of Berkeley

In a move set to align with a new state mandate to transition to a zero-emission off-road equipment and vehicle fleet by 2035, the City of Berkeley, California becomes the first to take delivery of a a 70 hp Monarch MK-V electric tractor.

It’s been a rough week for fans of electric farm tractors, with news that California-based Solectrac has been evicted from their Sonoma County R&D facility and word that a number of ag equipment dealers have soured on the brand, stating that, “(the Solectrac) is a nice tractor but really about a 75 horsepower tractor is what people look at.”

It seems like someone at Monarch agreed, because their electric tractor is available with 70 all-electric hp and enough instant torque for the brand’s reps to be able to confidently claim that their horses are bigger than most. And, almost as if in direct response to the comments from dealers, they seem to have business and public sector customers ready to give them a shot — starting with the City of Berkeley.

“We (City of Berkeley) have been slowly but surely purchasing electrical equipment for our operations,” says Melissa Marizette-Green, Senior Landscape Gardener Supervisor, City of Berkeley Parks Division. “The MK-V is going to be the largest piece.”

It’s worth noting, too, that Marizette-Green chose the Monarch tractor intentionally, and not simply because it was electric. “We had seen another electric tractor here in California, but it didn’t meet our needs,” she explains, stopping just short of calling out Solectrac by name. “That tractor was not powerful enough to use the attachments that we use in our operations. The Monarch was everything we needed.”

The City of Berkeley was able to take advantage of California’s Clean Off-Road Equipment (CORE) incentive program, which enables customers to purchase the Monarch MK-V for a minimum of 65% off the retail price, effectively making its purchase price equal to a similar-sized diesel tractor while offering significantly reduced operating costs.

The Monarch MK-V is currently in production at the Foxconn-owned Lordstown factory in Ohio, with early deliveries reaching customers as I type this. The Monarch electric tractor offers a proven runtime of up to 14 hours, swappable li-ion battery technology, compatibility with a number of current, industry-standard implements, and a suite of autonomous tech.

Electrek’s Take

Melissa Marizette-Green, City of Berkeley Parks Division, takes delivery of a MK-V; via Monarch.

While this is good news for electric tractors and, I think, humanity and agriculture as-a-whole, it makes me a bit sad for Solectrac. I’m a huge fan of those guys, and have been a fan of their founder, Steve Heckeroth, since the days of US Electricar.

I was invited to moderate a fireside chat on the subject of electric tractors at last year’s Electrify Expo Industry Day event in Long Beach, CA with Monarch CEO, Praveen Penmetsa, and Steve Heckeroth that focused on agriculture’s role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s titled “Field of Dreams: From the Farm to the Open Road, and Higher,” and you can watch it for yourself on YouTube, below.

Coinciding with the earliest days of the automobile, America’s farms and ranches saw new possibilities for tending to crops and land with tractors and other rugged vehicles. Today, data and automation that provide safety on our highways often come from work in rows of produce destined for the dinner table and travel far beyond our cities. Let’s visit with the pioneers of these new proving grounds and the launchpads of tomorrow.

PS: you’re wrong. The Stetson was a fantastic choice.

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