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After pandemic hiatus, Detroit Auto Show reboots itself

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General Motors President of Cadillac Steve Carlisle revealed the Cadillac XT6 in January 2019 during the last Detroit Auto Show prior to the pandemic
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Less glitz, better weather. 

The Detroit Auto Show, long a dead of winter mainstay that drew car industry brass and international media to America’s “Motor City” ahead of a big public expo, will convene next week for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event, reconceptualized as a partly outdoor gathering, will spotlight the growing class of electric vehicles (EV) that are beginning to hit showrooms, in what is still the early days of a lengthy transition.

With no Detroit show since 2019, event organizers tout a chance for media and the public to check out vehicles that they may have only seen virtually until now.  

In another highlight, President Joe Biden plans to attend the show’s media day on Wednesday to highlight policies to boost EV adoption.

But longtime Detroit show attendees are expecting a fanfare-light affair.

In its peak years, the January event was known for free-flowing champagne and fancy nibbles as CEOs from Detroit’s “Big 3” and international giants like Toyota and Mercedes-Benz unveiled sparkling new four-wheel offerings.

Architects of the event, officially called the North American International Auto Show, are not trying to replicate the panache of the show’s earlier incarnation in light of profound changes since the last show in 2019.

“You can’t keep doing what you did,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association. “You have to take some risk.”

Unlike with the winter show, attendees from the public will have the chance to ride in autos downtown. A “show above the show” will demonstrate emerging air mobility products.

But there is a paucity of major new vehicle reveals, in part because foreign brands that once competed with Detroit’s Big 3 for the spotlight aren’t presenting.

“It will be a very different show,” said longtime Detroit-based industry analyst Michelle Krebs of Cox Automotive. “The days of the auto show being big media splashes are over.” 

– Competing with virtual launches –

Detroit is far from the only show facing existential questions.

The Geneva auto show was canceled this year for the fourth time in a row and will relocate in 2023 to Doha, while the Frankfurt show moved to Munich and was reconfigured as a “mobility” event. Next month’s Paris show is expected to be smaller than in years past.

One major change concerns vehicle launches, with automakers discovering during the pandemic the benefits of virtual unveilings, which are cheaper than big auto shows that force them to compete for attention with other automakers.

General Motors went that route with its EV Equinox, revealing the much-anticipated vehicle online and through an appearance by Chief Executive Mary Barra on CBS News on Thursday — a week before the Detroit show.

“The way we reveal vehicles has changed in the last few years to accommodate new ways to reach a larger number of folks,” said GM spokesman Chad Lyons, adding that the Equinox and other leading EVs will be shown in Detroit along with another new product introduction.

The biggest product reveal is expected to be Ford’s seventh-generation Mustang. Seeking to pique interest, the Michigan auto giant has not said whether the auto to be unveiled Wednesday is electric or internal combustion engine.

The Mustang launch was first announced on Twitter in July by Chief Executive Jim Farley. The company has organized a “stampede” to Detroit’s Hart Plaza of Mustangs from the six earlier generations, begun in Tacoma Washington and crossing nine states.

Besides Ford and GM, Stellantis also plans new vehicle events in Detroit, including a reveal Tuesday night near Huntington Place, the indoor venue. 

Analysts expect shows like Detroit to continue to evolve away from being media spectacles and revert to their original function for consumers to check out vehicles.

“It’s still important as a consumer experience, a place where there’s no pressure and you can just see the vehicles,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for the automotive research firm Edmunds.

Even so, the Detroit show has still seen 2,000 media pass registrants from 30 countries, said Alberts, who believes the shift to EVs means the show also provides the public the chance “to understand these new technologies and be more comfortable with them.”

Post-pandemic realities make predictions impossible, but Alberts said public attendance of 500,000 would be a success. At its peak, the event drew more than 700,000, he said. 

Analyst Krebs described the show’s prospects as a question mark. Holding the event in January, a season of bitter cold, coincided with a season when being inside made sense. September marks the return of American football during a season when people like to be outside.

“It’ll be a big test of whether you’ll get consumers when there’s other things to do,” she said. “Let’s see what happens.”

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After long peace, Big Tech faces US antitrust reckoning

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US Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice Jonathan Kanter speaks at the "Enforcers' Roundtable" panel at the American Bar Association's 2024 antitrust spring meeting in Washington, on April 12, 2024
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After more than a decade of leaving Big Tech largely to itself, US antitrust enforcers have cranked up the heat, with several high-profile cases underway that could radically change the way the industry’s giants do business.

Launched under both the Trump and Biden administrations, five major cases from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are moving forward against major US technology companies — including two against Google that could see the company split up.

The most recent came in March against Apple by the FTC, which alleges the iPhone maker abuses its dominance of the premium smartphone sector.

Washington had largely remained silent on Big Tech cases since its wars with Microsoft that began in the 1990s and ended in a settlement in the early 2000s, after a bruising battle with the DOJ.

Inspired by moves in Europe and elsewhere, the new generation of cases allege that the practices of tech giants including Amazon and Meta stifle competition, harm consumers, and warrant significant changes in business operations.

The cases are on different timelines, before different federal judges and are based on a wide variety of allegations. With appeals, the lawsuits could drag on as long as a decade.

The first case in the campaign, launched in 2020 against Google over its search engine, could have an initial decision as early as the end of this year.

In the second Google case, also brought by the DOJ, the company is targeted for its dominance of the digital advertising sector. Amazon and Meta meanwhile face cases with the FTC.

The suits have drawn applause from lawmakers, with frustration over the power of big tech companies running high with the public. 

But many in the business community and legal profession have balked, seeing the lawsuits as legally thin or politically motivated.

The heads of the FTC and the DOJ’s antitrust section adamantly stand by their cases, seeing their mission as a means to protect consumers.

“It’s always good to kind of look at the actual facts rather than go off of the vibes,” FTC chair Lina Khan told a conference in Washington, organized by the American Bar Association, in response to her critics.

“We’re really addressing the pain points that affect people’s lives including health care and digital (tech), but way, way beyond that,” she said.

Instead of getting bogged down in legal theory, Khan said the FTC’s cases were “fit for purpose in the year 2024.”

“That means… not relying on outdated assumptions and theories that are clearly contravened with what we’re seeing with our own eyes,” she added.

– Legally creative? –

In an informal survey of 19 top antitrust scholars by University of Michigan Law professor Daniel Crane, a majority of respondents believed the cases would be difficult to prosecute.

“Gathering the overall sense, it’s fair to say that there is an expectation that more of the cases will lose than win,” Crane wrote, with the Google cases seen as the government’s strongest and Amazon as the weakest.

Khan’s critics point to widespread opinions in the legal community that the Biden administration’s cases walk on thin legal ground.

“I’m kind of exasperated by these lawsuits, because they seem highly motivated, rather than based on sober legal and economic analysis,” said Michael Santoro, a professor of management at Santa Clara University, who was not part of the survey.

A senior executive from a tech giant, on condition of anonymity, said that “ultimately they are turning antitrust law upside down.”

Speaking in Washington with her US counterparts, the EU’s competition czar Margrethe Vestager said she wished she had been more on the offensive in her earlier antitrust decisions.

“If I were to redo it, I would have been bolder, because we don’t have a lot of time. Concentration is increasing in every jurisdiction,” she said.

Vestager, in office for almost a decade, has pursued her own wave of cases against tech companies that have been accused of being far-fetched or legally creative.

In its latest tech-related decision, last month the EU hit Apple with a 1.8-billion-euro fine ($1.9 billion) for preventing music streaming services from offering subscription options outside of its App Store.

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Sam Bankman-Fried appeals fraud conviction, 25-year jail term

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Fallen crypto wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried has formally appealed his conviction and sentence
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Fallen cryptocurrency wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried has appealed his federal conviction and 25-year jail sentence in a sweeping fraud case, according to a legal filing made public Thursday.

News of the appeal comes two weeks after US District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan set the prison term and ordered Bankman-Fried, known as “SBF,” to pay $11 billion in forfeiture.

Bankman-Fried had soared to the top of the crypto world, becoming a billionaire before age 30 and turning FTX, a small start-up he cofounded in 2019, into the world’s second largest exchange platform.

But in November 2022, Bankman-Fried’s breakneck rise came crashing down, with a deluge of customer withdrawals and revelations that billions of dollars had been illegally moved from FTX to Bankman-Fried’s personal hedge fund, Alameda Research.

He was convicted by a federal jury in New York in November 2023 on seven counts of fraud, embezzlement and criminal conspiracy. 

During last month’s sentencing hearing, Bankman-Fried expressed regret about the firm’s demise, which also affected many colleagues.

“It haunts me every day,” he said. “I made a series of bad decisions.”

But the judge said Bankman-Fried had not fully accepted responsibility.

Bankman-Fried said “mistakes were made, but never a word of remorse for the commission of a terrible crime,” said Kaplan, who characterized the violations as “brazen” and called out SBF for his “exceptional flexibility” towards the truth.

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Corporate climate pledge weakened by carbon offsets move

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Critics say offsets give corporations a free pass to keep polluting without cleaning-up their act
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The world’s main benchmark for vetting corporate climate action has been accused by its own staff of “greenwashing” after allowing businesses to use carbon credits to offset pollution from their value chains.

The ruling by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) was slammed as a “coup” on Thursday and has sparked a revolt by staff who want the decision reversed and the non-profit’s CEO and board to resign.

Experts say it could irreversibly damage the credibility of the SBTi, which is partnered with the UN Global Compact and WWF, and is the gold standard for assessing the net zero plans of big business.

An internal letter sent to SBTi leadership, and seen by AFP, said the board’s decision was taken without adequate consultation, defied science, and “resulted in significant harm to our organisation’s reputation and viability.

“We stand ready to support any efforts aimed at ensuring that the SBTi does not become a greenwashing platform where decisions are unduly influenced by lobbyists, driven by potential conflicts of interest and poor adherence to existing governance procedures,” read the letter to SBTi’s CEO and Board of Trustees.

“In the event that our concerns are not addressed, SBTi staff will have no choice but to take further action,” it added, without elaborating on what that would mean.

It was signed by staff from “the Target Validation Team, Target Operations Team, the Technical Department, Communications, Impact and IT, and multiple department heads.”

Comment has been sought from SBTi and the We Mean Business Coalition, one of its main partners. 

– ‘Extremely serious’ –

On April 9, SBTi issued a statement rolling back its previous opposition to the use of carbon credits to offset Scope 3 emissions. 

These occur in the value chain, and represents the lion’s share of the carbon footprints — in some cases more than 90 percent — of most companies.

Carbon credits are generated by projects that reduce or avoid emissions — like renewable energy, tree planting and forest protection — and sold to companies wanting to offset pollution from their activities.

But critics say offsets give corporations a free pass to keep polluting without cleaning-up their act, and their usage to make claims of “carbon neutrality” has become increasingly contentious.

Gilles Dufrasne from Carbon Market Watch, who sits on the technical advisory group to SBTi, said allowing their usage by companies represented a “fundamental U-turn on SBTi policy so far”.

“It is pretty much a coup from the board,” he told AFP, adding at least one member of the advisory group had resigned in protest.

“It’s extremely serious, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Verification by SBTi allows companies to say their climate plans align with science and the goals of the Paris agreement to limit global warming.

More than 4,000 companies and financial institutions have sought to have their net zero claims verified by SBTi, the nonprofit said.

Dufrasne said the decision was “extremely damaging” to corporate climate responsibility because it sent a signal that companies could just pay someone else if they can’t meet their own targets.

“I’m not sure if SBTi’s credibility can survive this,” he said.

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