Toyota’s basketball-playing robot CUE.
Photo: AP
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Toyota’s got big plans for robots, Elon Musk’s Twitter feed might finally be reined in, and palladium is “this year’s hottest metal.” All that and more on The Morning Shift for Friday, December 28th, 2018.

1st Gear: Toyota Sees Its Robot Future

The company is sitting on billions in cash, meaning that it has a lot of time to ponder products of the future, like robots. And while robotics has long featured in its manufacturing plants, Toyota wants to put them in your house, too.

Well-known for its automated assembly lines, Toyota sees a not-so-far-off future in which robots transcend the factory and become commonplace in homes, helping with chores — and even offering companionship — in an aging society where a quarter of the population is over 65 and millions of seniors live alone.

Machines have become much smarter in the last decade or so. Yet, every attempt to build one that can do simple things like load a washing machine or carry groceries encounters the same basic, physical problem: the stronger a robot gets, the heavier and more dangerous it becomes. What Toyota has going for it are $29 billion in cash reserves, a new artificial intelligence research center and a well-respected inventor, Gill Pratt, heading its effort.

Toyota’s robotic efforts so far have been largely experimental, and it seems it will remain that way for the foreseeable future, but this is another sign that robots in the long-term can’t be denied. They could also be particularly useful in Japan, which has an aging population in need of more and more long-term care.

Toyota’s latest android, the T-HR3, is a kind of avatar that can be manipulated remotely via wearable controls, with vision goggles that allow users to see through the machine’s camera-eyes. The device could one day serve as arms and legs for the bedridden, or as a surrogate for relief workers in disaster zones.

In 2015 the automaker spent a billion dollars to open its AI-focused Toyota Research Institute in Silicon Valley. Last year it set up a $100 million fund to invest in startups and new robotics technology. This year the company restructured its Partner Robot division to speed decision-making and shorten development time.

“There’s internal pressure all of a sudden to move faster,’’ senior manager Keisuke Suga said at a recent industry forum near the automaker’s Toyota City headquarters.

[...]

Most of the $2.1 billion spent by consumers last year on household robots was for automated vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers — not exactly the stuff of science fiction.

Toyota says the need for elder-care will change that. The automaker illustrates the point with a chart showing Japan’s inverted age-pyramid in the year 2050, when a third-fewer workers will have to support twice as many old people as today. (Some 22 percent of the world’s population will be over 60 by then, according to the World Health Organization.)

Toyota’s Human Support Robot, or HSR, is the machine the automaker sees as closest to making the leap from lab to living room. The robot-equivalent of a Corolla – all function and no frills – the HSR is basically a retractable arm on wheels with a video screen on top and two large camera eyes that give it the rudiments of a face.

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We’ve been hearing about robots and our oncoming machine overlords for quite some time now, and it still hasn’t really happened yet for most people, unless you got a Roomba or some shit. Even Honda’s beloved little astronaut robot, Asimo, is dead.

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RIP in peace, Asimo.

And maybe robots never will happen! But Toyota hedging their bets while the good times roll seems like a smart choice in either case.

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2nd Gear: The U.S. Is Going to China to Talk Trade and Car Tariffs

Some American officials include Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish and an undersecretary in the Department of the Treasury are going to meet with Chinese government officials for a little trade-talking. The meeting will happen sometime in the second week of January. President Trump will not be there, though his presence will as always still loom large amid his damaging trade war. The talks, though, might be a sign that that trade war is calming, Bloomberg reports.

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From Bloomberg:

The meeting adds to signs that the world’s two largest economies are making progress in cooling trade tensions. Beijing this week announced a third round of tariff cuts, lowering import taxes on more than 700 goods from Jan. 1 as part of its efforts to open up the economy and lower costs for domestic consumers.

Trump has agreed to put on hold a scheduled increase in tariffs on some $200 billion in annual imports from China while the negotiations take place. He is pushing the Asian nation to reduce trade barriers and stop alleged theft of intellectual property. Beijing so far has pledged to resume buying American soybeans and to at least temporarily lower retaliatory tariffs on U.S. autos.

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News on the trade war has abated somewhat, for reasons I don’t totally understand, though for car enthusiasts, no news is good news on this front, as car tariffs ultimately only hurt consumers, and raise the price of cars.

3rd Gear: Demand for Palladium Is Exploding

Palladium is used in hybrid and internal combustion engine cars to cut emissions, a need expected to only get bigger as ICE cars are increasingly phased out and environmental regulations—particularly in China—kick in. That means that producers of palladium are seeing a lot of demand, and (potentially) lots of profits.

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Automotive News checks in with one producer in Russia:

Hybrid-electric cars, which also require precious metals to control pollution, represent a growing percentage of future demand, said Anton Berlin, head of analysis and market development at Norilsk Nickel PJSC. The Russian miner forecasts that combined palladium use in hybrid and plug-in hybrid — or rechargeable — vehicles next year will be nearly triple that of 2016.

Norilsk’s not the only one forecasting hybrid growth, at least in the medium term. While the projected increase in electric vehicles is significant, “it doesn’t compare” to the kind of expansion expected in hybrid electrics, JPMorgan Chase & Co. said in an October report. Hybrids are forecast to grow from just 3 percent of global market share in 2016 to 23 percent of sales by 2025, it said.

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Platinum, used in diesel engines, could be an alternative to palladium, but Auto News reports that it’d be expensive for makers of hybrids to switch, even as palladium has become among the world’s priciest metals, competing neck-and-neck with gold. But, you know, platinum is platinum.

Palladium is mostly found in catalytic converters and is also, Auto News reports, “this year’s hottest metal.” Only a few more days left in 2018, though, so, palladium, be sure to bask in your time in the spotlight before next year’s hottest metal comes through. I’m hoping it’ll be something more prosaic, like zinc.

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4th Gear: Maybe Elon Musk’s Tweets Will Be Boring Now?! 

I wouldn’t bank on it, as Musk is if nothing else his own captain, but Bloomberg reports that Tesla is taking measures to rein in its executives social media habits in the wake of Musk’s announcement via Twitter that he was considering taking Tesla private. That tweet caught the SEC’s attention, and Musk eventually agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla though remain as CEO after allegations of fraud.

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The terms of the SEC agreement also require measures to (maybe) stop such activity in the future.

Here’s Bloomberg:

It’s the deadline the Securities and Exchange Commission set for the electric-car maker to add two new independent directors, plus take a series of steps to better check its volatile chief executive officer’s presence on social media. Those measures include setting up a board committee and employing a securities lawyer to oversee governing senior executives’ tweets and posts on other platforms that are material to the company.

Musk’s communications, in particular, are required to be more closely scrutinized under the agreement Tesla reached in September to settle a lawsuit over the CEO’s tweets about taking the company private. The carmaker already complied with the SEC’s order to name a new chairman by tapping existing director Robyn Denholm to take over from Musk in November.

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Let’s check in on Musk’s last tweet in the wake of this news.

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OK!

5th Gear: The Chinese Car Market Is Slowing

That market has seen exponential growth in recent years, and, indeed, props up dead-in-the-water American brands like Buick, but Reuters reports that the growth is starting to wind down a bit, with Nissan the latest automaker to cut production in the country.

Nissan plans to cut production in China by a total of 30,000 units during the December-February period from its initial output plans, said the person who declined to be identified as the plans are not public.

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The automaker produced nearly 400,000 units in the country during the three-month period ended February this year. The period covers the first two months of the year, when sales usually slow in the run-up to the Lunar New Year holidays.

Japan’s Nikkei business daily reported late on Thursday that Nissan plans to cut production at three plants in China, including one in Dalian, where it produces the popular Qashqai and Infiniti QX50 SUV crossover models, and in Zhengzhou, where it makes the X-Trail SUV crossover, one of its top-selling models, and Venucia brand models.

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China accounts for about a quarter of Nissan’s sales, and while 30,000 cars isn’t much compared to the 1.5 million cars the company sold in China last year, it does signal that the party is winding down somewhat as global trade disputes have prompted automakers to collectively stop and think.

Reverse: Where Would We Be Without Turn Signals

Because she was such a successful actress, Lawrence was able to buy her own car–a rarity in the early 20th century, when cars were still luxury items. She adored driving and loved learning all she could about the way automobiles worked. “A car to me is something that is almost human,” she said, “something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.” In 1914, she developed a mechanical signaling arm that, with the press of a button, raised or lowered a flag on the car’s rear bumper that told other drivers which way a car was going to turn. After that, Lawrence devised a rudimentary brake signal that worked on the same principle: when a driver pressed the brakes, a “STOP” sign flipped up from the back bumper. These inventions were enormously important, obviously–today, every car on the road has electrical turn signals and brake lights–but because she never bothered to file patents for her work, Lawrence never got the recognition she deserved. (Not that it would have made much difference: her mother, also an inventor, patented the first electrical windshield wipers in 1917 and never got much credit either.)

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Neutral: Would You Put a Robot In Your House?

Or do you already have a robot in your house? As a reformed Luddite, I’ve now fully accepted our machine future. Give me all the robots. Put me in the digital panopticon. I’m ready.