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Chocolate, bioterrorism and the birth of Brazilian funk

July 27, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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In the 1990s, the cacao farmers of Brazil fell into a collective depression. Some hanged themselves, others dosed themselves with rat poison, still others walked around crying and saying they didn’t have anything to eat. The cacao pods on orchards throughout Bahia sat stagnant on their branches, rotting from the inside out. A coven of foreign, tightly gnarled stalks covered the trees themselves. The country had been the world’s third-largest producer of cocoa beans, but it had fallen from grace and even had to import beans from West Africa to satisfy its residents’ sweet tooth.

Juliana Pinheiro Aquino remembers it well. “My father was depressed. He was very sad,” she said.

About a century earlier, her great-grandmother’s brother, Firmino Alves, had founded the city of Itabuna and started the tradition of farming cacao in Bahia. “He called all his friends to help him,” Aquino said, describing the land rush of the late 1800s. Alves and his friends grew fabulously wealthy thanks to cacao and the mass of workers who helped them farm it. “Cacao was like the golden fruit,” Aquino said, “so everyone was raised with a lot of money.”

Aquino spent the first few years of her life on the Pinheiro family’s large-scale farm, living near her celebrity uncle who used his wealth to buy several Ford dealerships. Then, after a falling out, her father bought his own farm, Fazenda Santa Rita. When witches’ broom hit, Aquino said that within a couple of years, they had lost their entire fortune.

Her family wasn’t alone. More than 200,000 people, directly and indirectly, lost their jobs. Bahia experienced a mass exodus as people flocked from the farms to nearby cities, creating overpopulation and, with it, poverty and crime: Brazil now boasts 17 of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities, which historian Claudio Zumaeta linked directly to the collapse of cacao. Meanwhile, parts of the rainforest were wrecked, and Bahia’s biodiversity irreparably affected as farmers razed their trees to control the disease.

How could devastation happen on such a definitive level, especially in an area that had been farming cacao for more than 100 years? Two words: Moniliophthora perniciosa. The fungus causes a disease called witches’ broom that spells disaster for cacao farming, systematically transforming healthy trees into possessed messes with rotting pods and nasty-tasting beans.

The witch behind witches’ broom Expand

Witches’ broom is one of the most insidious diseases that can affect cacao trees, causing “yield reductions that range from 50 to 90%,” writes Lyndel W. Meinhardt et al., in a 2008 article in Molecular Plant Pathology called “Moniliophthora perniciosa, the causal agent of witches’ broom disease of cacao: What’s new from this old foe?”

Moniliophthora perniciosa is thought to have developed in the Amazon, like cacao. The fungus attacks trees in five phases: infection, green broom, necrosis, dry broom

Tech News

Tesla asking suppliers for money back is a risky move

July 24, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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The Model 3 will do one of two things for Tesla: It’ll make the company a profitable seller of cars, solar panels, and batteries; or, it’ll drag it further into debt. To keep the latter from happening, the company is doing something that seems insane: It’s asking some of its suppliers for money back for parts it already bought. Parts going back as far as 2016.

According to the The Wall Street Journal, it’s unheard of for an automotive manufacturer to basically ask for money back after the fact. But Tesla asked. In fact, it says it asked fewer than 10 suppliers for a price reduction that’s retroactive.

When asked about the news, Tesla sent Engadget the following statement:

“Negotiation is a standard part of the procurement process, and now that we’re in a stronger position with Model 3 production ramping, it is a good time to improve our competitive advantage in this area. We’re focused on reaching a more sustainable long-term cost basis, not just finding one-time reductions for this quarter, and that’s good for Tesla, our shareholders, and our suppliers who will also benefit from our increasing production volume and future growth opportunities.”

So how does that work, and what does it even mean? Let’s break it down.

For the sake of this example, let’s say you started a picture-framing business. You have wood, glue, glass and nail suppliers, and after a few years, you want to renegotiate your deal with the company that sends you glue. Typically, you chat with the company and try to get a better price on your adhesive. You make the case that it’s better for all involved; if you can get a better price, you can invest in a better system, sell frames for less or just stay in business. Your pitch is that if you’re doing better, then the glue supplier benefits because you’ll keep buying from it.

Tesla essentially asked the glue makers not only to cut the prices of their adhesive but to make those price cuts retroactive. It’s asking the supplier to send it money (basically a partial refund) for all the glue it bought in the past, the idea being that if Tesla gets that cash, it can use it to stay in business, and if Tesla stays in business, it’ll keep buying glue from its suppliers.

Everyone wins, right? Sort of.

Hardware supply chains are incredibly complex. If Company X is making Tesla a widget and it’s sourcing parts for that widget from other companies, a renegotiation of the price of that part might mean a renegotiation with Company X’s suppliers. If that renegotiation with Tesla results in a retroactive price reduction, the company supplying parts for Company X is likely under no obligation to take part in the price reduction that requires a refund. So the Tesla supplier is the one that has to deal with the loss. If you’re Company X,

Tech News

Trump proposal would end California's tougher car emission standards

July 23, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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It’s no secret that the Trump administration is bristling at the Clean Air Act waiver that lets California apply stricter car emissions standards — the state effectively determines the standards for the rest of the country, negating any federal attempts at rolling back anti-pollution efforts. And the administration has apparently had enough. Bloomberg sources have learned of an imminent proposed standards revision that would strip California of its extra authority. The EPA would suggest revoking California’s waiver, while the NHTSA would maintain that California isn’t allowed to regulate emissions under the law that established federal-level fuel efficiency requirements.

The measure would also cut short the Obama plan that would raise fleet fuel efficiency averages to 50MPG by 2025. This new proposal would stop the improvements at the 35MPG expected by 2020. And you can expect plenty of attempts by officials to spin the effort as a positive move. They’ll supposedly claim that this would lower the prices of vehicles, leading to more people upgrading to safer vehicles and reducing fatalities. They wouldn’t mention the possibility that people would spend more on fuel, however.

The proposal is still under review, but the core elements aren’t expected to change, the sources said. The administration is poised to unveil it this week, although none of the parties involved have commented on the report.

If the proposal moves ahead, there’s no guarantee that it will stick. California and its 12 main supporting states are expected to fight these changes tooth-and-nail, potentially resulting in a years-long legal battle that could leave the standards in place for years no matter who prevails.

There’s also the not-so-small matter of the car brands themselves. Automakers still have to honor toughening standards in Europe and other parts of the world, and many of them have already committed to electrifying their lineups. The Trump administration may be trying to put the genie back in the bottle — cars are going to become more environmentally friendly regardless of the government’s intentions.

Tech News

Liquid metal battery could lower cost of storing renewable energy

July 23, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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As dreamy as it might be to combine renewable energy sources with storage batteries, there’s a problem: those batteries are expensive. It might take you years to recoup the costs. You’ll be glad to hear, then, that Stanford scientists have a way to make those batteries more cost-effective. They’ve developed a liquid metal-based flow battery that can store electricity at a lower price, even on a large scale. A metal-producing mix of sodium and potassium serves as the negative side of the battery, providing nearly twice the maximum voltage of typical flow batteries (making them high-value) without having to resort to exotic chemicals or extreme temperatures.

It sounds simple, but there was a challenge to making this work. The team had to use a ceramic membrane that combined aluminum oxide and potassium to separate the positive and negative materials while still allowing a current.

There’s still some tweaking left, such as optimizing the membrane to improve the power output and choosing a liquid for the positive side that won’t weaken the membrane. And like many battery experiments, there’s a long road from a successful lab test to something you can buy. There’s a strong incentive to make this a reality, though. If it lowered the price of storage batteries, both homeowners and electrical grid operators might be more likely to switch to solar or wind power knowing that they’d recover their investments that much sooner.

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NASA helps businesses make use of its satellite data

July 22, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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NASA has made its raw satellite data widely available for a long while. Now that it has a privatization-minded leader, though, it’s looking to make that data more palatable for the business crowd. The administration has released a Remote Sensing Toolkit that should make it easier to use observational satellite info for commercial purposes, including straightforward business uses as well as conservation and research. The move consolidates info that used to be scattered across “dozens” of websites, and helps you search that unified database for helpful knowledge — you don’t have to go to one place for atmospheric studies and another to learn about forests.

The kit includes both some ready-to-use tools for making sense of satellite content as well as the code companies can use to craft their own tools.

It’s easy to see concerns that NASA might downplay purely scientific uses of its data as a result. Still, this might be overdue. The earlier approach may have offered massive amounts of content (petabytes, NASA said), but there was no one repository where you could find everything you needed. This could encourage more use of that data for all purposes, not just for companies hoping to make a profit.

Tech News

Porsche’s Panamera hybrid brings sports car fun to a station wagon

July 20, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

The Porsche brand has never really been synonymous with family. The legendary 911 just doesn’t lend itself to playdates, Target runs and road trips with the kids. Then the German automaker introduced its SUV line in 2003 and suddenly the offspring had a place to sit. But an SUV is not a sports car. The Panamera line, on the other hand, has the potential to be a bit of both.

Gallery: 2018 Panamera 4 E-Hybrid Sport Turismo review | 29 Photos 29 +25

The 2018 Panamera 4 E-Hybrid Sport Turismo, starting at $104,000, checks off a lot of boxes for potential Porsche owners that also have family obligations. There’s room for more than two people, for starters. There’s also an honest to goodness cargo area for shopping runs. It’s a hybrid, too, so the more judgy parents you know won’t get on your case and finally (and really more importantly) it’s a sports car. Also, it looks 100 percent better than the first iteration of the Panamera and it does all this in a way that makes you realize that station wagons can be cool. Very cool.

When I received Panamera, Porsche made sure I was aware that the hybrid system wasn’t an efficiency play. The automaker is known for sports cars after all. Still, the vehicle has four modes: E-Power (pure EV mode), Hybrid, Sport and Sport plus. During startup, it defaults to E-Power mode and when fully charged Porsche says it has a range of up to 30 miles at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. That seems pretty efficient to me. If you plug in the car at night and the majority of your trips per day are less than 25 miles, it could be weeks before you hit the gas station.

In hybrid mode (which includes options for saving and charging up the battery), the Panamera is ready for longer drives on the freeway and surface streets. The switch between the gas engine and electric motors is seamless during regular driving. But going slow (below 10 miles an hour) does feel like you’re holding back an excited puppy. Sometimes it jerked a bit more than expected.

It’s that excited puppy that’s at the heart of the vehicle and once you drop off the kids or finish picking up your organic quinoa at Whole Foods, you can put the Panamera E-Hybrid into Sport or Sport plus mode and really understand what the automaker was talking about when it said that the hybrid wasn’t an efficiency play.

Driving in either of the two sport modes, the car aggressively recharges the battery so it can use that power and electric torque to deliver outstanding acceleration. With a zero to 60 of 4.4 seconds, it’s one

Tech News

Zero motorcycle’s modular battery is one pricey upgrade

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

FX Get more info More Scores Engadget Not yet scored   Critic Not yet scored   Users Not yet scored   Key Specs

On a spreadsheet, electric motorcycles can be a tough sell. For starters, gas-powered bikes get outstanding mileage. So while hybrids and electric cars can save a driver money in the long run, that doesn’t really apply to motorcycles. Instead, there’s the warm fuzzy feeling that you’re doing something good for the environment. In addition, you can silently cruise around without frightening the neighborhood pets with a bombastic exhaust. Oh and there’s also the incredible electric torque.

Engadget Score Poor Uninspiring Good Excellent Key Zero Motorcycles FX 83 Pros Fast and nimble Fun to ride No transmission Over-the-air updates Cons Pricey Modular battery pack only makes sense for a small group of people Summary

A fun, quick and nimble commuter bike with a modular battery pack that most people won’t use. The fixed 7.2kWh is probably the the better bet.

The new Zero FX with modular battery (starting at $8,495.00 for the 3.2kWh version) is an even tougher sell on that spreadsheet. It’s a great bike with an intriguing feature: the ability to swap batteries and keep on riding without the hassle of waiting for a bike to charge. That sounds awesome right? It is, but it’s for a select group of riders and to be part of that group, be ready to pony up some cash.

The FX is the more capable version of the FXS I rode before. It’s able to hit the asphalt as well as the dirt. I had a blast riding it in both environments. Plus its lightweight (289 pounds) which gives it a nimbleness that’s perfect for lane splitting on San Francisco’s narrow streets.

I rode the 7.2kWh version of the bike which actually uses two 3.6kWh modular battery packs. Removing the batteries isn’t tough (you just unlock a bar and pull them out) but it requires you to be ready to carry a very heavy brick of electrons. The FX only requires a single battery to operate giving you the option of charging one battery while riding with another hence the 3.2kWh version of the bike. But with that second power supply plugged in the FX bike has 78 foot-pounds

Tech News

Tesla to cover the cost of Germany's court-ruled subsidy repayments

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Some German Tesla owners are facing a surprise €4,000 bill for purchasing their Model S cars, thanks to a confusing ruling by Germany’s Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control. In a bid to push EVs and plug-in hybrids in the country, Germany offers a €4,000 subsidy for electric vehicles with a base price under €60,000 (half of the subsidy comes from the government, the other half from the automaker itself).

While the Model S has a base price low enough to qualify, it was previously removed from the approved vehicles list when the government came to believe the base model wasn’t actually available in Germany. Tesla could only prove this model was available to German buyers from March 6th, so anyone purchasing the car prior to this date was — according to the government — erroneously in receipt of the subsidy, and must now pay it back.

The decision affects around 800 Model S owners, but Tesla is stepping in to help. In a statement, the company said that “the arbitrary decision to temporarily remove Tesla from the list of vehicles eligible for the Environmental Bonus (Umweltbonus) was unjustified, contrary to the stated goals of the program, and unfair to our customers.”

It says it plans to appeal the government’s decision, and “to make sure our customers are not harmed by this decision, we will cover the cost of the bonus for them until the issue is resolved.” It also says it won’t ask for its half of the payment to be returned. The issue could end up lumping Tesla with a bill of €1.7 million (the government’s share of the subsidy) — not a serious sum for a company of its size but certainly enough to get their accounts in a sweat, so it’ll no doubt push for a quick resolution.

Tech News

VW will build its electric microbus and crossover in the US

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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Volkswagen is pushing its EV strategy hard in Europe and China, and now intends to continue its momentum in the US, where it plans to produce its upcoming all-electric microbus and crossover SUV. Confirmed to Autocar this week, VW says it’ll produce the I.D. BUZZ electric microbus and I.D. CROZZ Concept in the States, ready for launch in 2022. According to Hinrich Woebcken, head of VW in North America, “For strong product momentum, they need to be produced in the USA. It’s not possible to come into a high-volume scenario with imported cars. We want to localize electric mobility in the US.”

The I.D. BUZZ electric microbus is a new version of VW’s iconic campervan. Last year the company unveiled a working prototype of the vehicle, which will come in two options. The higher-end model features all-wheel drive and a total output of 369 horsepower, powered by a huge 111kWh battery pack. VW claims it’ll have a range of 270 miles. The less expensive version clocks up 268 horsepower via an 83kWh battery, for a range around 200 miles.

The I.D. CROZZ Concept, meanwhile, comes with a dual motor powertrain boasting 75kW power in the front and 150kW in the back, totalling 225kW. VW claims the 83kWh battery will enable a range of 310 miles, but it’s expected to be closer to 275 miles when EPA estimates are taken into account.

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Investment in renewable energy drops as fossil fuel use rises

July 17, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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Global investment in renewable energy is on the decline, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The energy watchdog says there’s a significant contradiction between the statements governments make regarding their attitudes to renewables, and the tangible action being taken. Investment fell by seven percent to $318bn last year.

Meanwhile, the share of energy supply investment in fossil fuels rose for the first time since 2014. To meet climate targets, fossil fuel investment needs to drop to 40 percent by 2030 — instead it rose to 59 percent in 2017.

The drop in renewables investment has largely been attributed to declining interest in wind and hydropower. Solar power hit record levels last year, but it’s not been enough to offset spending on oil, gas and electricity. Similarly, $43bn was spent on electric cars and hybrid vehicles last year, accounting for half of global growth in car sales, but this hasn’t put any significant dent in oil demand.

Dr Faith Birol, executive director of the IEA, said the figures pointed towards a “worrying trend,” and urged governments to create less investment uncertainty for green energy. “I was myself worried to see there is a contradiction between a) the statements the governments make and b) what the world needs today vis-a-vis the investment numbers, where we see a decline.”