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Google Crashes Frankfurt Auto Show, Fuels German Carmakers' Tech Fears

Google is at the Frankfurt auto fair for the first time. What does this mean for German car industry? Will the Silicon Valley giant position itself as a partner or competitor?

Smartwatch-assisted parking, a taste of IT/auto industry collaboration
Smartwatch-assisted parking, a taste of IT/auto industry collaboration
Thomas Fromm

FRANKFURT — For some time, only a few got to come, the rest stayed home: Automotive executives went to the massive CES electronics trade fair in Las Vegas in order to discuss their cars with experts in high-tech industries. Managers meeting nerds — car fanatics and geeks, two worlds. But considering the fact that cars are now becoming computers on wheels, paying the "New World" a visit seemed to be a smart move, for Old World managers. Visits in the other direction, from Silicon Valley to the heart of European industry, were by contrast rather rare.

This is now changing, and it is making people in the old world anxious.

This week the IAA automobile show kicks off in Frankfurt, and they'll all be there — first and foremost, Google. They'll set up camp in hall 3.1. for a dedicated series of events, under the motto: "New Mobility World."

"It's about the future," says Daimler's CEO Dieter Zetsche. "We are facing the reinvention of the automobile." One big question that looms: Who invents what here?

Google and Apple are working on self-driving cars, the car-hire service and platform Uber is also studying how cars can behave like robots. And traditional car companies? For the moment, they are still in control — but for how long?

Trying to keep the newbies in check, BMW, Daimler and Audi are currently finalizing the purchase of Nokia's navigation service "Here," for 2.5 billion euros. Driverless cars can't make it onto the street without high-precision maps and special electronics assemblies. Within 20 years, this should all be part of our day-to-day life.

IT wants a piece of the market

Many remain skeptical. They don't want machines to take control. They fear hackers manipulating their cars, and the privacy of their journey data being compromised. But at the same time, the industry wants to grow, and the information technology (IT) sector can be the new petrol for that growth.

With the billions at stake in the car market, the IT industry also sees a huge opportunity. But for the moment, traditional car makers are still having a hard time evaluating the true intentions of their new friends (or enemies): Will the IT companies remain suppliers, with the goal that their software becomes one component of the cars' overall operating systems? Or will they turn into cut-throat competitors, building their own automobiles?

Today, the IT folks aren't capable of creating cars with the looks of a Porsche 911. Not yet. But they are getting ready. Apple is recruiting inside the auto industry. Earlier this year they pursued Mercedes‘ lead U.S.-based developer. And more generally, there is movement of automotive suppliers' engineers toward Silicon Valley. Money is no object: For a recruit, Apple has reportedly offered signing bonuses of $250,000 and a pay raise of 60% to experts of the pioneer of electric cars Tesla.

Apple's code name for its car strategy is "Project Titan." It seems possible that the same people who have been building cars for decades will now do so for Google and Apple. Lately, BMW was rumored to be building the iCar — based on the plans of their own electric compact car i3, that the Americans have apparently shown an interest in. Even Daimler's CEO Zetsche leaves the door open to collaboration with IT companies.

But some experts are cautioning automakers. "This adds up to an assault on car manufacturers‘ business model. If I were them, I wouldn't go for a strategy of embracing them," says Klaus Schmitz from consulting firm Arthur D. Little. "There's a significant risk for car manufacturers of being, with time, reduced to simple suppliers."

Will BMW, Daimler and Audi be reduced to commissioned production, much like the Chinese company Foxconn assembling the pieces for Apple's iPhone? That's precisely the scenario that the big car companies are trying to avoid.

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The Problem With Always Blaming Climate Change For Natural Disasters

Climate change is real, but a closer look at the science shows there are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters. It is important to raise awareness about the long-term impact of global warming, but there's a risk in overstating its role in the latest floods or fires.

People on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, scooters and cars navigate through a flooded street during the day time.

Karachi - People wade through flood water after heavy rain in a southern Pakistani city

Xinhua / ZUMA
Axel Bojanowski


BERLIN — In September, thousands of people lost their lives when dams collapsed during flooding in Libya. Engineers had warned that the dams were structurally unsound.

Two years ago, dozens died in floods in western Germany, a region that had experienced a number of similar floods in earlier centuries, where thousands of houses had been built on the natural floodplain.

Last year saw more than 1,000 people lose their lives during monsoon floods in Pakistan. Studies showed that the impact of flooding in the region was exacerbated by the proximity of human settlements, the outdated river management system, high poverty rates and political instability in Pakistan.

There are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters, but one dominates the headlines: climate change. That is because of so-called attribution studies, which are published very quickly after these disasters to highlight how human-caused climate change contributes to extreme weather events. After the flooding in Libya, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described climate change as a “serial offender," while the Tageszeitung wrote that “the climate crisis has exacerbated the extreme rainfall."

The World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has once again achieved its aim of using “real-time analysis” to draw attention to the issue: on its website, the institute says its goal is to “analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events." Frederike Otto, who works on attribution studies for the WWA, says these reports help to underscore the urgent need for climate action. They transform climate change from an “abstract threat into a concrete one."

In the immediate aftermath of a weather-related disaster, teams of researchers rush to put together attribution studies – “so that they are ready within the same news cycle," as the New York Times reported. However, these attribution studies do not meet normal scientific standards, as they are published without going through the peer-review process that would be undertaken before publication in a specialist scientific journal. And that creates problems.

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