Panasonic is restarting production at Tesla’s Buffalo, New York solar panel factory this week after some businesses in the Western New York region have been given the green light to reopen, The Verge has learned. The factory has been idle for roughly two months.
“I decided to reopen the factory from Wednesday, 5/20,” Mark Shima, the president of Panasonic’s North American solar energy division, said in a Monday evening email to his 400 employees that was obtained by The Verge. The first two days will be spent doing equipment checks, he said, and “standard manufacturing” will start on Friday, May 22nd.
Panasonic has “completed preparations under close collaboration with Tesla, such as preparation of masks, sanitizers and wipes, set new protocol for entrance, new rules in cafeteria and production floor, new seat assignment in the office area in order to keep 6’ to the next person,” Shima wrote. Employees will also have to go through a pandemic safety training before their first shift, according to the email.
It’s not clear whether Tesla, which employs more than 1,000 people at the factory, is also restarting production there after having already resumed battery production in Nevada and vehicle manufacturing in California. Multiple spokespeople for the company did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Panasonic originally planned to bring its employees back on May 16th, but had to delay restarting its production lines because the Western New York region did not initially meet all of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s criteria for reopening, as The Verge first reported last week. Production at the factory has been halted since mid-March, and one of Panasonic’s factory workers tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after the shutdown — the fourth known employee at one of Tesla’s US facilities to test positive at the time.
Panasonic announced plans to end its involvement at the Buffalo factory earlier this year. The company told most of its employees that they would only be needed through the end of May, with some being needed through the beginning of June. But since the shutdown robbed the company of two months of production, Shima told employees that Panasonic will now operate in the factory until the end of June. The company is supposed to fully exit the factory in September.
The Buffalo factory is where Tesla also makes its “Solar Roof” product, which squeezes solar panel-style technology into individual roof tiles. Musk recently said that Tesla was “gaining momentum with Solar Roof before COVID essentially shut us down, both from the ability to install and the ability to get permits.”
After news of Panasonic and Tesla’s breakup surfaced in February, it was discovered that Tesla has been using solar cells from a Chinese company in those Solar Roof tiles, and that Panasonic started exporting the products it makes at the Buffalo factory. Panasonic still has some of these overseas orders left to fill, according to the email, which is why the company is extending manufacturing for another month.
Both companies resumed operations at Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory last week. (Panasonic makes battery cells for Tesla’s electric vehicles and energy storage products at that factory.) Just this week, Panasonic’s chief financial officer said the company is considering expanding its presence at the Nevada factory. Tesla, meanwhile, is reportedly working on a next-generation battery for its products in conjunction with Chinese battery giant Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd.
Tesla has also resumed making cars at its third US factory in California. CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly railed against the stay-home orders that caused his company’s factories to shut down, calling them “unconstitutional” and “fascist.” In an email to employees last week, Shima said Panasonic will “always follow the laws and official direction from State and local government, even if those are different from our intention for PSNA’s business activities.”
Amazon gave TV stations coronavirus propaganda, and some aired it
Amazon has been successfully feeding talking points, video footage, and other corporate messaging to local television news stations ahead of its annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. The footage and script are designed to paint Amazon in a positive light as it faces a torrent of bad media coverage and criticism from activists and politicians over its handling of workplace safety issues during the coronavirus pandemic.
As Zach Rael, an anchor for ABC affiliate KOCO 5 News in Oklahoma City, pointed out on Twitter earlier this morning, Amazon’s public relations team has been emailing TV stations around the country with prepared scripts and b-roll packages that promote the company’s safety precautions and other measures to combat COVID-19 among its warehouse workforce.
So far, eight Amazon workers have died of the virus, according to media reports, and countless others have been infected. Yet, Amazon has come under fire for refusing to disclose concrete numbers around COVID-19 infections, cracking down on worker protests against safety conditions and failing to inform some workers when their colleagues have become ill.
Just got an email from Amazon’s PR team with a pre-edited news story and script to run in our shows. They are selling this as giving our viewers an “inside look” at the company’s response to COVID-19.
Let us go inside a fulfillment centers with our own cameras… pic.twitter.com/7mDk2xmf4O
— Zach Rael (@KOCOZach) May 24, 2020
These PR strategies have been deployed by corporations for decades, but a disturbing video put together by local news-focused outlet Courier Newsroom demonstrates how effective Amazon’s approach is and why so many companies use similar strategies to seed narratives to news media. The video showcases 11 news stations running parts of Amazon’s script verbatim, with the words spoken by local news anchors and without any acknowledgment that they were written by Amazon spokesperson Todd Walker.
“Only one station, Toledo ABC affiliate WTVG, acknowledged that Walker was an Amazon employee, not a news reporter, and that the content had come from Amazon,” Courier reports. When reached for comment, Wes Armstead, the news director for Bluefield, West Virginia NBC affiliate WVVA, told Courier, “I was not aware the package was provided by Amazon,” adding, “We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Courier says Amazon has denied any wrongdoing, instead pointing to the publicly available press release it issued on May 23rd through Business Wire containing the script text and b-roll footage it provided to media outlets.
Judge approves Faraday Future founder’s personal bankruptcy plan
Seven months after he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to deal with $3.6 billion in personal debt, the reorganization plan laid out by Jia Yueting — the tycoon founder of troubled EV startup Faraday Future — has been approved by a judge.
In overly simple terms, the majority of the many people and companies he owes money — largely thanks to the collapse of LeEco, the overly-leveraged tech conglomerate he built his fortune with in China — have agreed to swap their debt claims for pieces of Jia’s ownership stake in Faraday Future. They now only have a shot of being made whole if and when the struggling startup successfully completes a public listing on a major stock exchange.
Founded in 2014, Faraday Future has spent more than $1.7 billion (around $900 million of which was Jia’s) on its own and has yet to start manufacturing its first vehicle, a luxury SUV stuffed with screens known as the FF91. Instead, the startup is more famous for foibles linked to Jia’s penchant for bombast and his financial mismanagement — both of which The Verge have documented in recent years. And by its own admission the company needs $850 million in order to kickstart production of the FF91.
Jia repeatedly claimed in court that prolonged uncertainty about his personal debts would hold up any potential funding of Faraday Future, though no evidence was ever given of this. And since the idea all along has been to swap the the claims of those debt holders with stakes in the startup, he argued it was in their interest to approve his plan as quickly as possible. In December of last year, in fact, one of Jia’s lawyers told the court that Faraday Future did not have the “financial wherewithal” to make it another 60 days, according to a transcript. “Faraday will basically run out of cash,” the lawyer said at the time.
One former Faraday Future executive told The Verge last year they felt this was a “a gun to the head of the creditors. Lawyers for some of the companies Jia owes millions of dollars to made similar arguments in court that were ultimately unsuccessful.
Faraday Future has not run out of cash yet, though, thanks to a series of loans from a restructuring firm that it’s been working with since early 2019. Faraday Future also recently said it received a $9 million loan as part of the government’s pandemic-related “Paycheck Protection Program.”
Jia’s creditors were left with few other options than to agree to his plan, because he doesn’t have nearly enough personal wealth to cover the $3.6 billion hole he dug for himself. While Jia did buy a few multimillion dollar coastal mansions and land in Los Angeles before he self-exiled himself to the US in 2017 (to avoid increased pressure from the Chinese government over his debts), he told the court he divested himself of the actual ownership of that property. Even if that’s true, their total value is only in the tens of millions of dollars.
Jia’s bank accounts are also relatively empty, according to the paperwork he submitted to the court. In fact, he turned to cash-strapped Faraday Future to fund his bankruptcy in the first place. Jia borrowed $2.7 million from one of Faraday Future’s holding companies to launch his bankruptcy in October of last year, and has since taken on another $6.4 million loan from that same entity to fund the process.
In a statement released Friday, Faraday Future says the approval of the plan “has removed the biggest hurdle in [the company’s] equity financing efforts.” Earlier this week, the company’s new CEO (and former BMW executive) Carsten Breitfeld said those funding efforts are “a bit delayed” because of the pandemic.
Facebook teases a vision of remote work using virtual and augmented reality
Facebook has long believed in the promise of virtual and augmented reality extending well beyond entertainment, and we’re now getting a clearer glimpse at what that future might look like now that the current pandemic is reshaping how companies everywhere think about remote work.
According to Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook’s head of of AR and VR, the company is already investing in “supercharging remote work and productivity” using those technologies. He even shared a video of what that might look like, featuring real footage of an experimental test using prototype Facebook hardware and software.
This is real footage using prototype headsets. We’re always experimenting with future concepts using different hardware configurations as part of our proof-of-experience process
— Boz (@boztank) May 21, 2020
It’s not much — the video is just eight seconds long. But it does show off an idea that Facebook execs like Bosworth think might be the future of work. We see a few floating displays, which are quickly resized and rearranged by the user with a form of touch gesture that looks like a pinch, drag, and zoom.
Of course, these displays are virtual, but the world around the user is real — that’s thanks to passthrough. Oculus uses the term to refer to utilizing the outward-facing cameras on a Rift or Quest VR headset to see the room around you. Passthrough is used to create the virtual mesh barrier that confines Oculus software within a certain area you draw yourself using the Touch controller. The feature is also useful if you’re simply curious where you are in a room or how close you might be to, say, a wall or a piece of furniture.
But here in this demo, Bosworth says Facebook imagines a mix of AR and VR — what the tech industry calls mixed reality — that uses passthrough to show you your keyboard while you type. That way, you can have the tangible effect of using a physical keyboard while not having to worry about the space you’d require for a proper three-monitor setup. There’s also a little menu bar that appears to float at the bottom of the user’s field of view that looks like it contains shortcuts and other quick productivity-related features you might access with a tap of the finger.
“In the future, we could create a super-powered augmented workspace with multiple customizable screens in VR, unbounded from the limits of physical monitors. It would leverage technologies like Passthrough to create a mixed reality productivity experience that allows people to switch between real and virtual worlds at any time, improving spatial awareness while offering the flexibility we’re accustomed to with laptops and other common devices,” reads a blog post Facebook published today. “By combining the flexibility of new inputs like hand tracking with the familiarity of everyday input devices like a keyboard and mouse, we could give people the best of both worlds.”
This isn’t entirely novel stuff. We’ve seen demos like this on Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Magic Leap One headset. Facebook and Oculus have also shown off similar capabilities in the context of demoing Oculus hand tracking and other features that would be integral when you’re actually wearing something on your face while you do meaningful work, such as typing and reading what we can only hope will be legible text on a virtual screen. (The demo Bosworth shared is captured from the headset itself, so it’s hard to tell what it actually looks like from the user end.)
But it’s noteworthy that Facebook is now accelerating its work in mixed reality during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company already has an enterprise unit for Oculus dedicated to selling headsets to companies. Facebook and Oculus’ joint work on hand tracking, more realistic avatars, spatial audio, and more powerful wireless technology illustrate how seriously the company is committed to the idea of virtual presence and making it as powerful as possible.
But perhaps the biggest signal from Facebook about its ambitions to try and transform remote work came earlier today, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a massive shift in how he plans to operate his company by allowing workers to request permanent remote status and to open up new roles at the company to remote workers, too. While other tech firms have done the same, including Square and Twitter, Facebook is the first major company of its size to make the leap.
“We’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with The Verge. “We need to do this in a way that’s thoughtful and responsible, so we’re going to do this in a measured way. But I think that it’s possible that over the next five to 10 years — maybe closer to 10 than five, but somewhere in that range — I think we could get to about half of the company working remotely permanently.”
Zuckerberg specifically brought up AR and VR as options that could, in the long term, make remote work more viable by giving remote employees a sense of presence during meetings and other collaborative efforts. “VR and AR is all about giving people remote presence,” Zuckerberg said. “So if you’re you’re long on VR and AR and on video chat, you have to believe in some capacity that you’re helping people be able to do whatever they want from wherever they are. So I think that that suggests a worldview that would lead to allowing people to work more remotely over time.”
Zuckerberg says the COVID-19 pandemic and his company’s moves to respond to the changes it’s forcing on society “will help us advance some of the future technology we’re working on around remote presence, because we’re just going to be using it constantly ourselves.”
He mentions how products like the Facebook Workplace platform and Portal video chat devices are changing how his company works today. Down the line, that will inevitably include AR and VR , too. “Right now, VR and AR is a large group within the company, but it’s still somewhat disconnected from the work that most employees are doing on a day-to-day basis. And I think that this could change that sooner,” he added. “So that’s something that I’m particularly excited about.”
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