GM looks to cut costs by offering buyouts to 18,000 employees

General Motors has offered voluntary buyouts to 18,000 salaried employees in North America who have at least 12 years experience, as the automaker looks to cut costs all while investing in its electric and autonomous future.

The company has described this as a proactive measure aimed at preparing for coming headwinds such as  slow sales in North America and China, commodity prices and tariffs.

But it’s just as much about preparing for the future. The company has been undergoing a transformation over the past four to five years, ditching expensive, money-losing programs like the Opel brand in Europe, and investing more into electrification and autonomous vehicle technology.

And it’s not wasting any time.

GM is giving these employees until Nov. 19 to decide whether they’ll take the buyout offer. Those who accept will receive severance beginning Feb. 1, 2019.

About 36% of the company’s 50,000 employees in North America are eligible for the buyout. A GM spokesman declined to say how many employees it expected to take the buyout, except to predict that it was unlikely the number would be anywhere close to 18,000.

GM has been on a three-year $6.5 billion cost-cutting mission that it expects to hit by the end of the year. GM CFO Dhivya Suryadevara said in the company’s earnings call Wednesday that GM had made $6.3 billion in cost-saving measures as of the end of the third quarter.

GM’s cost-cutting measures have happened in parallel with its investments and commitments to electrification and autonomous technology. GM acquired Cruise Automation for $1 billion in 2016. Earlier this year, the automaker said it would invest another $1.1 billion into its self-driving unit as part of bigger deal with Softbank. Cruise Holdings has said it will launch a commercial autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service in 2019.

It has also focused on hiring more software engineers, and will continue to add those kinds of jobs even as the buyouts begin, according to GM.

GM’s plan to launch 20 new all-electric vehicles globally by 2023 and increase production of the Chevy Bolt. At an event in September, GM chairman and CEO  Mary Barra  said the company is poised to build more all-electric vehicles as improvements continue at its recently expanded battery lab and a new LG Electronics plant in Michigan comes online.

The LG Electronics facility in Hazel Park will start making battery packs this fall to supply GM’s Orion Assembly Plant, where the automaker builds the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt.

US attacks UK plan for digital services tax on tech giants

Google, Facebook and Amazon illustration

The US has hit back against a UK plan to impose a new tax on sales by technology giants.

US political leaders and business groups say the proposal would violate tax agreements by targeting US firms.

They warned the tax could spark US retaliation and hurt prospects for a US-UK trade deal.

In a statement on Wednesday, Representative Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas, called the measure “troubling”.

“If the United Kingdom or other countries proceed, that will prompt a review of our US tax and regulatory approach to determine what actions are appropriate to ensure a level playing field in global markets,” said Mr Brady, who helped shepherd US tax cuts through Congress last year.

His statement echoed comments last week by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who voiced “strong concern” about different countries’ efforts to develop digital sales tax.

A slew of business groups – including the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Council for International Business – have also come out against the UK plan.

If enacted, the tax measure could “complicate the United Kingdom’s push for deeper US-UK trade relations”, said Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Kevin Brady shepherded the US tax cut through Congress last year

The UK plan, announced as part of the Budget, would place a 2% tax on sales by large social media platforms, internet marketplaces and search engines from April 2020.

It comes as wider efforts to capture more tax from multinational tech giants – which are now typically taxed based on their physical presence in a country – gain steam.

The European Commission in March introduced a proposal for a 3% tax on revenues of internet companies with global revenues above €750m (£660m) a year.

While some EU member states are opposed, a vote could come before the end of the year. Separately, Spain introduced a digital service measure in its budget that mimics the EU’s.

Elsewhere, Colombia, Australia and India are among several countries debating new tax measures that target the digital giants, according to the Internet Association, a US trade association with members that include Amazon, Microsoft and Uber.

The 36-member OECD has also been discussing the issue, with a report on reforms due in 2020.

The slew of measures, after years of discussion, explains the alarm in the US, said Lilian Faulhaber, a law professor at Washington’s Georgetown University.

“There’s a sense in the United States that this digital services tax is becoming more of a real possibility,” she said.

‘Pure cash grab’

The US, under President Donald Trump, has been supportive of OECD efforts to update the corporate tax system for the global era, said Itai Grinberg, another law professor at Georgetown University.

But many in the US – not just the internet giants – have concerns about proposals, like the UK’s, that tax turnover, he added.

“It’s a kind of tax that everyone abandoned half a century ago because it’s thought of as very economically inefficient and functions basically like a tariff,” he said.

He said such taxes do little to make the international tax system more fair: “It’s just a pure cash grab”.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The UK’s chancellor: Searching online for revenues

In announcing the UK tax, Chancellor Philip Hammond said progress in global arenas to update tax laws had been “painfully slow”.

But the move has irked some in the US.

Professor Grinberg said the UK’s decision to go it alone gives license to other countries to follow suit, undermining efforts to reach international solution.

The move is particularly risky for the UK, he added, because the logic for taxing tech firms could be extended other industries important to the UK, especially financial services and pharmaceuticals.

“I think it will go badly for the UK,” he said.

The US has a range of options should it want to retaliate, in addition to simply making the issue a focus in US-UK trade talks, he added.

The US could complain to the WTO. Under US law, the president could also act to raise taxes on UK firms as a retaliatory measure.

Professor Faulhaber described the responses being discussed as “nuclear options”.

“I don’t know how likely they are but I do think they’re pretty dramatic,” she said., “They… suggest that at least some people in the US see these proposals as fairly dramatic.”

Watch this little robot transform to get the job done

Robots just want to get things done, but it’s frustrating when their rigid bodies simply don’t allow them to do so. Solution: bodies that can be reconfigured on the fly! Sure, it’s probably bad news for humanity in the long run, but in the meantime it makes for fascinating research.

A team of graduate students from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania made this idea their focus and produced both the modular, self-reconfiguring robot itself and the logic that drives it.

Think about how you navigate the world: If you need to walk somewhere, you sort of initiate your “walk” function. But if you need to crawl through a smaller space, you need to switch functions and shapes. Similarly, if you need to pick something up off a table, you can just use your “grab” function, but if you need to reach around or over an obstacle you need to modify the shape of your arm and how it moves. Naturally you have a nearly limitless “library” of these functions that you switch between at will.

That’s really not the case for robots, which are much more rigidly designed both in hardware and software. This research, however, aims to create a similar — if considerably smaller — library of actions and configurations that a robot can use on the fly to achieve its goals.

In their paper published today in Science Robotics, the team documents the groundwork they undertook, and although it’s still extremely limited, it hints at how this type of versatility will be achieved in the future.

The robot itself, called SMORES-EP, might be better described as a collection of robots: small cubes (it’s a popular form factor) equipped with wheels and magnets that can connect to each other and cooperate when one or all of them won’t do the job. The brains of the operation lie in a central unit equipped with a camera and depth sensor it uses to survey the surroundings and decide what to do.

If it sounds a little familiar, that’s because the same team demonstrated a different aspect of this system earlier this year, namely the ability to identify spaces it can’t navigate and deploy items to remedy that. The current paper is focused on the underlying system that the robot uses to perceive its surroundings and interact with it.

Let’s put this in more concrete terms. Say a robot like this one is given the goal of collecting the shoes from around your apartment and putting them back in your closet. It gets around your apartment fine but ultimately identifies a target shoe that’s underneath your bed. It knows that it’s too big to fit under there because it can perceive dimensions and understands its own shape and size. But it also knows that it has functions for accessing enclosed areas, and it can tell that by arranging its parts in such and such a way it should be able to reach the shoe and bring it back out.

The flexibility of this approach and the ability to make these decisions autonomously are where the paper identifies advances. This isn’t a narrow “shoe-under-bed-getter” function, it’s a general tool for accessing areas the robot itself can’t fit into, whether that means pushing a recessed button, lifting a cup sitting on its side, or reaching between condiments to grab one in the back.

A visualization of how the robot perceives its environment.

As with just about everything in robotics, this is harder than it sounds, and it doesn’t even sound easy. The “brain” needs to be able to recognize objects, accurately measure distances, and fundamentally understand physical relationships between objects. In the shoe grabbing situation above, what’s stopping a robot from trying to lift the bed and leave it in place floating above the ground while it drives underneath? Artificial intelligences have no inherent understanding of any basic concept and so many must be hard-coded or algorithms created that reliably make the right choice.

Don’t worry, the robots aren’t quite at the “collect shoes” or “collect remaining humans” stage yet. The tests to which the team subjected their little robot were more like “get around these cardboard boxes and move any pink-labeled objects to the designated drop-off area.” Even this type of carefully delineated task is remarkably difficult, but the bot did just fine — though rather slowly, as lab-based bots tend to be.

The authors of the paper have since finished their grad work and moved on to new (though surely related) things. Tarik Tosun, one of the authors whom I talked with for this article, explained that he’s now working on advancing the theoretical side of things as opposed to, say, building cube-modules with better torque. To that end he helped author VSPARC, a simulator environment for modular robots. Although it is tangential to the topic immediately at hand, the importance of this aspect of robotics research can’t be overestimated.

You can find a pre-published version of the paper here in case you don’t have access to Science Robotics.

Some law enforcement drones are dropping out of the sky

The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority is cautioning police departments and other emergency services to suspend operations of a specific drone model after some of the devices lost power unexpectedly and fell while in flight.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) safety warning applies to DJI Matrice 200 series drones, used by some emergency services in the U.K. The failures were first reported by West Midlands police department, though law enforcement in Norfolk, Devon, Cornwall and the West Midlands also uses DJI drones. Devon and Cornwall have grounded two affected drones out of their fleet of 20, according to the BBC.

According to the CAA, “A small number of incidents have been recently reported where the aircraft has suffered a complete loss of power during flight, despite indications that there was sufficient battery time still remaining.” No injuries have been reported, despite “immediate loss of lift with the remote pilot unable to control its subsequent flight path.”

While no reports have surfaced in the U.S. so far, a study by Bard College noted that 61 U.S. public safety agencies (law enforcement, fire departments, EMS, etc.) use the specific model of Mavic drone affected. Collectively, drone models by DJI dominate the space, though the Matrice is not the most popular model.

The manufacturer has responded to the reports, urging Matrice operators to push a firmware update that resolves the issue. “When prompted on the DJI Pilot App, we recommend all customers to connect to the internet on the app or DJI Assistant 2 and update the firmware for their aircraft and all batteries to ensure a safe flight with their drone,” the company wrote in a product warning.

DJI faced a similar issue last year when some of its DJI Spark consumer-grade drones suddenly lost power and fell from the sky.

Influencer marketing startup Mavrck raises another $5.8M

Mavrck has raised another $5.8 million in funding, bringing its total raised to $13.8 million.

When the company raised its Series A back in 2015, it was focused on helping brands work with “micro-influencers” who were already using their products. Now it describes itself as an “all-in-one” influencer marketing platform, offering a number of tools to automate and measure the process.

Last month, Mavrck announced new features for Pinterest, where it’s now an official marketing partner. It also says it’s been doing more to improve measurement and detect fraud — on the fraud side, it promises to analyze a “statistically significant sample” of an Instagram account’s followers, and of the accounts that engage with their content, to determine if they’re bots.

Customers include P&G, Godiva and PepsiCo, and the company says recurring revenue has grown 400 percent year-over-year.

“Everything that we have done at Mavrck this year has been done with the intention to drive the influencer industry forward,” said co-founder and CEO Lyle Stevens in the funding announcement. “Every new capability that we’ve introduced, every partner that we’ve started working with, every influencer behavior that we’ve tracked was part of our mission to help marketers harness the power of content that people trust to drive tangible business value for their brands.”

The new funding comes from GrandBanks Capital and Kepha Partners. A spokesperson said this isn’t a Series B, but rather additional capital raised to support increased demand and channel partnerships.

Fitbit earnings beat expectations on strength of smartwatch sales

Fitbit is slowly righting its financial ship, courtesy of a successful push into smartwatch category. The wearable company reported a profit (when adjusted for items such as stock-based compensation) thanks to growing sales in the new category.   

Total revenues rose slightly to $393.6 million in the third quarter compared with the same period last year. The company did report a loss this quarter under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). But it was rosier than in previous quarters and showed that Fitbit is moving in the right direction. Net losses narrowed considerably to $2.1 million from $113.4 million this time last year. A good deal of the company’s revenue is being driven by the shift to smartwatches, which now comprise around half of Fitbit’s total revenue.

It’s a gamble that’s finally starting to pay off for the company. Fitbit launched its first smartwatch in August of last year. The Ionic was the result of three high-profile acquisitions: Pebble, Coin and Vector. It was an ambitious product that found the company embracing the one bright spot in an otherwise stagnant wearables market.

What felt like an extremely expensive Hail Mary for the company was ultimately bogged down by poor reviews (including one on this site), thanks to poor industrial design, among other issues. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, CEO James Park admitted that the Ionic ultimately wasn’t a mainstream device. “It was a performance-oriented product,” Park said at the time. “That audience is much smaller than a mass appeal device.”

Its followup, the Versa, however, address many of the biggest complaints plaguing the Ionic, and has clearly proven a hit for Fitbit.

This is the first time the company has posted adjusted profitability since Q3 of 2016. Forty-nine percent of the revenue on the  3.5 million wearables it sold this quarter, came courtesy of its smartwatches. Fitbit’s combined smartwatch sales currently put it in the number two position in the U.S., behind only Apple. It seems the company’s gamble is beginning to pay off.

Xiaomi doesn’t want Lyft using its electric scooters

Xiaomi, the electric scooter manufacturer that a handful of the shared electric scooter services in the U.S. (like ones from Uber, Lyft, Spin and Bird) rely on, has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Lyft. In the letter, obtained by TechCrunch, Xiaomi says it did not consent to associate its brand with Lyft.

Xiaomi alleges Lyft has referenced Xiaomi’s brand in its advertisements and other documentation referring to its shared electric scooter business.

“We also do not condone Lyft’s unauthorized modification or retrofitting of our electric scooters for general public use,” Xiaomi wrote in its letter.

If Lyft does not cease to use, purchase and modify its scooters, Xiaomi says it will pursue legal action against Lyft. Xiaomi also demands that Lyft must stop deploying its scooters “that have been modified without our consent in public scooter rentals.”

But Lyft says it has no knowledge of using Xiaomi’s trademarks in its advertising.

“We have no intention of using any other company’s trademarks in advertising our scooters, and are not aware of any instance of having done so with our existing suppliers,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We will address these concerns with them directly. Safety modifications, including slowing scooter speeds, have been made to satisfy local regulatory guidelines.”

Lyft currently operates its shared electric scooter service in Santa Monica, Calif., Washington, D.C. and Denver, Colo.

“Lyft’s modification to any scooters originally manufactured by Xiaomi without our knowledge, participation, or approval undoubtedly exposes Xiaomi to serious legal risks and liabilities for consumer safety and product liability,” the letter states.

But, as mentioned earlier, Lyft is not the only company that uses Xiaomi scooters. Uber, Spin and Bird also use scooters from Xiaomi. Bird, however, has a partnership of sorts with Xiaomi. In May, Bird said it made an exclusive deal with Xiaomi for rights to its supply of scooters for shared services in the U.S. But one scooter executive told TC’s Jonathan Shieber at the time that their company also had a contract with Xiaomi.

TechCrunch has reached out to Uber and Spin to clarify their respective relationships with Xiaomi. I’ve also reached out to Xiaomi and will update this story if I hear back.

In the meantime, you can read the full letter from Xiaomi to Lyft below.

Xiaomi cease-and-desist let… by on Scribd

Malta’s Government Publicly Condemns Singer for Saying He is No Longer Gay, Found Jesus

A contestant on Malta’s version of the X Factor television series is under fire for publicly declaring that he is a former homosexual who gave his life to Jesus. 

Matthew Grech, a singer and vocal coach, said during an interview on the show that he used to live a “homosexual lifestyle,” but then “found God”. 

“I used to lead a homosexual lifestyle and then I found God. For a long time, I stopped following my passions to follow Jesus,” Grech said, according to the Independent. “There can be love between two men and two women, yes — but only friendship love. Everything else is a sin.”

The clip was aired on national television and uploaded on Youtube and Facebook. Many people were upset that Grech described homosexuality as a “lifestyle” and “sin.”

“What an utter despicable person. YOU ARE GAY. Stop lying on national tv and be proud of who you are,” one YouTube commenter identified as JON fivesevenseven said. 

Another said the world needs to be “free” from “bad people” like Grech. 

However, others urged people to judge the contestant on his singing ability, not his religious beliefs. 

“Let him LIVE and BELIEVE what he really what’s. That’s why we have freedom of speech. Gay or not Gay it’s not us to judge. This is unfair for him, because the gay community Bend it his comments to do publicity from him. No offence to anyone. But this guys have a talent,” Gary Briffa said. 

Grech’s audition featuring his comments about his Christian faith has since been deleted on all social media platforms. 

On Monday, X Factor published a statement saying that no part of Grech’s original audition was intended “to cause offense” and that “nor were the views expressed those of the producers of the program”.

Malta’s government took a more direct approach and publicly condemned Grech for his “homophobic” beliefs, adding this his comments endangered the country’s youth. 

“Sexual orientation is not a lifestyle,” the statement read, in part. 

Grech’s pastor, Gordon-John Manche called out the government for targeting one of its citizens for his faith. 

Manche said the incident shows the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to freedom of speech. He said its “ok” to swear and use God’s name in vain, “but if somebody says that Jesus Christ changed his life,” it is unacceptable. 

Grech said in an interview with iNews that he wants Christians to stand up for their faith. 

“I believe I gave an example that Christians shouldn’t be afraid to express their faith, even if the crowd of lions rises against you,” Grech, a member of the evangelical River of Love fellowship, told iNews. “Many people from different countries have thanked me for putting my love for God ahead of mankind.”

UK business leaders more optimistic after May meeting

Philip Hammond and Theresa MayImage copyright Getty Images

UK business leaders are sounding more optimistic after a meeting with the chancellor and the prime minister.

The traditional post-Budget briefing for business was a more significant affair than usual this year.

Theresa May joined Philip Hammond at London’s Guildhall to reassure business leaders that their concerns mattered.

After two years feeling sidelined, bosses said they were encouraged to be back “inside the tent” when it comes to talks about the UK’s economic future.

They spoke of a new sense of confidence about Brexit and the economy.

Some 150 business people were at the event on Wednesday evening, including Legal & General chief executive Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal & General.

He said there was a new “assured confidence” from the prime minister and chancellor about Brexit negotiations and Britain’s future.

“There was a sense that they have got their mojo back,” Mr Wilson said. “There was an air of confidence that we didn’t see in 2017.”

Executives said that both politicians acknowledged it was important to re-build bridges with the business community, which had sometimes felt sidelined in the last couple of years.

Rupert Soames, chief executive of Serco, said it was good to be “back inside the tent”, adding: “There was a recognition [by the PM and chancellor] of the uncertainty that business is feeling.”

He described the meeting as a “confident and well-timed event”.

Back in Club UK

Questions in the hall proved that the outcome of Brexit was still a major concern, with Andy Palmer, boss of Aston Martin, saying the luxury car maker was considering flying in parts as a contingency against potential hold ups at the border if the UK leaves the EU without a deal that provides frictionless trade.

Aston Martin would be raising stock levels. And while he did not see a risk that the carmaker would stop production, he said the contingency plans “would be more expensive”.

Asked if, following the meeting, he was any happier about the threat of supply chain disruption, Mr Palmer said: “We plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Other bosses remained cautious on both Brexit and the Budget. The executive of one large volume car producer told the BBC it held an inventory of four hours worth of parts and air freight was not an option.

While a High Street bank chairman said that in the face of Brexit he would have had the chancellor “keep more powder dry” rather than spend the £74bn windfall – received from better public finance forecasts – all in one go by increasing spending and lowering income tax earlier than promised.

Overall, the mood music from business was more positive – if only in the sense that they felt they were back on list of Club UK.

Snapchat’s PR firm sues influencer for not promoting Spectacles on Instagram

Influcencer marketing could get a lot more accountable if Snapchat’s PR firm wins this lawsuit. Snapchat hoped that social media stars promoting v2 of its Spectacles camera sunglasses on its biggest competitor could boost interest after it only sold 220,000 of v1 and had to take a $40 million write-off. Instead Snap comes off looking a little desperate to make Spectacles seem cool.

Snap Inc comissioned its public relations firm PR Consulting (real imaginative) to buy its an influencer marketing campaign on Instagram . The firm struck a deal with Grown-ish actor Luka Sabbat after he was seen cavorting with Kourtney Kardashian. Sabbat got paid $45,000 up front with the promise of another $15,000 to post himself donning Spectacles on Instagram.

He was contracted to make one Instagram feed post and three Stories posts with him wearing Specs, plus be photographed wearing them in public at Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks. He was supposed to add swipe-up-to-buy links to two of those Story posts, get all the posts pre-approved with PRC, and send it analytics metrics about their performance.

But Sabbat skipped out on two of the Stories, one of the swipe-ups, the photo shoots, the pre-approvals, and the analytics. So as Variety’s Gene Maddaus first reported, PRC is suing Sabbat to recoup the $45,000 it already paid plus another $45,000 in damages.

TechCrunch has attained a copy of the lawsuit filing, embedded below, that states “Sabbat has been unjustly enriched and PRC is entitled to damages.” Snap confirms to us that it hired PRC to run the campaign, and that it also contracted a campaign with fashion blog Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine Cohen. And as a courtesy, I Photoshopped some Spectacles onto Sabbat above.

But interestingly, Snap says it was not involved in the decision to sue Sabbat. The debacle brings unwanted attention to the pay-for-promotion deal that brands typically tried to avoid when commissioning influencer marketing. The whole thing is supposed to feel subtle and natural. Instead, PRC’s suit probably cost Snapchat more than $90,000 in reputation.

The case could solidify the need for influencer marketing contracts to come with prorated payment terms where stars are paid fractions of the total purse after each post rather than getting any upfront, as The Fashion Law writes. PRC’s choice to chase Sabbat even despite the problematic publicity for its client Snap might convince other influencers to abide more closely to the details of their contracts. If social media creators want to keep turning their passion into their profession, they’re going to have to prove they’re accountable. Otherwise brands will slide back to traditional ads.