Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

China Roundup: Apple closes a 4-year-old App Store loophole

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, Apple made some major moves that are telling of its increasingly compliant behavior in China where it has seen escalating competition, but investors are showing dissatisfaction with how it is approaching hot-button issues in the country.

Virus game gone

Plague Inc., a simulation game where a player’s goal is to infect the entire world with a deadly virus, was removed from the China iOS App Store this week. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in late January, Chinese users had flocked to download the eight-year-old game, potentially seeking an alternative way to understand the epidemic.

Data from market research firm App Annie shows that the title remained the most downloaded app in China from late January through most of February, up from No. 28 at the beginning of the year.

Ndemic Creations, the U.K. studio behind the game, said in a statement that the “situation” — the removal of Plague Inc. from the Apple App Store — “is completely out of our control.” The Chinese government provided an opaque reason for the takedown, saying the game “includes content that is illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China,” which is the country’s internet watchdog.

The incident has gotten plenty of attention in and outside of China. Some speculate that Apple has caved to pressure from Beijing, which could find Plague Inc.’s gameplay troubling. One sticking point is that its tutorial by default picks China as the starting country, although in the main game a user can begin anywhere in the world. The Information reported in 2018 that Plague Inc. actually applied for official permission to distribute in China but was turned down on account of its “socially inappropriate” content.

Others including Niko Partners games analyst Daniel Ahmad suggested that the Chinese authority might have taken issue with a December version update that allowed players to create “fake news,” which could mislead them in seeking advice in the midst of the health crisis.

Ahmad also suggested that the ban might have been linked to the ongoing crackdown of unlicensed mobile games in China. Notably, the Plague Inc. ban coincided with Apple’s announcement this week that would require all games in its Chinese app store to obtain government approval in the form of an ISBN number beginning in July. Few details have come to light about what this new regulatory process entails. Nor do developers know whether currently published games without official approval will be removed.

Apple investors are not sitting well with the firm’s app takedowns in China. 40% of its shareholders cast support for a proposal that would force Apple to uphold human rights commitment and be more transparent on how it responds to Beijing’s requests to censor apps.

Apple’s Delay

The gaming permit requirement is not new, though. In fact, Apple is just closing a regulatory loophole that had existed for years. Back in 2016, the Chinese government stipulated that video games — both PC and mobile — must apply for an ISBN number before entering circulation China. Within months, alternative Android stores operated by domestic tech giants swiftly moved to weed out illegal games. The official Google Play store is unavailable in China.

But Apple has managed to keep unlicensed titles in stock in the world’s largest gaming market, where content is strictly monitored. The American behemoth has many incentives to do so. Despite iPhone’s eroding share in China (to be fair, all Chinese phone makers but Huawei have recently suffered declining market share), iOS apps in China, especially games, remain an important revenue source for Apple.

So it’s in Apple’s best interest to clear hurdles for apps publishing in the country. Where there is a will, there is a way. Prior to 2016, publishing a game in China was relatively hassle-free. Following the regulatory change that year, Apple began asking games for proof of government license — but it didn’t go all out to enforce the policy. Local media reported that developers could get by with fabricated ISBN numbers or circumvent the rule by publishing in an overseas iOS App Store first and switching to China later.

This questionable practice did not go unnoticed. In August 2018, a Chinese state media lambasted Apple for its lousy oversight over App Store approvals.

Stepping up inspection on games will likely have little impact on China’s gaming titans who enjoy the financial and operational resources to secure the much-needed permit. Rather, their challenge is devising content that aligns with Beijing’s ideological guidelines, exemplified by Tencent’s patriotic makeover of PUBG.

Those that will be worst hit will most likely be small-time, independent studios, as well as firms that create “sockpuppet games” (马甲包), a practice whereby a developer exploits app stores’ loopholes to publish a troop of clones with similar gameplay and mask their appearance with altered names, logos and characters. Doing so can often help the publisher gain more traffic and revenue, but these sockpuppets will have a low chance of passing the authority’s strict scrutiny, which, as a Chinese gaming blog speculates, will potentially put an end to the surreptitious practice.