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December 21, 2018

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1 big thing: AV makers want to plot their own standards

Traffic cone with binary running across as stripes.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Automated vehicle technology is moving fast — too fast to regulate, some would argue — but there are ways the industry can collaborate to ensure safety without stifling innovation.

The big picture: Tech and automotive companies are developing proprietary AV driving systems and strategies, from robo-taxis to delivery pods to heavy-duty trucks. If each shared their own critical safety data collected during testing, experts say they could use it to define standards and practices to guide future development.

What's happening: Congress was set to adjourn for the year without voting on a bill on self-driving cars, leaving in place a patchwork of state regulations but no overarching standards.

What we're hearing: Some AV developers say it's not the end of the world that Congress failed to pass the AV Start bill, as long as there are other ways to standardize the technology and ensure safety.

"Everything is moving so quickly, by the time you regulate it, it would be totally obsolete. What we need is a path from innovation to data-driven best practices and that will set the path for regulations in the future."
Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at AV start-up Zoox and former NHTSA Administrator

What's needed, says Rosekind, who led NHTSA from 2014 to 2016, is for companies to share what they've learned from their mistakes, so others don't make them too.

The airline industry is a good model, he says.

The auto industry has a lousy record of sharing information that will make cars safer.

  • NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) has data on U.S. traffic fatalities going back to 1975.
  • But it failed to help detect a pattern of fatalities in the late 1990s that led to the Ford-Firestone tire debacle.
  • In response, Congress in 2000 enacted the TREAD Act, which included an "early warning" requirement to report potential safety issues.
  • Still, problems persisted. GM, Honda and Fiat Chrysler all were hit with record penalties for not reporting safety issues in a timely manner.

What's different now: Connected, autonomous vehicles can be fixed quickly through over-the-air updates. Although there can be security risks, safety problems can be addressed quickly this way.

The bottom line: AV technology continues to advance, but consumer trust — as much as the technology's readiness — will determine how quickly AVs are adopted. Absent government regulation, the industry may need to set its own standards to gain consumer confidence.

2. New EV batteries could benefit the electric grid and AV owners

Animated GIF of electric car as a lightening bolt
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

By Sudha Jamthe IoTDisruptions • Axios Expert

Automakers and utility companies are collaborating to develop bi-directional battery capability in electric vehicles, which enables EVs to receive and return power to the grid.

The big picture: Many AVs will likely be electric, and if they can operate as off-grid batteries, they could let owners make better use of the energy they buy from utilities and even be used as backup energy sources in blackouts.

Where it stands:

Yes, but: Research has shown that bi-directional batteries will see high wear and tear if they are constantly charging and sharing electricity. JB Straubel, the CTO of Tesla, has criticized the technology for this "degradation cost." Meanwhile, the current price of standard EV batteries keeps the vehicles outside an affordable range for most consumers.

What to watch: If a business model develops around bi-directional charging, the cost of battery wear and tear could be factored into companies' bottom lines. But if consumers are expected to bear the expense, they may need to be incentivized to participate in V2G systems through tax credits or lower utility rates, in addition to earning back money when their vehicles give power to the grid.

Jamthe is CEO of IoTDisruptions and teaches AV Business at Stanford Continuing Studies.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

3. How AVs could solve the truck driver shortage

Trucks in a line in traffic at night
Trucks stuck in a jam in Southern Germany. Photo: Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images

By Bernd Heid McKinsey • Axios Expert

As the rapid growth of e-commerce continues — it accounted for 42.5% of all retail sales growth last quarter — it's putting pressure on the U.S. trucking industry, which is already facing a 63,000-driver shortage, and bolstering the case for autonomous trucks.

Why it matters: The trucking industry's driver shortage is projected to hit 175,000 drivers by 2026 and may push retailers toward using autonomous trucks even sooner than passenger AVs are deployed.

The big picture: Autonomous trucks could offer one major advantage over current options: greater flexibility. They could cut costs associated with drivers and operate with higher fuel efficiency and less maintenance due to optimized driving patterns. They also make for an easier use case than passenger AVs, as deployment would not require assuaging passenger safety concerns. And since they're work vehicles, sleek design would not be prioritized over any necessary but bulky sensors, processing hardware or batteries.

What to watch: In the next few years, AVs could be used for last-mile deliveries within fixed areas.

  • Next, as sensor technology evolves, platooning of large trucks with a single driver could roll out, particularly for night driving and complex urban areas.
  • More advanced autonomy would still include a driver to oversee pickups, drop-offs and infrequent moments of driving assistance. As heavy-duty AVs become truly driverless, though, they could start with simple, long-haul rides between urban areas.

Yes, but: Aspects of AV technology still need to improve, and trucks present unique infrastructure needs.

  • Although platooning could be an early use case for autonomous trucks, most bridges are not designed to bear heavy trucks closely following each other. Steering software would need to detect bridges and potentially modify course.

The bottom line: Autonomous commercial technology and connectivity could add $3 billion in profit to the truck industry by 2030 — not as soon as some e-commerce businesses might hope, but possibly before fully autonomous passenger AVs are available.

Heid is a senior partner in McKinsey's Cologne office and a member of its European automotive and assembly sector, which advises companies working on AVs and commercial trucking.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

4. Driving the conversation

Image of Nuro's tiny automated grocery delivery vehicle
Nuro's robot vehicles are delivering groceries to Fry's customers in Arizona. Photo: Nuro

No vote: U.S. Congress will not pass self-driving car bill in 2018: senators (David Shepardson — Reuters)

  • What to watch: When Democrats and Republicans begin in January to share control of Congress, expect the fight over legislation to center on safety concerns.

Meanwhile ... U.S. agency to speed reviews of automaker self-driving petitions (David Shepardson — Reuters)

  • Why it matters: GM has been waiting almost a year for NHTSA to consider its request for exemptions from existing auto safety standards that assume cars have a steering wheel and pedals. The streamlined process helps pave the way for GM to deploy a fleet of up to 2,500 unmanned robo-taxis in 2019.

Meals on wheels: A toaster on wheels to deliver groceries? Self-driving tech tests practical uses (Cade Metz — NYT)

  • The big picture, per Stan Caldwell of Carnegie Mellon's Traffic21 Institute: "Yes, we are in the midst of debate around the hype and disillusionment of autonomous vehicles, but here we see a truly driverless vehicle, operating on public roadways and serving a purpose. It's a new milestone."

5. What I'm driving

Image of the front grille of 2019 Nissan Altima
2019 Nissan Altima is loaded with safety features. Photo: Nissan

This week's ride is the 2019 Nissan Altima, the perennial runner-up in a shrinking sedan market behind the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The big picture: The redesigned Altima looks to shake things up with the addition of optional all-wheel-drive (which the Camry and Accord don't offer), two new engine choices and a huge array of active-safety features.

The cutting-edge stuff: The Altima is the latest vehicle in Nissan's lineup to get ProPilot Assist, which helps maintain a safe distance from the car ahead and stay centered in its highway lane. It also handles stop-and-go traffic, which helps take stress off the driver.

  • More safety stuff: Altima's long list of available safety features includes rear automatic emergency braking, traffic sign recognition, blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems, rear parking sensors, and a 360-degree surround-view camera.
  • Even the base model, at $23,750, has forward collision warning system with automatic emergency braking. The top-of-the-line model will set you back another $12,000.

Thanks for reading! See you in two weeks.