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January 04, 2019

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1 big thing: Self-driving cars' slow roll in 2019

Illustration of car timeline with a blank space for a future autonomous vehicle
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the hype around self-driving cars fades, autonomous vehicle companies are likely to spend 2019 focusing more on commercialization strategies, while trying to earn consumers' trust.

The big picture: The industry is confronting the sobering challenges of deploying AVs at scale — both technological and commercial. At the heart of it all is whether the public will deem AVs as a safe, affordable and all-around better way to move people and goods.

Context: Waymo's launch of the nation's first commercial self-driving service in Arizona last month was a letdown for many — not the long-awaited dawn of a new robocar era, but an extension of a test program.

  • The underwhelming launch could set the tone — and expectations — for others, including GM, which has said it will launch a similar service this year.

Here are other trends we're watching in 2019...

1. Go small or go home. Instead of the sexy moonshot — deploying fully driverless vehicles all across America — companies will look to master little feats that help validate their technology, woo potential partners and build trust with consumers.

  • We've seen this already with low-speed AVs ferrying seniors in automated shuttles and transporting office workers to distant parking garages.
  • Expect more small-scale experiments around food and grocery delivery like Nuro's partnership with Kroger in Scottsdale, Arizona. Just yesterday, GM's Cruise Automation announced a deal with DoorDash to begin food deliveries by AVs in San Francisco.
  • Look for smaller players to pivot to new business models in search of revenue. Lidar manufacturer VayaVision sized up the hardware landscape and decided to reinvent itself as a provider of data fusion software where prospects were brighter.
  • Others could find their technology is best applied off-road in mining or logistics, where tasks are limited and regulations are less stringent.

2. Consolidation is coming. The cost of developing and deploying AVs at scale is massive and many will decide they're better off tapping the expertise of industry leaders than trying to go it alone.

3. Congress needs to take action. They need to figure out how to ensure the technology is safe without stifling innovation. Some AV makers want to plot their own standards, but don't count on that.

  • The newly bipartisan Congress will start over on self-driving car legislation after failing to pass a bill in 2018 amid concerns about passenger safety and cybersecurity threats.

Meanwhile, the long march toward full autonomy will be marked by a continued roll-out of assisted-driving features that are designed to ease some of the burdens behind the wheel. But, how consumers use — and misuse — those technologies could influence the biggest issue of all: public trust.

2. How to prevent AV curbside chaos

Illustration of curb wiggling
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

By Jim BarbaressoHNTB • Axios Expert

Ride-share congestion at airports, stadiums and shopping malls may be foreshadowing the chaos at popular destinations if AVs begin making most pickups and dropoffs.

The big picture: As transportation options diversify to include more car-sharing, ride-sharing and AVs, cities will need to invest in new infrastructure to keep traffic flowing safely and smoothly at transportation hubs and other high-activity areas.

Background: Curbside management has become an issue, as ride-sharing has elevated accident risk and traffic congestion in pickup and dropoff zones. A proliferation of passenger AVs in urban areas could compound the problem.

  • In the short term, the "polite behaviors" of AVs, like yielding when cut off, could encourage drivers to more aggressively jockey for prized space on the road.
  • Longer term, “door-t0-door” service requests could overwhelm popular destinations, leading to designated dropoff points farther from destinations.

Where it stands: Many airports and large venues already have designated ride-sharing zones and systems of lanes and signage to help maintain order.

  • But they will need to convert parking space into zones for loading and other uses, such as recharging areas that can be leased to AV fleet operators. These solutions could address congestion and also make up for venue losses in parking revenue.
  • Some airports and cities are currently exploring replacing their existing automated people mover systems with shared-use AVs that would operate on existing roads in order to save operational costs.

Barbaresso is SVP of intelligent transportation systems at HNTB, an infrastructure advisory firm.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

3. Shared AV test shuttles are coming to U.S. cities

A man entering an Olli autonomous shuttle
Olli is an autonomous shuttle at the National Harbor in Maryland. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

By Paul ComfortTrapeze Group • Axios Expert

One AV trend set to pick up speed in 2019 is universities, cities and transit agencies piloting 10–12 passenger AV shuttles and circulators to provide first and last mile links to other transit options.

Why it matters: These programs will be a chance to test AVs in new situations and environments, shape public perception of AV technology, and assess needed infrastructure improvements.

Details: At least 8 U.S. cities will pilot low-speed AVs in 2019, some tapping federal grants made available by the Department of Transportation.

  • Circulators: Austin is aiming to deploy shared AVs downtown as a free circulator shuttle this year. Las Vegas received a $5.3 million DOT grant for an automated service connecting the Las Vegas Medical District with the city's downtown in 2019.
  • Popular routes: Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Providence, Rhode Island, are both starting year-long trials along heavily traveled routes.
  • Bus service: Toledo plans to run autonomous buses in 2019, and Columbus launched a free autonomous shuttle between tourist sites, both using DOT grants.
  • Shuttles and transit connectors: A pilot program will launch on the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston in early 2019, and a shared AV is being tested as a connector to light rail in Dublin, California.

Comfort is VP of business development at Trapeze Group and the former CEO of the Maryland Transit Administration in Baltimore.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

4. ICYMI: Why China could be first with self-driving cars

Illustration of a car with a price tag made of the Chinese flag.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Many experts say China could be first to deploy AVs at scale — and one indicator is how they've already taken the global lead in electric vehicles thanks to government policies and consumer attitudes.

The big picture: Sales of electric cars are growing quickly in China, where consumers are also open to innovations like car-sharing. By loosening regulatory guidelines and swinging open the door to AV testing, China is pulling away from other countries on disruptive new mobility initiatives, a recent study finds.

Details, from German consultancy Roland Berger, which tracks and scores countries on 26 indicators of auto industry disruption:

  • The global shift toward electric vehicles is happening mostly in China, which sold more than 750,000 EVs through October — more than half of EVs sold worldwide.
  • China doubled its EV charging infrastructure over the past year, while putting limits on registrations for gasoline-powered vehicles.
  • It also ended a ban on foreign ownership of EV manufacturers in the country and granted permission for Daimler and BMW to test AVs in Beijing and Shanghai.

Why it matters: If China pursues AV technology as intently as it sought and achieved leadership in electrics, it could be first to see widespread adoption of AVs.

"China will be the first to commercialize at scale simply because the regulators will pave the way with pro-autonomous policies."
— Michael Dunne, president of China automotive consultancy ZoZoGo

Yes, but: China's growth is sputtering as trade tensions escalate, which could crush its dreams of dominating AV development.

  • Automakers in the country still need to source some fundamental components from outside of China, such as semiconductor chips and drivetrains, and China lacks cutting-edge battery technology, despite laws that favor domestic producers.
  • The West has a blind spot when it comes to China’s breakneck technological advances, writes Axios' Kaveh Waddell.

Go deeper: Read the entire post.

5. Driving the conversation

Sticks and stones: In a slow news week, the media piled on with more stories about the rough treatment Waymo's self-driving test vehicles have received in Arizona.

  • Wielding rocks and knives, Arizonans attack self-driving cars (Simon Romero — The New York Times)
  • 'Pull into a secure location': Here's what Waymo tells autonomous car test drivers to do when they're threatened (Nick Bastone — Business Insider)

Auto spies? Aptiv wants to use AI software to read vehicle occupants' moods (Stephen Edelstein — The Drive)

  • Why it matters: As I wrote back in October, driver monitoring systems will be everywhere as cars get more automated. It's important to know the driver's cognitive state so they can be ready to take over at a moment's notice. But expect a big privacy debate about how much monitoring consumers will tolerate in the name of safety.

CES hype: Self-driving cars keep tapping the brakes (Keith Naughton — Bloomberg Businessweek)

  • My thought bubble: Las Vegas is made for dreamers. And so is CES, the giant consumer electronics show. Let them have their party. The reality is that consumers’ appetite for self-driving vehicles is lagging behind the industry’s pace of investment in advanced vehicle technology, according to a new study from Deloitte.

6. What I'm driving

photo of 2019 Nissan Armada SUV in front of a mural
2019 Nissan Armada. Photo: Nissan

Over the holiday break, I headed north with the family to Michigan's Upper Peninsula in a 2019 Nissan Armada. The 4-wheel-drive behemoth was just what we needed to tackle the notoriously snowy UP — except that we saw more rain than snow.

What's new: The Armada used to be based off the Nissan Titan pickup truck; now it shares a more refined platform with the Infiniti QX80.

There are more standard safety features. The 2019 Armada adds standard adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and rear door alert, which is a reminder to check the back seat for children or forgotten items.

  • Visibility in an SUV this big can be limited so I liked the 360-degree camera and the intelligent rear view mirror, which projected a camera view from the top of the rear liftgate onto the mirror so I could easily see traffic behind me.
  • The Platinum 4-wheel-drive model included a full array of other driver-assistance features to keep you in your lane and automatic rear braking to keep you from backing up over your neighbor's dog.

Armada is a good value. At $67,850, the Platinum Reserve trim seems pricey, but it's still thousands less than top-of-the-line Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition models.