December 07, 2018

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1 big thing: Consumer fear is shaping AV rollouts

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Early rollouts of autonomous vehicles are showing how divided AV companies are on the best way to win over consumers.

Why it matters: Companies are pouring billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle technology, but almost three-quarters of American drivers say they would be too afraid to ride in one. Consumer trust — as much as the technology's readiness — is shaping the way AVs come to market.

What's happening: In an effort to win public confidence, AV makers are educating consumers and introducing them to the technology through an array of real-world experiences.

  • Waymo launched the nation's first commercial robotaxi service this week in Phoenix, starting slowly in a well-practiced area. In Columbus, May Mobility began offering free rides to tourist destinations in its low-speed autonomous shuttles.

The different approaches...

1. Robotaxi fleets in pre-mapped areas. These fully self-driving AVs stick to limited geographic areas they already know, which limits the number of scenarios they have to handle.

  • This could work well in urban areas connecting commuters to their final destination as a last-mile solution. This approach is favored by most American and Chinese AV companies.

2. Gradual autonomy. Today's new cars often have some driver assistance features, like blind-spot monitoring or adaptive cruise control.

  • By adding more advanced features like lane-centering and low-speed traffic jam assist, the hope is that people will grow more comfortable with what their car can do. Tesla and most European luxury automakers think this is the best approach.

3. L0w-speed micro shuttles. Self-driving mini-buses are limited to 25 miles per hour and often operate on fixed routes, which makes them well-suited for campuses and retirement communities, for example.

4. Autonomous goods delivery. Some people might be more willing to put their groceries at risk in an AV before riding in one themselves.

  • Ford and startups like Nuro are partnering with retailers to test these robodelivery services.

My thought bubble: It will likely be at least a decade before fully self-driving cars are capable of operating in all conditions with no human input, suggesting a gradual roll-out of driver assistance features might be the best way to go.

Yes, but: The danger is that as cars gradually get more automated, drivers pay less attention so they're not ready to retake control at critical moments. That's why a sleeping driver was able to cruise for 7 miles on a California highway before police stopped the car.

  • This so-called "handoff issue" between vehicle and human is a critical problem that has yet to be solved and it's why many automakers are skipping semi-autonomous systems altogether and aiming instead for fully self-driving cars.
  • And, all it takes is one unexpected incident to shake a person's confidence in the technology. For instance, I was driving with Cadillac's Super Cruise engaged last year when the car got confused and lurched from side to side when it couldn't find the lane markings as I began to cross a bridge.

The bottom line: The best ways to win consumer trust may be the ones that carry the smallest risk: low-speed neighborhood shuttles or autonomous delivery vehicles.

2. What cities are paying for AVs

A self-driving van in Frisco, Texas. Photo: Kaveh Waddell/Axios

Early in the much-promoted new driverless age, AVs are experimental and cost far too much for mass private ownership. So companies are asking cities, states and the federal government to shoulder the massive initial rollout, Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes.

Driving the news: A pair of little-noticed proposed contracts show the steep price of these first-time autonomous cars and shuttles, amounting to leasing costs of well over $100,000 each per year. The contracts raise questions about whether driverless cars are the best use of public funds.

Until now, the cost of autonomous cars has been largely guesswork — companies have been reluctant to say how much they will charge for their vehicles. But previously unreported Houston-Galveston Area Council contracts reveal how much is being charged by two of the companies, Silicon Valley-based and EasyMile, a French autonomous shuttle provider.

  • EasyMile is charging more than $27,000 a month per small electric shuttle for cities that sign up for 1 year of service. Sign on for 5 years and the price drops to about $8,000 per month per shuttle. That means $324,000 and $96,000 per year, respectively.
  • charges $14,000 monthly per vehicle (bright orange vans, as seen above) for 1 year, which drops down to $12,900 a month per van for a 5-year commitment: $168,000 and $154,800, respectively.
  • As a part of the agreement, the companies will operate and maintain the vehicles.

Some localities — like the state of Rhode Island and Arlington, Texas — are paying such rates — with the help of federal grants.

But these are the outliers, according to Greg Rodriguez, a D.C. lawyer who specializes in AVs. "Most cities think that there will be no costs related to a pilot project with [a driverless] shuttle company," Rodriguez says.

Go deeper: Read Kaveh's story.

3. Driving the conversation

Big business: Ford CEO Jim Hackett explains the AV business. (Fred Guterl — Newsweek)

"People won’t have as many vehicles because they’ll share one and own one."
— Jim Hackett, Ford CEO

Smart cities: Driverless cars will need cities covered in sensors, China's Didi Chuxing says (Saheli Roy Choudhury — CNBC)

  • The big picture, per Stan Caldwell of Carnegie Mellon's Traffic21 Institute: "Didi’s plan of sensors on the infrastructure to support vehicle automation may work in Beijing but would require a model of government funded or authorized deployment which does not exist in the U.S."

Traffic fix: LA Metro CEO supports congestion pricing and free fares on public transit (Elijah Chiland - LA Curbed)

  • Why it matters: As in New York, LA thinks a surcharge on vehicles traveling in congested areas during the busiest traffic hours would not only create new revenue, it would also reduce traffic problems and ultimately make cars safer.

Underground news: Elon Musk pushes back opening of Boring Company's LA tunnel (Steven Musil — CNET)

  • What to watch: The Tesla CEO tweeted that his plan for an underground tunnel includes "fully road legal autonomous transport cars." I'm curious to see what that means.

4. What I'm driving

2019 GMC Sierra pickup comes with industry-first 15-inch head-up display in the windshield. Photo: GM

Sharing my insights on some of today's most advanced vehicles ...

I just spent a week in the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali pickup truck, one of three finalists in the truck category for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) awards.

The big picture: There's an escalating race as pickups get more luxurious and more high-tech — and more expensive. The Sierra Denali Ultimate I drove had all the bells and whistles along with a $68,235 price tag.

What's new: The most innovative feature on the Sierra might be its Swiss Army-knife split-folding tailgate that can serve as a temporary bed extender, a stand for your laptop or a step up to the cargo bed.

My favorite feature — and arguably the most important one — is the huge, 15-inch color head-up display that projects whatever data you choose on the windshield. By keeping your eyes up on the road ahead, it helps reduce distracted driving.

  • The rear-view mirror can be converted to a camera screen allowing a wider, less-obstructed field of view.
  • Standard features provide front and rear parking assistance along with alerts for lane changes, blind zones and crossing rear traffic.
  • An array of safety options can be added, including forward collision warning, lane-keeping assistance, low-speed automatic braking and a system that brakes if it detects a pedestrian.

The bottom line: Active safety features are even more important in a pickup truck, where visibility can be difficult, and Sierra buyers should appreciate how much this truck can do to keep them safe.