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Smart Brevity word count: 1,134 words, a 4-minute read.
1 big thing: Hybrids in disguise
Carmakers are going to great lengths to reposition their gas-electric hybrid models as sporty, premium or even high-performance — anything but the responsible choice for tree-huggers.
The big picture: With stricter fuel economy standards looming, and zero-emission electric cars still too pricey for most consumers, automakers need to fill the compliance gap by selling a lot more hybrids.
What's happening: To drum up excitement, carmakers are gussying up their hybrids, or adding them to their most popular SUV models, while hiding the fuel efficient hybrid powertrain behind other, more appealing selling points like sporty performance, all-wheel drive or leather upholstery.
- Ford's 2020 Escape SE Sport comes with a popular blacked-out appearance package. Less obvious is the hybrid powertrain, which is standard, as it is on the top-of-the-line Titanium model.
- Honda is adding a hybrid powertrain to the all-wheel-drive CR-V crossover, and adding extra goodies like parking sensors to lure buyers that aren't available in the gasoline version.
- Mercedes-Benz's new AMG models have a system that turns the powertrain into a mild hybrid and the Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring edition doesn't even promote the fact that it's a plug-in hybrid. For both, the emphasis is on acceleration.
- By emphasizing the performance advantages of its freshened RAV4 hybrid, Toyota says sales are up 150% over the previous generation. A plug-in hybrid variant will be introduced next month.
Yes, but: It's still not enough. Today, 9% of Toyota's U.S. sales are hybrids, but that's nowhere near the company's goal of 25% in 2025.
- Toyota, whose Prius is synonymous with hybrids, has a problem — it's called Tesla.
- The Silicon Valley carmaker proved that long-range electric cars can be exciting and desirable, and suddenly the lowly hybrid didn't seem so innovative any more.
- "A hybrid is passe, from a social buzz standpoint," says John Loehr, managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners.
- "We can't sell them on emissions and fuel economy," says Doug Murtha, Toyota's group vice president of corporate strategy and planning, especially when gas prices remain relatively low. "We need a broader appeal."
What to watch: Hybrids accounted for 2.2% of U.S. auto sales in 2018, and an expected 3.3% in 2019, according to LMC Automotive, which sees a near doubling of hybrid sales, to about 1.2 million vehicles, in the next two years.
- Until battery costs come down and make EVs affordable, hybrids will continue to play an important role in automakers' regulatory compliance.
2: Hybrid and EV sales are expected to take off
Toyota gave birth to the hybrid movement with the U.S. introduction of the Prius in 2000. Sales have been fairly slow, but are expected to take off in the next 5 years as automakers strive to meet higher fuel efficiency standards, according to LMC Automotive.
- Driving the news: Hybrids are still more expensive than gasoline-powered cars, but battery prices have fallen enough that it's easier for carmakers to pass along the higher cost to consumers, especially if it's buried among other premium features, says Loehr.
3. Waymo goes driverless — for real this time
Waymo told a select group of "early rider" customers in suburban Phoenix this week that “completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way.”
Why it matters: It's a sign that Waymo is confident enough in its automated driving technology to let passengers ride in its vehicles without a safety driver behind the wheel.
If it feels a bit like deja vu, that's because when Waymo launched its commercial Waymo One robotaxi service at the end of 2018, human operators were still behind the wheel.
- In fact, they'll still be behind the wheel for the 1,000 or so Waymo One customers who summon a ride.
- The "driverless" vehicles will only show up for the 400 or so early riders who signed nondisclosure agreements with Waymo to test its self-driving cars.
- They'll be notified via the app confirming that no one will be in the car when it shows up, a spokeswoman tells Axios.
- They can still communicate with Waymo during their trip using a support button.
- Importantly, if someone tries to tamper with the car while it's in driverless mode, the car will pull over.
3. Driving the conversation
Logjam: GM appeals directly to employees as strike losses pile up (Ben Klayman and David Shepardson — Reuters)
- My thought bubble: GM is losing patience with UAW bargainers, going public with its latest offer in the hopes that rank-and-file members will encourage their union leaders to reach a settlement.
- GM has reportedly sweetened its offer and increased its commitment to U.S. factories, but the UAW wants to see more production moved from Mexico.
Trust: Fixing the 737 MAX has been hard. Getting people aboard may be harder (Hugo Martin — Los Angeles Times)
- Why it matters: American Airlines said Wednesday that it plans to return the controversial Boeing plane to service in mid-January, 7 months after the entire 737 MAX fleet was grounded following two fatal crashes tied to automation software.
Dead: Dyson has scrapped its electric car project (Marisa Fernandez — Axios)
- Details: The company known for its vacuum cleaners and headed by British inventor Sir James Dyson said the 2-year-old project was not "commercially viable."
4. What I'm driving: Everything
This week, I managed to get away from the office for 2 days for some fun — and important — driving.
The big picture: I'm one of approximately 50 professional automotive journalists on the jury for the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards, now in its 26th year.
- The awards honor vehicles that have raised the standards and become new benchmarks in their class.
- Vehicles are judged on criteria including: innovation, design, safety, performance, technology, driver satisfaction and value.
How it works: We evaluate the newest cars, trucks and crossovers throughout the year and then vote on the ones we think are worthy of further consideration for the year's best.
- We then gather in the fall to drive the semifinalists back-to-back on some of Michigan's best roads to refine our comparisons.
- It's not fair to compare a Corvette sports car to an entry-level Kia, so we compare vehicles against other vehicles in their class, not against other nominees (unless they're in the same class).
- We then vote a second time for our favorites.
- 3 finalists in each category will be announced in November and the winners will be awarded in early 2020.
At this week's drive event in Ann Arbor, I got seat time in most of the semifinalists, which include 12 cars, 12 utilities and 5 trucks.
Quick impressions, without giving anything away:
- The new mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette was a surprise; moving the engine completely changes the driving dynamics. I'll have more in an upcoming review.
- The Audi e-tron is impressive; it's an electric mid-sized crossover with everything you love about Audi, plus seamless acceleration — and no emissions.
- The reborn Toyota Supra — shared with BMW's Z4 and available only with an automatic transmission — is still massively fun to drive.