Axios Navigate

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June 28, 2019

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,109 words, <5 minute read.

Expert Voices contributor Amin Aghaei explains how simple puddles can play tricks on fancy lidar systems.

1 big thing: Automakers' big profit squeeze

Illustration of a car with exhaust in the shape of dollar signs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Carmakers are in a tough spot: Global auto sales are slowing faster than they can reinvent themselves as transportation service providers.

Why it matters: It will be years before investments in new technologies like electric, self-driving cars pay off — if ever. With sales stagnating in major markets like the U.S. and China, and traditional sources of revenue drying up, carmakers are slashing fixed costs and contemplating their place in the new order.

Driving the news: Ford is the latest automaker to announce layoffs, this time in Europe, as part of a broader corporate restructuring that aims to slash $25.5 billion in operating costs over the next few years.

  • Ford said it would cut 12,000 jobs, close 5 plants, and trim shifts at 2 other factories throughout Europe.
  • The announcement follows news in May that it would eliminate 7,000 salaried positions worldwide.
  • Ford is hardly alone. GM, Nissan, Honda, Daimler, Tesla, Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover and Audi have all announced job reductions in the past 6 months, totaling at least 38,000 people, Bloomberg reports. And more cuts are likely.

What they're saying: "The industry is right now staring down the barrel of what we think is going to be a significant downturn," Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst John Murphy said at a recent Detroit forum, adding that the pace of decline in China "is a real surprise," per Bloomberg.

  • The timing couldn't be worse, just as companies are ramping up spending on new technologies — $225 billion on electrification between now and 2023, and another $85 billion on autonomous vehicles, says global consulting firm AlixPartners.
  • Industry profits began falling in 2017, and return on capital employed is shrinking toward levels not seen since the Great Recession, a study from the firm found.
  • Mark Wakefield, co-leader of AlixPartner's automotive and industrial practice, warns of a "multi-year profit desert" the industry will have to crawl through.

What to watch: In the midst of the turmoil, automakers need to figure out what role they will play in the new transportation ecosystem, Wakefield tells Axios.

  • The largest players will likely continue to invest heavily in EVs and AVs in hopes of dominating the field in a winner-take-all fight, he says.
  • Others will be more strategic, putting together pieces of the mobility puzzle with partnerships but not controlling the game.
  • "Your starting position matters," Wakefield says. "Big OEMs want to play a bigger role. Smaller companies are willing to sell pick axes to gold miners."

2. Survey: ADAS tech helpful in crash avoidance

Image of a 1940s car crash

1940s car accident. Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Auto and insurance companies have long touted the benefits of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) available in today's new cars. Car owners who have encountered the technology tend to agree.

The big picture: Consumer Reports surveyed owners of about 72,000 late-model vehicles about their experiences with driver-assistance technologies like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning and other active safety systems.

  • 57% of drivers say advanced driver assistance systems helped them avoid a crash.
  • Adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and blind spot warning systems had the highest satisfaction.
  • Lane-keeping features were less popular, with people complaining about annoying alert chimes, vibrations or overly aggressive steering corrections.
  • Consumers shared harrowing real-life encounters with leaping deer, speeding motorcycles and traffic-stopping stray cats.

Yes, but: While there's been a huge increase in availability of ADAS technology, some companies still charge extra for these systems.

  • Despite a voluntary agreement by 20 automakers to make automatic emergency braking standard in their vehicles by 2022, some carmakers are way behind.
  • "Safety shouldn't be optional," safety policy advocate William Wallace tells CR.

3. A puddle can throw off sophisticated AV sensors

Sophisticated sensor technology can be misled by the way lidar beams reflect off of something as mundane as a puddle.

Why it matters: AVs are expected to reduce accidents, but aspects of the technology can introduce risk. Simulation is one way to discover scenarios that may fool sensors and then train perception algorithms accordingly.

What's happening: Large-scale sensor simulation enables software developers to test thousands of scenarios under hundreds of different conditions, from the size and distribution of the puddles to the speed and direction of vehicles and environmental backscattering and absorption.

Between the lines: Simulations have pointed out the limitations of sensor technology like lidar. For instance, road conditions influence how lidar beams are reflected after hitting the road.

Check out the explainer graphic...

Adapted from a diagram by Metamoto; Graphic: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
Adapted from a diagram by Metamoto; Graphic: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The bottom line: A perception algorithm has to decide what to do with received points, determining whether they are real or whether they are false positives. Extensive simulation is needed to generate enough data to train perception algorithms to catch these kinds of edge cases.

Read more

Aghaei is a sensor simulation engineer at Metamoto, an AV simulations company.

4. Driving the conversation

Rendering of Quayside, Sidewalk Labs' planned urban neighborhood in Toronto

The planned Quayside development. Image courtesy of Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studio for Sidewalk Labs

Sensor city: Alphabet's plan for Toronto depends on huge amounts of data (Aarian Marshall — Wired)

  • Why it matters: Sensors embedded in the planned $1.3 billion Quayside development would track everything from which benches residents use to how quickly they cross the street. Sidewalk Labs says the data is essential to creating the urban space of the future.

Hiring: Is AI killing jobs? Actually, it added 3 times more than it replaced in 2018 (Lydia Dishman — Fast Company)

  • Details: ZipRecruiter analyzed over 50 million job postings and examined hiring in 5 transitioning industries, including AVs. The surprise findings contradict an oft-cited McKinsey report that predicted 30% of all workers may be displaced by technology and another 14% could be forced to switch jobs to keep up.

Flight plan: Larry Page-backed Kitty Hawk partners with Boeing on flying car development (Jon Porter — The Verge)

  • Why it matters: The aerospace giant has the manufacturing expertise and resources to help get Kitty Hawk's unpiloted two-seat air taxi, Cora, off the ground.

5. What I'm driving

Image of green Audi RS 5 Sportback performance sedan

Audi RS 5 Sportback. Photo: Audi

My weekly test drive of cars, looking at their latest technologies...

This week I'm driving the sweet Audi RS 5 Sportback, a high-performance sedan with room for 5 and plenty of cargo. It's a car that is somehow practical and exhilarating at the same time.

Gearheads will rave about its performance: the power of the 444-hp, 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 engine, the sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, and the precision handling on tight turns.

But the RS 5's advanced driver assistance features shouldn't be overlooked.

  • Audi's pre-sense systems tighten the seatbelts and automatically close the windows and moonroof to protect passengers if a crash is imminent.
  • The RS 5 Driver Assistance package ($3,700) adds active lane assist, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go traffic jam assist, and a head-up display that recognizes traffic signs.
  • New for 2019: The RS 5 can automatically steer the car into parallel or perpendicular parking spaces (the driver controls the pedals and gear shifter).

My thought bubble: I've driven quite a few Audi models lately and I've noticed a big improvement in their lane-keeping systems. When the feature was first introduced a few years back, I felt like I was wrestling for control of the car.

  • The new lane-keeping assist feature is a gentle nudge back in the lane that inspires confidence, not fear that you'll run off the road.

The bottom line: Audi's RS 5 Sportback starts at $74,200, but add all the bells and whistles, including the $5,500 black optic carbon package on my loaner, and you'll be forking over $100,000.