December 07, 2018

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1 big thing: The price of driverless cars

A photo of a bright orange self-driving van
In Frisco, Texas. Photo: Kaveh Waddell/Axios

Early in the much-promoted new driverless age, autonomous vehicles 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.

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 contracts on the website of the Houston-Galveston Area Council reveal how much is being charged by two of the companies, Silicon Valley-based and EasyMile, a French autonomous shuttle provider. The documents prepare the companies to be hired in any city in the state.

  • EasyMile is charging more than $27,000 a month per small electric shuttle for cities that sign up for one year of service. Sign on for five 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 one year, which drops down to $12,900 a month per van for a five-year commitment: $168,000 and $154,800, respectively.
  • As a part of the agreement, the companies will operate and maintain the vehicles.

And some localities are paying such rates — with the help of federal grants:

  • The state of Rhode Island is paying $800,000 for the first year of a shuttle service coming to Providence in 2019, helped along by a $300,000 federal grant.
  • Arlington, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, hired to run three on-demand self-driving shuttles in the entertainment district. For the yearlong program, the city will foot 20% of the $435,000 price tag and a federal grant will cover the rest.

But these are the outliers, according to Greg Rodriguez, a Washington, DC lawyer who specializes in autonomous vehicles. "Most cities think that there will be no costs related to a pilot project with [a driverless] shuttle company," Rodriguez told me.

"I will be very surprised if cities will pay for AV car services even at relatively low prices, let alone steep prices."
Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University

Public funding for AVs can be a touchy subject.

  • Some experts worry that paying for AVs will cannibalize funding for public transportation at the expense of low-income residents who depend on transit like subways and buses.
  • "The immediate question will be whether cities should be focusing on supporting public transit, which moves a lot more people, and maintaining existing (and likely deteriorating) infrastructure," said CMU's Rajkumar.

But, but, but: Others support government funding — if autonomous shuttles are broadly advantageous.

  • "There’s certainly going to be consequences for mass transit in the same way as even the development of rideshare has," said Darrell West, director of the governance studies program at Brookings.
  • But, West said, government investment is an important catalyst for a technology that will bring "broad economic benefits for cities." He expects large amounts of private money to follow.

2. 1 mind-boggling statistic: Home shortage

California's Paradise fire, in November. Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

Homes built in Northern California fire country in the past decade: 24,370.

Home destroyed by fires in Northern California in the past year: 20,793 (h/t Liam Dillon, L.A. Times).

Our thought bubble: The devastation of two years of intensified fires dramatizes another California crisis — its critical shortage of housing. Many of those left homeless by the blazes are living in open camps, but even finding them places to live will not resolve the state's plight because of one inexorable fact: More fires will be on the way next year and beyond.

Go deeper: Californians usually rebuild after fires. That could change.

3. Mailbox

Amazon Go. Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty

Yesterday we had a post on the race to make cashierless checkouts work — bugs not yet worked out and a blindspot among American retailers that has so far left China in the lead.

Among email responses, we heard from Eddie Gustavsson, a Future reader in Sweden:

"Here in Sweden, local grocery giant ICA has had an alternative to self checkout for many years. In its larger stores, you swipe your ICA card when entering to get a barcode scanner. You then scan the stuff as you go, putting it into your own bag. Upon exit, you dock the scanner, swipe your ICA card, and pay with your debit/credit card. No need for mobile payments and everyone already has an ICA card because of discounts and other incentives. 
In Japan, I saw another version. You use a basket that reads the RFID tags of the stuff as you put it in. Then the checkout reads the basket as you put it at the till."

4. Worthy of your time

Bennu from OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Can play save the world? (Jenny Anderson — Quartz)

NASA craft arrives at asteroid Bennu (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

The 96-year-old inventor of lithium-ion batteries wants to best himself (The Economist)

Mapping medieval London's gruesome murders (Feargus O'Sullivan — CityLab)

The ongoing battle against photo-bombers (Karen Hao — MIT Tech Review)

5. 1 Moon thing: A shot at the dark side

On the lit side. Photo: NASA/LIFE/Getty

China is planning tomorrow to launch a spacecraft with the aim of making the first-ever landing on the dark side of the Moon.

The Chang’e-4 is scheduled to launch at 2:30 pm ET, reports Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline, although there is no word when it's meant to land on the Moon. The distance is 240,000 miles and about three days.

Since a radio signal can't reach the dark side, China earlier this year positioned Queqiao, a satellite, to relay transmissions from the spacecraft.