Apr 19, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Quick note: I'll be off next week so you'll see me in your inbox again on May 1.

Today Expert Voices contributor Henry Claypool writes about what the accessibility issues of today's ridesharing vehicles could mean for tomorrow's AVs.

1 big thing: The danger in Tesla's self-driving claims

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tesla — whose CEO Elon Musk recently suggested victory in the self-driving car race — plans to pull back the curtain on its Autopilot technology for investors next week.

Why it matters: Many technological and regulatory hurdles remain before automated cars can be deemed ready to replace human drivers. Musk's claim runs the risk of confusing consumers — and frustrating regulators.

What's happening: Tesla is inviting investors to its Palo Alto headquarters Monday for test drives to experience automated features still under development.

My thought bubble: The timing matters — Tesla's first quarter earnings report is expected on Wednesday and the company has a history of touting product news just ahead of poor financial results.

  • One analyst predicts the company's earnings for the first part of the year could be an "outright disaster."

Details: Tesla declined to comment ahead of the presentation, but Musk himself provided a roadmap in a fascinating podcast interview last week with MIT researcher Lex Fridman.

  • Tesla will no doubt showcase the arrival of a new proprietary computer chip, 3 years in development, that Musk says outfits the cars with "full self-driving" hardware.
  • The chip is "an order of magnitude" more powerful than the Nvidia processor it replaces.
  • "The thing that's really profound ... is that the cars currently being produced, with the hardware currently being produced, [are] capable of full self driving," he told Fridman.
  • "To me, right now, this seems game, set, match."

Reality check: Adding a powerful computer chip does not mean the cars are ready to drive themselves. Musk says Tesla still has to develop software that extends current highway driving capabilities to city streets, including traffic light recognition, complex intersections and remote parking.

  • None of this is easy. If it were, Waymo and GM Cruise would be operating driverless taxi services by now.
  • But Musk says Autopilot software is improving exponentially. "If you buy a Tesla today I believe you are buying an appreciating asset, not a depreciating asset."

Tesla has one big advantage over rivals — the massive amounts of data collected from the more than 400,000 sensor-equipped Tesla vehicles already on the road.

  • With the hardware now complete, achieving full self-driving capability is "just a simple exercise in mathematics," writes Rahul Sonnad, co-founder and CEO of Tesloop, an independent ride-sharing company that specializes in Teslas.

Yes, but: The potential ambiguity of "full self-driving" capability has other AI experts worried.

  • "With the current Autopilot, everybody knows they need to pay attention. But if all of a sudden, they put in somebody's brain that these cars can drive themselves, I think that is irresponsible," says Alain Kornhauser, chair of the AV engineering program at Princeton University.
  • Two federal agencies are already investigating several Tesla accidents to determine whether Autopilot poses "an unreasonable risk to safety" by failing to account for the misuse of the technology.
  • Meanwhile, some safety advocates have raised questions about regulators' transparency when evaluating Tesla vehicles.

The bottom line: Despite his confidence, Musk's claims are under scrutiny, not only because Tesla has missed deadlines before but also due to open regulatory questions.

Go deeper

2. Zipcar gets ready for AV rentals

Tracey Zhen. Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Zipcar, the world's largest car-sharing network, is preparing for the day that consumers don't have to walk to find their shared rental car, but instead it comes to find them.

The big picture: Zipcar is the original auto-industry disruptor, giving customers on-demand access to vehicles as a viable alternative to car ownership. But the 19-year-old company faces competition from new mobility services including peer-to-peer car-sharing networks like Turo — and even driverless taxis some day.

But it has 3 advantages the newcomers lack, Zipcar president Tracey Zhen tells me:

  1. Years of experience with fleet management. Zipcar knows how to match supply and demand, and can quickly reposition cars where they're needed.
  2. Strong customer loyalty through its subscription-based model. Rivals need to find, acquire and keep new customers.
  3. Trusted partnerships with city leaders. Transportation is a local issue, so collaboration is important.

Why it matters: All that experience will be important in an AV world, she says. The vehicle use cases won't change, even if there's no one behind the wheel.

3. Accessibility struggles could extend to AVs

A car with Lyft and Uber window stickers in Manhattan. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Even as ridesharing companies expand their offerings and look towards AV deployment, many people with disabilities are still unable to access today's shared vehicles, Henry Claypool writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Ridesharing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, formed their business models and then — belatedly, critics allege — began addressing accessibility challenges. That strategy could hinder disability access to AVs in the future.

The big picture: Ridesharing companies have promoted the idea that they are a transportation boon to people with disabilities, just as AV companies are doing today. But ridesharing has had mixed results for people with disabilities.

  • For many who cannot get a driver's license because of epilepsy, for example, ridesharing has increased mobility.  
  • Drivers sometimes do not allow service animals into the car, though, which can result in drivers refusing service to people who are blind.
  • Wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) are unavailable via ridesharing in most markets, or available in few numbers, which can result in lengthy wait times.

What's happening: Ridesharing companies have adopted policies that punish drivers for discriminating against people with disabilities.

  • However, the companies still argue that they merely connect people seeking rides to people who operate vehicles, taking little responsibility for the quality of service that drivers provide.

What to watch: How Uber and Lyft prioritize and address accessibility now will have lasting impacts as they expand their transportation offerings, including introducing AVs.

  • Uber’s recent launch of limited WAV service in certain markets is a step forward, but still does not offer equal access for all.
  • Ridesharing companies need to expand access to new mobility options as they develop and deploy them — otherwise, access to new transportation tech will remain unequal.

Claypool is a policy expert affiliated with UCSF and AAPD, and a former director of the U.S. Health and Human Services Office on Disability.

4. Driving the conversation

Funding secured: Uber raises $1 billion for self-driving car unit (Kia Kokalitcheva— Axios)

  • Why it matters: The investment from Softbank and Toyota allows Uber to transfer some of the substantial cost of developing self-driving cars to outside investors. That could help ease investor concerns ahead of its upcoming IPO.

Robo-rigs: The Scientist, The Unicorn And The $700 Billion Race To Create Self-Driving Semi-Trucks (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)

  • The big picture: Propelled by a shortage of 60,000 truck drivers, autonomous trucking firms like Xiaodi Hou's TuSimple could become a commercial success on long-haul highway routes long before Waymo, Cruise and other robotaxi firms can safely deploy driverless cars on city streets.

Ghost driver: Phantom Auto closes Series A funding, expands plans for remote-controlled autonomous vehicles (Phil LeBeau — CNBC)

  • Details: The money will help Phantom Auto expand development of technology that allows remote drivers to operate vehicles or robots from thousands of miles away.
5. What I'm driving

2019 BMW X7. Photo: BMW

This week I'm driving the 2019 BMW X7, the newest and largest SUV in the German luxury manufacturer's lineup, with a sticker price of $85,445.

Why it matters: BMW is best known for producing ultimate driving machines, so I zeroed in on the ample driver-assistance features in this jumbo-size Bimmer to see how well the machine actually does the driving.

Details: Besides standard driver-assistance warnings for blind-spot detection, lane departure and front and rear collision, the X7 xDrive40i also comes with BMW's $1,700 Drivers Assistance Pro package.

  • The package includes an active lane-keeping feature for highway driving and can assist in stop-and-go traffic up to 37 miles per hour.
  • The system uses a driver-facing camera in the instrument cluster to monitor the driver’s eye and nose position to determine if the person is paying attention.
  • As long as they're attentive, they can take their hands off the wheel for 30 to 50 seconds at a time.

The bottom line: Compared to other driver-assistance technologies I've tried, the BMW X7 seemed heavy-handed. I often felt like I was competing for control, rather than being assisted.

  • But the traffic jam assistance was a welcome relief when we hit heavy traffic outside Toronto.

One other fun feature: The X7 also has the gesture-control feature introduced on the BMW 7 Series sedan, which lets you adjust the audio volume with the twirl of a finger. We had fun talking with our hands and playing around with different gestures to see what would happen.

  • But in the end, we were left wondering: What's wrong with a knob?
Joann Muller