Mar 15, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today Expert Voices contributor Raphael Gindrat looks at the challenges of microtransit services.

1 big thing: Conquering fear of the unknown

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The more exposure people have to emergency braking or adaptive cruise control, the more comfortable they become with assisted-driving technologies, says AAA, suggesting they could eventually be won over by self-driving cars, too.

The big picture: Automakers and tech companies are pouring billions of dollars into self-driving cars, even though consumers are lukewarm on the technology and the path to making money on AVs is unclear. While technology and regulatory hurdles remain, trust is the number one issue holding them back.

By the numbers, per a new AAA study:

  • 71% of U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle, virtually unchanged from a year ago (73%) following several high-profile fatalities.
  • In contrast, 53% said they would be comfortable with low-speed AVs at airports or theme parks.
  • 44% said they would be comfortable having food or packages delivered by a self-driving vehicle.
  • 19% said they would be comfortable using an AV to transport their children or loved ones.

Fear of the unknown could be a factor. AAA found that people who already have features like lane-keeping assistance in their car were far more likely (82%) to trust it than people who don't (50%).

  • 72% who have adaptive cruise control on their car said they trust it, vs. 39% among those who don't have it.
  • 74% who have automatic emergency braking trust it, vs. 38% who don't have it.
  • Crash avoidance systems do make cars safer, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says, but there are inconsistencies in performance.

Small doses of increasing autonomy could help build confidence. Instead of the sexy moonshot — deploying fully driverless vehicles all across America — some companies are looking to master little feats that help validate their technology and build trust with consumers.

Education efforts are expanding, too.

  • In January, a coalition of automakers, tech companies and safety organizations launched an education campaign called PAVE.
  • Waymo, which runs a limited robotaxi service in Phoenix, this week expanded its Let's Talk Self-Driving campaign to northern California in partnership with AAA and other organizations.

What to watch: Cruise, GM's self-driving unit, plans to launch a driverless taxi service later this year in San Francisco, which could give more consumers another opportunity to try out an AV.

What's next: Despite their fears, most Americans think AV technology is coming. A decade from now, 55% of drivers think most cars will have the ability to drive themselves.

2. Tesla has a baby SUV: Model Y

Tesla Model Y crossover is the latest EV in the lineup. Photo: Tesla

Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the company's latest electric car, a small SUV dubbed Model Y, at a jam-packed event Thursday night that was broadcast from Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne, California.

Why it matters: The Model Y is a logical next step for Tesla, but by the time it goes on sale in fall 2020, it'll face more competition. Ford trolled Tesla just ahead of the event with a tweet saying "hold your horses" — a clear reference to its Mustang-inspired electric performance SUV coming in 2020.

Details: The Model Y, which will seat up to 7, includes a panoramic glass roof and 66 cubic feet of space.

  • With the battery under the floor and a low center of gravity, "it will look like an SUV but drive like a sports car," Musk said, with a 0-to-60 mph time of 3.5 seconds.
  • The long-range 300-mile version goes on sale in fall 2020, for about $47,000, along with all-wheel drive ($51,000) and performance ($60,000) versions.
  • The standard version, with a smaller battery, will follow in 2021 and cost $39,000.

But, but, but: Tesla said nothing about where it will build the Model Y or how it will afford the capital investment the new model will require. Just last week, Musk said the company would close many of its stores and cut its workforce for the third time this year.

My thought bubble: Will this deflect attention from some of the company's current troubles?

3. Solving the efficiency riddles of microtransit

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Companies like Bridj, Ford and Sweden's Kutsuplus have shut down their microtransit shuttle services, in part because optimizing the trips has proven both difficult and costly, Bestmile CEO Raphael Gindrat writes for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: In theory, moving more people with fewer vehicles is a good business model. But microtransit requires companies to purchase and maintain vehicles and to pay drivers for the duration of their shift, not just when they are carrying paying passengers.

  • AVs could eliminate driver costs and reduce navigation errors, but improving the efficiency of their routes requires crunching massive data loads in real time.

Where it stands: Cities, companies and researchers are reworking algorithms to make shared routes more efficient to minimize both congestion and extra transit time for passengers.

  • Microtransit provider Via and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation are running a pilot that focuses on "last mile" travel from transit stops.
  • Using computer models, a team at the University of Texas found that 1 shared vehicle could replace 11 single-occupancy vehicles around Austin, with wait times between 20 seconds and 5 minutes.
  • Bestmile data scientists found that 200 shared, on-demand vehicles could accommodate the 31,000 rides taken in 2,700 Chicago taxis each day with average wait times of 5 minutes and added ride times of 6 minutes.
  • A McKinsey analysis found that, as soon as 2030, shared "seamless" mobility could accommodate 30% more traffic while cutting travel time by 10%.

What to watch: The EU's AVENUE project is rolling out last mile autonomous shuttles in 4 cities to connect workers and residents with long-haul public transit and to determine the requirements for replicating successful service elsewhere.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Gindrat is co-founder and CEO of Bestmile, which has developed a fleet-management platform.

4. Crash avoidance tech is spreading

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most car companies are making good on a voluntary commitment to equip all of their vehicles with automatic emergency braking technology, safety officials say.

Why it matters: AEB is one of the most effective safety features since the seat belt — reducing crashes by up to 43% in one study — which is why the industry decided consumers would benefit faster if compliance were voluntary rather than mandated.

  • 20 carmakers representing 99% of the market agreed in 2016 to make the technology standard on all cars by 2022 and to provide the government with annual progress reports.
  • IIHS estimates the commitment will prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries by 2025.

How it works: Often paired with forward collision warning — a flashing alert or chime — AEB senses a potential collision with a vehicle ahead and applies the brakes if the driver doesn't react in time.

The big picture: About half of all 2018 models were produced with emergency braking systems, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the IIHS.

  • Tesla led the industry, with 100% of its vehicles equipped with AEB.
  • Luxury carmakers Mercedes-Benz (96%), Volvo (93%) and Audi (87%) were also near the top.
  • By sheer numbers, Toyota and Lexus produced the most vehicles with AEB — 2.2 million (90%).
  • Ford, Mitsubishi and Porsche equipped fewer than 10% of their 2018 models with AEB.
"When it comes to being on track for the 2022 targets, most manufacturers are ahead of the curve, but far too many still need to kick their efforts into gear."
— David Friedman, VP of advocacy, Consumer Reports

Ford is quickly adding the technology, a spokesman noted. Many of its 2018 cars that lacked AEB have been discontinued, while 2019 models like the F-150, Edge, Ranger and Fusion now include it as part of Ford's Co-Pilot 360 assisted-driving system.

  • What's next: AEB will be standard on 91% of Ford vehicles in North America by 2020, the company says.
5. Driving the conversation

Texas rodeo: Ford expands self-driving vehicle program to Austin (Kirsten Korosec — TechCrunch)

  • Why it matters: Ford is already testing AVs in Miami and Washington, D.C. The automaker plans to invest $4 billion on AVs through 2023.

Speaking of Ford: Bill Ford says their family car business meshes well with VW (Keith Naughton and Christoph Rauwald — Bloomberg)

  • The big picture: The two companies are in talks about potential collaboration on electric and autonomous vehicles.
“I’d like Ford to be around another 100 years, and if that’s going to happen, it’s clear that we really have to branch off into new directions to try to solve some of these problems.”
— Bill Ford, executive chairman, Ford

Uber money: SoftBank and others may invest $1 billion in Uber's self-driving unit (Maureen Farrell — Wall Street Journal)

  • My thought bubble: Uber is looking to buff up its business ahead of an IPO later this year, and establish some third-party valuation for its self-driving car unit. Taking in partners at this juncture makes sense, given the likely long road ahead for AV development. There's no point in pouring a ton of money down a black hole with no guarantee of success.
6. What I'm driving

The 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus has a longer range than the standard model. Photo: Nissan

This week I'm zipping around town in a 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus, the longer-range version of Nissan's best-selling electric vehicle.

Why it matters: The original Leaf, introduced in 2010, was a plug-in pioneer, until Tesla came along and showed what a real EV could be. Others followed with double or more the Leaf's sub-100 mile driving range, and the onetime leader was left in the dust.

What's new: The 2019 Leaf is now available with a larger 62 kWh battery pack and a more powerful 160 kW electric motor, hence the new "Plus" designation.

  • The package boosts the Leaf's range by about 50% — up to an EPA-estimated 226 miles. This compares to the standard Leaf, with a 40 kWh battery pack and a 150-mile range.
  • That's slightly better than Tesla's base Model 3 (220 miles) but still lags the Chevrolet Bolt EV (238 miles), Kia Niro (239 miles), and Hyundai Kona Electric (258 miles).
  • For most people, that's plenty of driving range, though.
  • At $37,445, the Leaf Plus costs $6,560 more than the standard car.

Less stress: The Leaf Plus includes Nissan's ProPilot Assist highway-driving system, which keeps you in your lane and adjusts to the speed of the car ahead.

  • When I got caught in stop-and-go traffic, the car did most of the work. I had my foot off the brake and just had to touch the steering wheel switch each time traffic restarted.
Joann Muller