Dec 13, 2019

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

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  • Smart Brevity count: 1,575 words (about 6 minutes)
1 big thing: Nothing but sunshine for AVs in Florida

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Led by an ambitious state senator, Florida has become a hotbed for self-driving cars, thanks to its mild weather, unique demographics and lenient laws.

Why it matters: States at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing stand to reap the economic benefits — and perhaps problems, too — of self-driving cars.

  • With Congress stalled on federal legislation, Florida and other forward-looking states have an outsized opportunity to help shape the laws that will one day govern AVs.

The driving force behind Florida's ascension is state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a former platoon leader in the Iraq War who, as a freshman legislator in 2011, turned to the internet to search for a "big idea" he could champion.

  • He was inspired by a 2010 TED Talk by Stanford AI expert Sebastian Thrun, then-head of Google's nascent driverless car project.
  • In 2012, Brandes helped push an AV policy through the Florida legislature, becoming only the second state to do so, behind Nevada.

Then last June, Florida enacted a new law (co-sponsored by Brandes) that makes it even more attractive for companies to test and deploy AVs in the state.

  • Under the law, a fully autonomous vehicle can operate without a human safety driver, as long as the company has $1 million in insurance.
  • California and Arizona also allow companies to operate AVs without safety drivers, but each has restrictions.
  • Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's executive order on AVs, for example, is not baked into law so it could be reversed with the stroke of a pen by the next governor.
  • In California, companies are prohibited from collecting revenue from AV passengers without a special permit and none have been granted, AV consultant Grayson Brulte tells Axios.
    • "California has no path to profitability. In Florida, there is a path, because you can charge people," he says.
  • "We have the right ecosystem and we're allowing companies to thrive," Brandes said in an interview. "Most state laws hurt, rather than help" AV development.

What's happening: The AV-friendly environment has sparked plenty of activity in the Sunshine State, which recently launched the second phase of construction on SunTrax, a 475-acre AV testing facility near Orlando.

Other cutting-edge transportation technology is also being deployed in Florida.

  • Tampa, for example, was selected by the federal government as one of the first cities to pilot connected vehicle technology on real streets, enabling cars, buses and streetcars to communicate with each other to reduce traffic and improve safety.

The bottom line: More than 300,000 people a year are moving to Florida, already the country's third most populous state, with the population projected to hit 26 million by 2030. Growth like that requires preparation, says Brandes.

Go deeper:

2. Self-driving truck makes historic cross-country trek

Plus.ai encountered sleet on its cross-country trek. Photo courtesy of Plus.ai

Self-driving truck company Plus.ai says it completed the first coast-to-coast commercial freight run with an autonomous truck.

Why it matters: Driving both day and night, Plus.ai completed the 2,800-mile trip from Tulare, California, to Quakertown, Pennsylvania, in less than three days, an important milestone in validating the system’s ability to safely handle a wide range of weather and road conditions.

  • Notably, the truck drove primarily in autonomous mode without disengaging, even while navigating challenging winter weather, winding mountain roads, road construction and tunnels.
  • A safety driver was on board at all times to monitor and assume control if needed, and a safety engineer was present to monitor system operations.
  • The truck was hauling 40,000 pounds of refrigerated butter for Land O’Lakes.
3. Managing data from all those dockless scooters

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new consortium is trying to wrangle how to manage and share data gathered from all those dockless scooters and e-bikes popping up in cities.

Why it matters: Scooter and bike trip patterns can yield a lot of valuable information that public agencies can use to manage their infrastructure and set regulations. But the push for data access also raises concerns about privacy.

What's happening: SAE International has pulled together cities, public agencies and micromobility providers like Uber, Lyft, Spin and Bird, to try to create best practices for sharing trip data.

  • The initial efforts will focus on trying to establish standard metrics for evaluation and streamline privacy protection methods, says Annie Chang, head of new mobility at SAE who is director of the new Mobility Data Collaborative.
  • "The landscape is evolving so quickly, we're keeping our eyes open for what we should focus on next," Chang said.
4. Ford and Microsoft try to tackle traffic jams

Traffic in Seattle. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

Ford and Microsoft have figured out how to leverage quantum computing — the powerful but not yet commercialized technology — to tackle traffic in Seattle.

Why it matters: By running quantum-inspired algorithms on conventional computer hardware, companies can process more data, giving them a head start on solving complex problems like how to direct thousands of vehicles simultaneously to smooth traffic flow.

  • "We don’t have to wait until quantum computers are deployed at large scale," Ben Porter, director of business development for quantum computing at Microsoft, tells Axios.

In one scenario using Microsoft's approach, 5,000 vehicles — each with 10 possible routes — requested directions across Metro Seattle simultaneously.

  • In 20 seconds, balanced routing suggestions were delivered to all 5,000 vehicles.
  • The result: Total congestion improved by 73%, and average commuting time dropped 8% when compared to routing each car individually in a vacuum.

Read the full story.

5. Kansas City to make buses free
Expand chart
Reproduced from ValuePenguin; Chart: Axios Visuals

Kansas City, Missouri, is set to offer free bus rides to all of its citizens, becoming a guinea pig for other large cities looking to improve access to transportation, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh writes.

Why it matters: "I think this is only the beginning for the next step in good transportation equity," Mayor Quinton Lucas told Axios.

  • For working people, saving "$1,500 or $2,000 a year on bus fare makes a difference when you make $8" an hour, Lucas said.
  • He also says it will increase access to jobs.

The state of play: The base bus fare in Kansas City is currently $1.50, and a regular bus pass costs $50 a month.

  • Students, veterans and residents receiving domestic abuse services already ride for free.
  • A monthly pass accounts for 3.5% of a commuter's median income, which is $17,190, based on data from ValuePenguin.

What's next: Lucas hopes the buses will be completely free for all residents by June 2020.

Worth noting: Other places have free bus fare for residents, but it's mainly in college towns as a service for students and university employees such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or Ann Arbor, Michigan.

6. Driving the conversation

USMCA: Unions skeptical Trump’s trade deal will bring back auto jobs (Niraj Chokshi — The New York Times)

  • Why it matters: Trump was elected on promises to reverse job losses attributed to the North American Free Trade Agreement enacted 25 years ago. New rules governing wages and parts-sourcing will create U.S. auto jobs, but could be offset by higher costs that would depress vehicle sales, economists say.

Market basket: Nuro’s driverless delivery robots will start serving Walmart customers in Houston (Andrew J. Hawkins — The Verge)

  • Why it matters: Walmart is the third big delivery partner for Nuro, following Kroger and Domino’s. “2020 is going to be a very big year for us,” David Estrada, the company’s new chief legal and policy officer, tells Axios.

Signal static: FCC votes unanimously to open auto airwaves for WiFi (Margaret Harding McGill—Axios)

  • The big picture: The FCC's proposal comes over the objections of the Department of Transportation. It wanted to preserve the 5.9 GHz band for car-to-car communications aimed at preventing crashes and eventually managing traffic once self-driving and semi-autonomous vehicles hit the roads.
7. What I'm driving

NACTOY finalist 2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Photo: GM

In the next week, I and 49 other journalists must cast our final ballots for the 2020 North American car, truck and utility vehicle of the year.

Why it matters: I am trying to squeeze in extra seat time in the nine finalists that were announced in November, and my driveway has been extra crowded lately.

Here are some quick impressions of the top contenders, in no particular order:

Cars:

  • Chevrolet Corvette: The new mid-engine design provides stunning supercar performance in a $60,000 package, a fraction of European competitors.
  • Toyota Supra: A BMW Z4 wrapped in a Toyota suit. It's loads of fun to drive, but at roughly $50,000, it's similarly priced to the BMW.
  • Hyundai Sonata: Like the Corvette, it's a value story. Even the entry-level model, at $23,400, comes loaded with standard safety and driver-assistance features.

Trucks:

  • Ford Ranger: At $24,400–$36,500, the midsize pickup fills an important gap as trucks like the F-150 have gotten too pricey for ordinary folks.
  • Jeep Gladiator: A captivating midsize pickup based on the iconic Jeep Wrangler, but fully loaded, the price can climb above $50,000.
  • Ram Heavy Duty pickup: Ram 1500 was last year's winner, and the Heavy Duty is a super-sized version of that winning formula.

Utilities:

  • Lincoln Aviator: A beautiful, tranquil and luxurious three-row SUV, but Ford botched the production launch, which raises red flags.
  • Kia Telluride: Stylish and roomy, the three-row family hauler feels like a luxury SUV without the high price tag ($31,690–$43,490).
  • Hyundai Palisade: Sharing a platform with Telluride, it offers more standard equipment, like a push-button gear selector and paddle shifters.

Worth noting: We judge vehicles against competitors in their respective segments; not against each other.

Joann Muller