Mar 8, 2019

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

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AVs aren't just limited to roads. Today's issue looks to the skies for what's happening with drones and flying cars.

Plus, Expert Voices contributor Patrick Lozada examines what will make China's AVs different from those being developed elsewhere.

1 big thing: Making drones safe

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have the potential to transform our daily lives but not until regulators can be sure they won't fall from the sky or crash into other aircraft.

The big picture: UAVs have almost unlimited uses — from combatting disease to delivering pizza — and their numbers are expected to soar across multiple industries in the next few years.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration wants to relax some of its rules to allow that growth but in doing so it has to determine how safe is safe enough.

What's happening: A series of pilot projects are under way or starting soon in the U.S. that aim to demonstrate how drones could be operated safely.

  • The projects range from delivering packages in Nevada and medical supplies in North Carolina to inspecting pipelines in Alaska and jets in Tennessee.
  • The FAA is seeking public comments on proposed rule changes that would allow drones to fly over people and at night — two circumstances that are currently prohibited without a waiver.
  • The goal is to find a way to safely integrate small unmanned aircraft into the national airspace and avoid incidents like the one that shut down London's Gatwick Airport in December.
  • Demand is exploding. The emerging global market for drone-based services is valued at over $127 billion, per consulting firm PwC.

Last week, top FAA officials traveled to Rwanda to see how the country has managed to embrace drones on a national scale with the help of an American company.

  • Zipline, based in San Francisco, makes thousands of deliveries per day of blood and other medical supplies by drone there.
  • Rwanda recently expanded the company's contract from 25 hospitals to 450, serving 15 million people.
"Rwanda has set a powerful precedent for how a large national-scale UAV implementation could work"
Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder, Zipline

The safety measures Zipline already uses in Rwanda are similar to what the FAA is proposing for the U.S.

  • If a drone runs into trouble, an emergency parachute is triggered that can bring it safely to the ground.
  • The two-winged drones, which look like small planes, are built from materials that crumple upon impact to absorb energy so no one gets hurt on the ground.
  • About 1 in 1,000 flights ends in an emergency landing, Rinaudo says, and the drones are easily repaired and back in the air within an hour.

What's next: This summer, Zipline will bring its fleet of delivery drones to North Carolina, where they will be used to deliver medical supplies to rural hospitals as part of the FAA's UAS Integration Pilot Program.

Yes, but: The U.S. national airspace system is more complicated than Rwanda's, says Jenny Rosenberg, executive director of the Alliance for Drone Innovation, which represents drone manufacturers.

Go deeper: Read my full story.

2. Flying cars in a decade

The Ford Mach I Levacar (1959) never went into production. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty

Carmakers are in a frantic race to own the driverless road. But a little-noticed parallel contest is under way in the world of autonomous vehicles — a competition for who will dominate a shift of motor traffic from the road to the air, Axios' Steve LeVine writes.

Why it matters: The competition to control the air could more profoundly impact how we live and work, with the potential to change the face of cities, how we measure time, and what we regard as our activity space.

"Jetsons" has become a catch-all metaphor for almost any futuristic vision, but Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, in an interview with Axios, painted a picture very much resembling the 1960s cartoon.

  • In January, Boeing flew a prototype of its small pilotless vehicle. In the early part of the next decade, Muilenburg said he expects to deploy such vehicles commercially in rural areas along fixed routes.
  • And then, in just a decade, he said, the skies in U.S. cities will be filled with electric, autonomous flying vehicles, ferrying people to their destination and averting roads that today are often impossibly congested.

Reality check: There is no telling whether this future will materialize like Muilenburg and others forecast. For one thing, no one knows whether masses of people want to fly in taxis, or whether a multitude of logistical and regulatory hurdles can be crossed.

This is a much faster timetable than the widespread deployment of fully autonomous cars — which are expected only in the 2030s — because obstacles on the ground are far more complex than those in the air.

Go deeper: Read Steve's entire piece.

3. China's AVs will think and drive differently

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

AVs built in China will look, feel and drive differently because they're being developed in an ecosystem of infrastructure, technical standards and regulatory requirements distinct from those of their U.S. and European counterparts, China business consultant Patrick Lozada writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Infrastructure investments in particular will help China meet its goal of 10% of vehicles reaching Level 4/5 autonomy by 2030. However, China’s walled-garden approach to AVs will also make it harder for foreign firms to enter the market.

  • In the long run it could limit Chinese AV players as they seek to expand beyond the country’s borders.

There are several key differences between Chinese AVs and those being developed elsewhere...

1. Standards: In 2017, the Chinese government called for more than 100 domestic standards for AVs and other internet-connected vehicles.

  • Rather than GPS, for example, AVs will use China's home-brewed BeiDou GNSS standard — which requires different receiver chips to communicate with Chinese satellites.

2. Data inputs: Chinese AVs will "see" much more than U.S. vehicles that rely heavily on onboard sensors, thanks to the government's push to expand smart infrastructure like a national 5G network that will provide the vehicles data about their environment.

3. Empowered planners: China’s city planners have greater authority than their American and European counterparts.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Lozada is a director in the China practice of Albright Stonebridge, a strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm.

4. Driving the conversation

Ladies who lead: Emerging women startup leaders in transportation, mobility & autonomous vehicles (Kathryn Schox — Medium)

  • My thought bubble: In honor of International Women's Day, I'm sharing a list from Truck VC's Kate Schox of all the impressive women working in AVs and future mobility.
  • Originally posted last December, she updates it regularly as more women rise to the surface.
  • What to watch: Schox promises to create another list for women at large manufacturers and suppliers, which would no doubt include people like Mandi Damman, GM's chief engineer of AVs, and Marcy Klevorn, Ford EVP and president of mobility.

Laser Bear: Waymo's move to sell lidar units is a bet on a bigger market (Alex Davies — Wired)

  • Why it matters: Demand for shared AVs like Waymo's robotaxis still seems unclear. So the Google spinoff appears to be hedging its bets in the meantime, selling short-range sensors to non-competitors for use in things like factory robots and agriculture equipment.
  • P.S. The product's name is awesome: Laser Bear Honeycomb.

Testing: Pittsburgh's rules for autonomous vehicle testing less stringent than California's (Ramesh Santanam — The Associated Press)

  • Why it matters: 4 companies — Aptiv, Argo AI, Aurora Innovation and Uber — plus Carnegie Mellon University are testing AVs in Pittsburgh. The city says it wants to avoid a repeat of the accident in Tempe, Arizona, a year ago in which a pedestrian was killed by an Uber AV test vehicle.
5. What I'm driving

2019 Ford Ranger FX4. Photo courtesy of Ford

My ride this week, the 2019 Ford Ranger Fx4, comes with training wheels for off-roading.

Why it matters: Off-roading can be an adventure — and not a good one if you don't know what you're doing. The $1,295 FX4 off-road package on the Ranger takes away some of the stress with a new feature called Trail Control.

  • Think of it as cruise control for crawling over boulders, rutted trails and sand dunes.

Details: With a push of a button, the system takes over the braking and the throttle inputs, enabling the driver to concentrate entirely on steering.

  • It allows the truck to handle steep obstacles like boulders or fallen trees by automatically directing torque to each wheel then braking to smoothly bring it down on the other side.
  • It works at speeds between 1 and 20 mph.

Of note: Purists say Trail Control, also available on the larger Ford F-150 Raptor, takes all the fun out of off-roading — but I would argue it gives novices a chance to find out what they've been missing.

What to watch: Ford has applied for a patent on a new autonomous system for off-road vehicles that would enable them to traverse dirt, gravel, mud, sand and other tricky terrain.

  • Per Automotive News, it would work by using cameras to determine whether the vehicle could handle the off-road terrain, like a boulder or a large ditch. If so, the system would autonomously control the active suspension to enable the vehicle to cross over, or through, the obstacle.

The bottom line: Trail Control could be just the beginning of the off-road AV adventure.

Joann Muller