Feb 7, 2020

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

There's a lot happening at Axios! We unveiled our new website this week; check out what changed, and tell us what you think.

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Now on to what's new in transportation: Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,267 words, a 5-minute read.

🚨 Situational awareness: Ford announced this morning that Jim Farley will become COO, making him the likely successor to CEO Jim Hackett. Automotive president Joe Hinrichs, the other contender, will retire after 19 years.

1 big thing: AVs are getting their own rules

Nuro's R2 has no occupants, mirrors or windshield. Photo: Courtesy of Nuro

Regulators are starting to rewrite rules for self-driving cars to share the road with traditional vehicles.

The big picture: Automated test vehicles are allowed on public roads in some states — so long as they comply with existing safety standards written for human-driven vehicles.

  • As the technology advances, specially designed AVs without human controls are taking their place, requiring modern rules for the driverless era.

Driving the news: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week gave Nuro, a Silicon Valley startup, permission to bypass some existing safety standards in order to deploy its automated grocery delivery vehicles with no one aboard.

Why it matters: By granting Nuro the industry's first exemption for an AV, NHTSA determined the company's little delivery vans are as safe as other small, low-speed vehicles and that deploying them is in the public interest because it will help the agency shape future AV policy.

  • NHTSA will keep a tight leash by limiting Nuro to 5,000 vehicles over two years and requiring the company to share real-time safety data.
  • The regulatory milestone could pave the way for the deployment of other dedicated AVs.
  • Cruise, General Motors' self-driving unit, is in discussions with NHTSA about an exemption for its new driverless ride-sharing vehicle, Origin.

Exemptions are a temporary fix that could provide a path for AVs to be deployed until safety regulations are enacted.

  • NHTSA has begun the rule-making process for AVs, but that often takes many years.
  • Other countries are moving faster on AV regulation, according to a report this week from global advisory firm Dentons.

Meanwhile: There's action on other fronts. After three years of stalled progress, self-driving vehicle legislation could be picking up momentum in Congress.

  • A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday will hear testimony about sections of a draft bill that would establish a federal framework for self-driving vehicles.
  • This time, lawmakers from both parties, in the House and Senate are crafting the legislation together to give the bill a better chance of passing.
  • The bipartisan, bicameral approach is unusual, and Tuesday's hearing is a sign the legislation might be back on track, says Jamie Boone of the Consumer Technology Association.

Yes, but: The bill could run into many of the same sticking points that killed previous efforts, such as legal liability and the split between federal and state authority.

  • One muddy issue, for example: Today the federal government has authority over vehicle safety whereas states oversee traffic laws, driver's licenses and vehicle registration.
  • The big question: What happens when the driver is a robot?

Some industry groups are stepping in to try to fill the regulatory gap with measurable standards all AV companies can follow.

  • A wave of new AV safety standardization efforts are being rolled out this year by groups such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Underwriters Laboratories and SAE International.
  • The risk is conflicting standards that could lead to confusion.
2. Eating Tesla's exhaust

Tesla Model 3. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

While Tesla shares went into Ludicrious Mode this week, GM executives were on Wall Street pitching investors on their own vision of an electric, self-driving future. But as Bloomberg notes, the market isn't buying.

Why it matters: GM may be investing billions to transform its business for the future, but to many investors, Tesla's lead in the fledgling electric vehicle market is seen as insurmountable.

Catch up fast: During a four-hour presentation Wednesday, GM laid out an aggressive plan to extend its EV lineup and expand availability of its Super Cruise driver-assistance technology.

  • GM president Mark Reuss highlighted the versatility of GM's new electric-vehicle architecture, which can be scaled up or down to make everything from compact cars to big trucks and SUVs.
  • In all, GM plans 20 different EVs by 2023. So far, it's described a Hummer EV truck, a Cadillac crossover and a ride-sharing shuttle, the Cruise Origin.
  • GM plans to unveil more details about its EV strategy on March 4.
  • Reuss also said 22 GM models will have Super Cruise by 2023, including its full-size pickups and SUVs.

But it's not easy chasing Tesla, which sparked the market for EVs a decade ago and later convinced many that cars could drive themselves on Autopilot (even though it's not true).

  • Bloomberg sums it up: "While GM and others are racing to put out models that can match Tesla's lineup, Elon Musk's company still has the iPhone of electric cars and no one has come up with the EV equivalent of an Android to defeat them."
3. In the studio with Amazon and Rivian

Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe with prototypes of Amazon's electric vans. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

Amazon this week shared some fresh details about its plan to buy 100,000 electric delivery vans from Michigan-based Rivian.

Why it matters: The peek behind the scenes shows Amazon is serious about its plan to electrify its transportation fleet, while lending credibility to Rivian, a promising but unproven startup that also plans to produce its own line of electric pickups and SUVs.

Driving the news: Amazon released a video showing how the two companies are collaborating on the design of the vehicles, creating full-size clay models of the exterior and using virtual reality to simulate the driver experience.

  • Manufactured at Rivian's plant in Normal, Illinois, the vans will come in three sizes and support multiple battery sizes so they can be optimized for specific delivery routes.
  • The digital instrument cluster and central display screen will incorporate Amazon's logistics management system and Alexa voice assistant, so drivers can stay focused on the road and avoid the use of handheld devices.
  • "It's going to be an iconic vehicle," says Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe.

What to watch: Amazon says the vehicles will begin making package deliveries in 2021. They hope to have 10,000 operating as soon as 2022, and all 100,000 by 2030.

4. Driving the conversation

Smart Columbus: Self-driving mass transit arrives on American streets (Kevin Miller — Bloomberg)

  • Why it matters: A close-up look at how autonomous electric shuttles are helping connect a poor neighborhood to important community resources.

Compensation: Justice is elusive for Boeing's 346 plane crash victims (Courtenay Brown — Axios)

  • Why it matters: Boeing is pulling out all stops to appease Wall Street over the grounding of its 737 MAX, but it is saying little about the issue of restitution for the families of those who died — or about the pledge by its former CEO to chip in a chunk of his exit package.

Green light: Uber gets permit to restart testing its self-driving cars in California (Munsif Vengattil and Neha Malara Reuters)

  • Why it matters: The ride-hailing firm has revamped many of its safety policies and taken a more cautious approach to testing its self-driving vehicles after a fatal accident in Arizona in March 2018.
5. What I'm driving

Your author with the Silverado 2500, to scale. Photo: Bill Rapai/Axios

My ride this week is a 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 2500, a heavy-duty pickup truck with a hood that's almost as tall as I am.

The big picture: Heavy-duty trucks are meant for people doing serious work, like towing a large boat, a horse trailer or a camper — not for driving to the health club or supermarket, like I did.

Bigger all around: The 2020 Silverado HD is longer, wider and taller than its predecessor, with a gaping grille that reminds me of James Bond's steel-toothed nemesis, Jaws.

  • The engine is bigger, too — a 401-hp, 6.6-liter V-8 replaces the previous 6.0-liter V-8.
  • But the 2500 HD I'm driving comes with a 445-hp Duramax 6.6-liter V-8 turbo-diesel, paired with a new Allison 10-speed automatic transmission that boosts the towing capacity by an amazing 52%, maxing out at 35,500 pounds.
  • It's a pricey add-on, though: $9,890.

This truck's so big you really need the 15 surround-view cameras, including an innovative transparent trailer view (using an accessory camera mounted on the rear of the trailer).

  • It allows the driver to "see through" and alongside the trailer, which helps in parking lots, merging into traffic or when making tight turns.
  • Also handy are the driver-assistance features like lane-departure warning, front- and rear-parking assist and rear cross traffic alert.
  • The interior feels dated, though, especially up against the impressive Dodge Ram Heavy Duty with its 12-inch touchscreen.

The bottom line: The Silverado 2500 starts at $53,300. Mine came with a hefty $73,265 price tag.

Joann Muller