Jan 24, 2020

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

Happy Friday! I'm glad to be home after three weeks of traveling.

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Today's newsletter is 1,561 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Trumpworld battles over protected airwaves

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Two arms of the Trump administration are facing off over radio airwaves long set aside so that cars can eventually communicate with one another as well as with roadside devices, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and I write.

What's happening: The Transportation Department is pouring money into potentially life-saving connected-car technology that would ride on these mostly unused airwaves. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is moving to reallocate most of the same spectrum to expand WiFi capacity.

Why it matters: DOT argues that if the FCC prevails — and it's currently in the driver's seat — lives will be lost and America will fall behind in the development of self-driving cars.

  • The FCC says automakers squandered a chance to use the dedicated spectrum, and now it should be shared to support exploding demand for mobile services and smartphones.
  • The FCC proposes repurposing some 45 of the 75 MHz total of so-called "safety spectrum" for WiFi, leaving 30 MHz for connected cars.
  • Safety advocates and DOT say that's not enough, and worry about WiFi interference.

The standoff is growing increasingly hostile.

  • Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has urged Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to call off his plan, writing in a letter, "DOT has significant concerns with the Commission's proposal," because it "jeopardizes the significant transportation safety benefits that the allocation of this band was meant to foster."
  • An FCC spokesperson tells Axios: "We would encourage the Department of Transportation to contribute productively to this important discussion rather than devoting its efforts to defending the failed status quo."

What to watch: The FCC is an independent agency, and its bipartisan members voted 5-0 to proceed with the reallocation — a reality not lost on DOT officials.

  • DOT seems to be counting on a groundswell of opposition from first responders and advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Foundation for the Blind to persuade the FCC to rethink its plan.
  • If there's enough of an uproar, Congress could get involved. The leaders of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee sent a letter to the FCC on Wednesday expressing "substantial concerns" over the proposal.
  • A comment period on FCC's proposal is expected to begin soon.

Where it stands: Companies, and even the DOT, continue to invest in new and legacy technologies on the narrower spectrum.

The bottom line: Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will have to hope for a public uproar against the FCC's plan — or else expend some of her substantial political capital — to keep road safety tech from losing out to the push for faster internet speeds.

Read the full post.

2. Cranking up the AV hype machine

Cruise Origin, a shared, self-driving electric vehicle. Photo: Courtesy of Cruise

General Motors-backed Cruise is firing up the rhetoric around self-driving cars with the debut of Origin, an automated electric shuttle it claims represents the future of transportation.

Why it matters: Autonomous vehicles reached peak hype in 2017, but since then most of the leading developers — including Cruise — have been trying to keep expectations in check.

  • But at a showy event this week in San Francisco, Cruise executives boasted about their technological advances while painting a futuristic vision of shared travel that would be better for passengers and the planet.
  • "Our goal is to replace most of the cars in the U.S.," Cruise CEO Dan Ammann told reporters later.

Details: Hundreds of Cruise employees cheered as Ammann pulled back the curtain on the toaster-shaped Origin, a roomy, six-passenger electric vehicle with no steering wheel, pedals or other tools human drivers need.

  • It's a modern electric stagecoach, featuring two sets of inward-facing seats, extensive legroom, and storage space for four pieces of luggage.
  • The wide doors slide open, rather than swinging out, making it easy for people to enter and exit at the same time.
  • Built on GM's new battery-electric chassis, and co-designed by Honda, the Origin is "not a product you buy; it's an experience you share," said Ammann.

Yes but: Cruise execs skipped over many details about the tech and their ride-sharing business model, making it difficult to separate hype from reality. Some examples:

  • "If you extrapolate our rate of improvement over the last few years, we're close to cracking that human-performance barrier and reaching superhuman territory. And that's going to happen soon," president and co-founder Kyle Vogt boasted about Cruise's robotic driving abilities.
  • He did demonstrate one intriguing bit of technology: Origin's new multi-sensor suite (cameras, radar, ultrasonic and thermal imaging) swivels rapidly back and forth, like an owl's head, to keep track of everything going on around the vehicle.
  • Eventually, Cruise's chief engineer told me, the company intends to move away from today's laser-based lidar-intensive systems "for performance and cost" reasons — a major technology shift, if it happens.

What else they're saying:

  • Sharing a ride aboard Origin would save the average San Francisco household $5,000 a year in transportation costs, according to Ammann.
  • Because it's based on GM's high-volume EV platform, Ammann says, Cruise can build the Origin for half the cost of a conventional electric SUV, (though he didn't offer any figures).
  • Production plans will be announced soon, and the Detroit News reports it will likely be built at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.

Reality check: With no steering wheel or pedals, the Origin doesn't meet current vehicle safety rules. Nor does Cruise have state or federal regulatory approval to drive it on public roads.

What to watch: Cruise and GM say they're working with California and federal officials to find a regulatory path to commercialization.

  • As for the launch of a robo-taxi service in San Francisco, delayed from 2019, Amman said: "We're not putting a timeline on that."
3. The long tail of Takata's airbag recall

NHTSA recalled 56 million defective airbags. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Four years after the federal government recalled tens of millions of Takata airbags for dangerous defects, about 28% of those vehicles remain unrepaired.

Why it matters: The Takata airbag recall is the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history, with roughly 56 million defective airbags recalled in approximately 41.6 million vehicles.

  • When deployed, they can blast sharp metal fragments at drivers and passengers, resulting in serious injury or death, even in a minor crash.

By the numbers: In an update posted this week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said more than 7 million airbags were fixed over the past year, bringing the total repaired so far to 36 million.

  • 11 carmakers report repair completion rates of 70% or better.

Yes, but: Approximately 15.9 million defective airbags remain unrepaired.

  • Many of the remaining vehicles in the field are older, not with the original owner, and inherently more difficult to reach, NHTSA said.
  • At least 16 people have been killed, and more than 300 seriously injured, by the defective air bags.

To find out if your car's airbag is affected, go to www.AirbagRecall.com or download the free Airbag Recall app.

4. Corporations target electric fleets

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Amazon, AT&T and IKEA are a few members of a new corporate alliance launched this week that's aimed at deploying more electric vehicles in corporate fleets, Axios' Ben Geman writes.

Why it matters: The players in the Corporate Electric Vehicle Alliance are big. And corporate fleets are seen as ripe for more EV adoption, given the advantages of centralized charging, bulk purchases and more.

  • It's also the latest sign of the flowering of new alliances among companies, states and local governments at a time when the federal government is scaling back climate initiatives — including vehicle emissions rules.
  • The new alliance is coordinated through Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainability.
5. Driving the conversation

Motorcade: Uber is bringing its testing of self-driving vehicles to D.C. streets (Michael Laris — The Washington Post)

  • Why it matters: D.C. is Uber's first target market since a federal investigation cited problems with its technology and management that left an Arizona pedestrian dead in 2018. Being under the government's nose as it showcases new safety processes could help the company regain credibility.

Obsession: The Tesla skeptics who bet against Elon Musk (Dana Hull Bloomberg Businessweek)

  • The big picture: Tesla short-sellers lost more than $2.8 billion in 2019, and have already lost about that much in 2020. Meanwhile, Tesla's market cap exceeds $100 billion, making Musk worth about $32 billion. The company is slated to report its latest quarterly earnings on Jan. 29.

Breakthrough: Tesla clears road for Rivian, others to sell EVs without dealers (Gabriella Coppola — Bloomberg)

  • Why it matters: State franchise laws have blocked Tesla’s direct-to-consumer model in some places, but a legal settlement in Michigan, home of the Big Three automakers, could be a sign that traditional business models are finally cracking.
6. What I'm driving

2020 Jeep Wrangler Sahara Ecodiesel. Photo: Courtesy of Jeep

When the ice and snow hit Michigan last weekend, I was fortunate to be testing a 2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara Ecodiesel.

Why it matters: If you're going to be tackling rough roads, any Jeep is handy, especially the capable 4x4 Wrangler. But with 442 pound-feet of torque from the new diesel power plant, you can drive over just about anything.

The big picture: This is the first diesel-powered Wrangler, joining the standard 3.6-liter V-6 and 2.0-liter hybrid turbo-4. It's as much about fuel economy as it is about extra torque and driving performance.

  • The EPA rates the EcoDiesel Wrangler at 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined, making it the most fuel-efficient version of the World War II-inspired SUV.
  • Next year, Jeep will begin electrifying its lineup with plug-in hybrid versions of the Compass, Renegade and yes, even the Wrangler.

My thought bubble: The raw and rough-riding Wrangler is not the SUV you want for a daily driver (even though it seems half the youth in my neighborhood are tooling around in one). It'll rattle your teeth and toss you around.

  • The growling diesel engine (a $4,000 option) only adds to its charm.
  • And at $56,945 for the four-door I tested, the price is steep.
  • But the go-anywhere Wrangler is a reliable friend in rough weather.
Joann Muller