May 29, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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We're all about brevity here at Axios. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,122 words/< 5 min. read.

1 big thing: Geopolitics of self-driving cars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Car companies aren’t just big business, they’re national champions. And sovereign governments are increasingly driving the evolution of the industry.

Why it matters: Carmakers are pooling resources to make expensive bets on electrification, automated vehicles and shared mobility. But with jobs and a reputation for innovation at stake, every country wants to see their homegrown industry lead the way into the future.

  • The auto industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to a country’s economy, notes Michelle Avary, who heads autonomous and urban mobility research for the World Economic Forum.
  • "Autonomous technologies offer all countries an opportunity to play on the bigger international stage. If you are a high tech hub, you have a role to play," she tells Axios.

Driving the news: Fiat Chrysler (FCA) is proposing a 50-50 merger with France's Renault, creating the world's third-largest automaker, behind Volkswagen and Toyota.

  • The new company would combine Renault's expertise in electric cars with FCA's partnerships in self-driving vehicles, including Waymo and Mobileye.
  • By combining vehicle platforms and other engineering efforts, the companies could save 5 billion euros annually ($5.6 billion), FCA projects.
  • There's minimal overlap between the 2 companies: Renault is strong in Europe, whereas FCA is strong in the U.S. and Latin America. And together, they'll be better positioned to grow in China.
  • The merger would fulfill the objective of the late FCA boss Sergio Marchionne, whose "Confessions of a Capital Junkie" presentation to analysts argued that consolidation was the only way carmakers could survive.
  • Renault is expected to approve the deal as early as next week, per Bloomberg.

Political considerations were obvious in the merger proposal from FCA, which signaled it wasn't going to close plants or lay off workers, even though many plants in Europe aren't running at full capacity.

  • The French government, whose 15% stake in Renault would be cut in half under a merger, would never go along without that commitment.

The trend: The U.S. government sold Chrysler to Fiat. The Japanese government removed Carlos Ghosn as chairman of Nissan (which helped topple him as CEO of Renault, too). The Italian and French governments have encouraged the proposed merger between FCA and Renault. And the Chinese government, which brokered the takeover of Volvo, is now dictating an electric future.

  • "China's ambition — and it is impossible to separate companies from the government — is to not only be the largest automotive industry but to accumulate the greatest leverage," says ZoZo Go CEO Michael Dunne, who's a specialist on China's auto industry.
  • That means setting the global standards for future vehicles. "If you would like access to our market, the world's largest, here are the new rules. Take them or leave them." 

The bottom line: There are undeniable economic imperatives driving the consolidation of the auto industry. But the hands on the wheel don’t belong to shareholders.

2. Boring goes underground in Las Vegas

Elon Musk unveils Boring's test tunnel last December in California. Photo: Robyn Beck-Pool/Getty Images

Las Vegas has awarded a $48.7 million contract to Elon Musk's Boring Company to build a high-speed autonomous shuttle underneath the city's remodeled convention center, per multiple reports.

Why it matters: Sin City is the first paying customer for Musk's hyperloop idea, which was "joke-tweeted" into existence two and a half years ago, Wired magazine writes. The transit system would shorten what would be a 15-minute walk to a 1-minute ride.

Skepticism abounds, even by the city's mayor who voted against the deal, but the contract includes plenty of escape clauses if Boring fails to deliver on its promise to move at least 4,400 people per hour.

But, but, but: As Jalopnik notes, Boring seems to have abandoned plans for sled-mounted vehicles traveling on high-speed tracks, and instead is running "bus-looking Tesla electric cars" on pavement, which makes it an ordinary tunnel.

3. GM and Bechtel plan EV fast-charging network
Expand chart
Reproduced from an IEA chart; Chart: Axios Visuals

GM and Bechtel, the country's largest construction company, are forming a new venture that will build thousands of electric vehicle charging stations around the country.

Why it matters: EVs account for just 1% of vehicle sales in the U.S., partly because consumers are concerned about whether there will be enough places to charge them.

  • Adding more fast-charging stations could provide a boost to EV sales, notes CNN, which was first to report the deal.
  • As seen in the chart above, the International Energy Agency's annual global look shows the numbers of EVs on the road are steadily growing.

Details: Many of the new fast chargers will be in densely populated urban areas, serving apartment dwellers, rather than along highways where most fast chargers are clustered today.

  • "The way we think about it, we want to put chargers where they're going to have the greatest influence on EV adoption wherever that may be," Mike Ableson, GM's VP of EV infrastructure and charging, told CNN. "I believe a lot of those are actually going to be in urban areas."

What to watch: Neither company plans to put money into the project, however, and it's not clear who's going to pay for the network, per CNN.

4. Driving the conversation

Ship it: Driverless delivery vans are here as production begins in China (Bloomberg)

  • The big picture: Delivery is likely to be the first application of autonomous vehicles, and the e-commerce boom in China means companies like Neolix, which kicked off mass production of its self-driving vans last week, will have plenty of customers.
  • In the U.S., Nuro is also poised to capitalize on AV delivery.

Bad news: NIO postpones its electric sedan after rough first quarter (Sean O'Kane — The Verge)

  • What to watch: The Chinese EV startup's recent troubles are indicative of the difficulty of launching a new car company. Founder William Li says NIO has other vehicles in the pipeline and new partners to help get a manufacturing plant up and running, but details are scarce.

A female perspective: Self-driving cars will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now (Meredith Broussard — Vox)

  • "It doesn’t feel safe to imagine riding in a shared driverless vehicle. Not just because the technology doesn’t work — but because it doesn’t feel safe to be alone in a small, enclosed space with strange men."
5. 1 fun thing: a self-cleaning car

Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

BMW has applied for a patent for an automated car wash — by an unmanned aerial drone.

How it would work, according to The Drive's Ed Niedermeyer, who unearthed this gem.

  • The drone would be able to recognize the target vehicle, determine that all windows and doors are closed, and send an alert if they are not.
  • It could also detect the level of dirt, remove any objects that prevent cleaning, and even share "before" and "after" photos with the customer.
  • The drone could be stored inside the car, which would make it a self-cleaning vehicle.
  • It could also be summoned when necessary to clean a self-driving car's sensors, which are bound to be blocked from time to time by sand, dirt, snow or bird poop.

My thought bubble: That $32 "deluxe package" at my local car wash is starting to look like a bargain.

Joann Muller