Oct 9, 2019

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

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Situational Awareness: 📺 "Axios on HBO" Season 2 returns at 6pm ET/PT Sunday, Oct. 20 on all HBO platforms. Tune in: Oct. 20, 27 and Nov. 3, 10.

Smart Brevity word count: 1,262 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: AVs won't save cities without sharing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As congestion cripples the world's cities, transportation officials and city planners are trying to figure out how automated vehicles can help to alleviate traffic and address climate change.

Why it matters: Robotaxis and delivery AVs running non-stop won't stop anything if they're merely replacing existing cars on the road. Instead, AVs need to be thoughtfully woven into reinvigorated public transportation systems so they become a desirable alternative to personal cars.

What's happening: Some of the world's largest cities are battling congestion by redirecting traffic away from urban centers, charging fees to enter the busiest areas or banning cars altogether.

  • New York City banned cars along 14th Street, one of its busiest corridors, to make travel easier for buses, copying what worked in Toronto, which cleared cars on King Street to make room for street cars.
  • In Paris, a major urban highway has been closed to cars and turned over to pedestrians. One Sunday a month, the city bans cars from the city center.
  • London charges a congestion fee for entering the busiest neighborhoods (something New York will do in 2021 and Los Angeles is considering).

Self-driving cars could add to the gridlock, which is why the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) published a blueprint to help cities get ready for the autonomous era.

  • "What we would really like to see happen is AV tech to be used as tool to meet their transportation goals, rather than using AVs as an end goal themselves." says NACTO policy associate Sudha Bharadwaj.
  • To be effective, AVs need to be shared, say researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California-Davis.
  • Without pooling, vehicle use would increase 15–20% by 2050, according to the report.

The catch: Most Americans prefer to commute in private vehicles, one study found.

  • Carpooling peaked during the 1970s energy crisis, dropping from 20% in 1980 to less than 10% today, says UC-Davis professor Dan Sperling.
  • Mass transit accounts for just 1% of all U.S. passenger miles traveled, and just 2% of total trips, he says.
  • Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have siphoned riders away from public transit systems, which are declining as a result.
  • "TNCs have shown that people are crying out for higher quality mobility services," Sperling tells Axios.

What's needed: Cities need to revamp their transportation policies to discourage single-passenger vehicles and encourage autonomous ride-sharing and public transit, experts say. A few cities have already seen early successes:

  • In Seattle more people are riding the bus and a new light rail system after the city invested to improve public transit.
  • Vancouver boosted transit ridership via SkyTrain, the world’s longest automated rail network, which hauls more than 495,000 passengers per day.
  • L.A. is partnering with Via, an on-demand shuttle service, to give people rides to busy public transit stations.

The bottom line: "If you give people other options for getting around, they’ll take them, as long as they're reasonable and convenient," NACTO's Alex Engel tells Axios.

2. Tesla's life-and-death calculus with Autopilot

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Tesla is taking a calculated risk by using real customers as beta testers for its still-developing Autopilot software, Bloomberg Businessweek's Zachary Mider writes in this week's cover story.

Why it matters: As new technologies roll out on roads, there is debate over whether it's best to wait for self-driving technology to be perfected, or to put incomplete software on the road where it can save lives as it's improved.

  • "It's possible that both sides are right, that the computers are killing a few drivers who otherwise would have lived, but that they’re also saving the lives of many more," writes Mider.
"Autopilot is unlike almost any other consumer product in history, in ways that offer a preview of the uncomfortable questions we’ll confront in the dawning robot age."
— Bloomberg Businessweek

Driving the news: Autopilot, Tesla's assisted-driving software, appears to have played a role in 4 of 5 known fatalities since it was introduced in 2015, BW writes.

  • Among them was Florida's Jeremy Banner, whose sedan failed to spot a tractor-trailer crossing the 4-lane highway ahead of him. His Tesla hit the truck broadside, and he died instantly.
  • His family is suing Tesla for making a defective car.

Yes, but: Driving killed 40,000 Americans last year and 1.4 million people globally.

  • Musk has claimed driving with Autopilot is about twice as safe as without it, but there's no published data to prove that assertion, and Tesla's quarterly safety reports are inconclusive.
  • He once said it would be "morally reprehensible" to keep Autopilot off the market.

The latest: In a report out today, Consumer Reports tested Tesla's new Smart Summon parking feature and found it was glitchy, sometimes driving "erratically, like a drunken or distracted driver."

  • Noting that Tesla customers paid $6,000 upfront for self-driving features that are not complete, Jake Fisher, CR's senior director of auto testing, says: "What consumers are really getting is the chance to participate in a kind of science experiment. This is a work in progress."

Go deeper:

3. U.S. jobs are key issue as GM strike drags on

Striking GM workers at a powertrain plant in Bedford, Ind. Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against GM is now 24 days old, with the UAW's chief bargainer telling members Tuesday evening that job security remains a key sticking point.

Why it matters: The economic damage is spreading. In addition to the 49,000 striking workers, another 100,000 non-UAW employees at GM and its suppliers are out of work because there's nothing for them to do, according to Anderson Economic Group.

  • GM has lost an estimated $660 million in profits, AEG says, while state and local governments have lost an estimated $164 million in tax revenue.

Between the lines: In a message to rank-and-file members, UAW vice president Terry Dittes said bargainers have made no progress on the key issue of job security.

  • "We have made it clear that there is no job security for us when GM products are made in other countries for the purpose of selling them here in the U.S.A. We believe that the vehicles GM sells here should be built here."
  • "GM in recent months has defended its track record of U.S. plant investment and job creation, saying it has poured $23 billion into its American factories over the past decade,"the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • The UAW is also pressing GM to lock in more guaranteed wage increases during the next 4-year contact, while GM prefers lump-sum bonuses that don’t raise their long-term labor costs, per WSJ.

Go deeper: Buckle up: GM, Michigan and 2020

4. Driving the conversation

L.A. plans: Waymo brings the first self-driving vehicles to Los Angeles — to 3D-map the city (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)

  • Why it matters: Before deploying self-driving vehicles in any city, developers must create elaborate 3D maps of the environment to train the vehicles. Waymo's plans are a preliminary step toward offering on-demand robotaxi rides some day in L.A. 

Powertrain shift: Volvo and Geely to merge engine units in electric car push (Gabrielle Coppola — Bloomberg)

  • Between the lines: By offloading its engine-making unit to the new joint venture, Volvo can direct its resources to future EVs.
  • "You cannot be world champion on everything," Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson told Bloomberg. "We don't want to risk losing out on electrification."

Sputtering: Harley struggles to fire up new generation of riders with electric bike debut (Rajesh Kumar Singh — Reuters)

  • The big picture: Harley's U.S. sales have been falling for years, and its first "LiveWire" electric motorcycles — priced at $29,799 — appear to be too expensive for young, first-time buyers.
5. 1 Oktoberfest thing

A sign warns visitors to leave their scooters behind as they enter Oktoberfest celebration in Munich. Photo: Angelika Warmuth/picture alliance via Getty Images

Munich police arrested more than 400 e-scooter riders for drunken driving during Oktoberfest, the famous celebration of beer, food and music which draws millions of people to the city annually, according to CNN.

Why it matters: Scooters have only been legalized in Germany since June. Many people treat them as toys, but the government categorizes them as motorized vehicles, which means drunken-driving laws apply.

  • A total of 414 people were caught riding while under the influence, and 254 lost their driving licenses as a result, according to a police statement released Monday.

The bottom line: Don't drink and scoot.

Joann Muller