Nov 30, 2018

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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1 big thing: Carmakers push tech over cars at LA auto show

Inside the BMW Vision iNEXT concept. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

There were fewer cars and more tech on display at this week's preview of the Los Angeles auto show — a sign that automakers are shifting their strategy to shared but personalized autonomous transportation.

Why it matters: The auto industry is moving away from gasoline, steering wheels and personal ownership as cities get more crowded and polluted. Plus, people want to avoid the hassles of owning a car.

  • The transition is going to be rocky for many traditional auto manufacturers, as we've seen at GM this week, but the consensus in LA is that personal mobility is approaching a tipping point.

"This is not a car" was spelled out in a rotating wooden sculpture at the center of Volvo Cars' exhibit, where normally a featured model would be highlighted. The Swedish manufacturer didn't have a single car on display.

  • Instead, the exhibit was packed with technology showing what it will be like when we subscribe to, rather than buy, cars and yet still make them our own.
"If somebody asks us three years in the future what our mission is we will not answer 'to develop and build and sell cars.' It is to provide the freedom to move in a personal, safe and sustainable way."
— Hakan Samuelsson, CEO, Volvo Cars

Details: Volvo highlighted an advance in lidar sensors by its technology partner, Luminar, that it says will dramatically improve AV perception.

  • Lidar, which uses pulsed laser signals to detect objects, is considered a critical technology for self-driving cars (except at Tesla, which relies more heavily on cameras).
  • But the resolution is poor, especially at long distances (that's why radar and cameras are also needed).
  • Luminar's new high-res system can for the first time detect human motion — and, by analyzing their pose, perceive a person's intentions — up to 250 meters away, 10 times further than currently available lidar systems.

What we're seeing: In LA, others companies were also selling connected and autonomous mobility, not cars.

  • BMW unveiled its new iNext concept, a version of an electric, autonomous, connected crossover that is slated to go into production starting in 2021. Car and Driver says it is "autonomous and frighteningly intelligent."
  • Byton, with headquarters in China and Silicon Valley, showed its K-byte sedan concept — a high-tech living room on wheels with Level 4 (eyes off, hands off, brain off) autonomy and an entertainment screen that stretches across the dashboard. K-Byte will be available globally in 2021.
"Our business model is not selling cars. This is a platform for selling digital content. And eventually we will sell mobility miles."
— Byton CEO Carsten Breitfeld, a former BMW exec

Yes, but: There were still some traditional cars and trucks — it is an auto show, after all, and dealers need to stock their showrooms with shiny sheet metal.

  • Mainstream automotive journalists were most excited by the Jeep Gladiator pickup, a derivative of the iconic rock-crawling Jeep Wrangler that literally climbed the stairs to make its way onto the stage.
2. Infrastructure could be roadblock to AV tech

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The AV industry has largely focused on the best technology for the cars themselves, not the roadblocks that current infrastructure will present to their deployment, Jim Barbaresso at infrastructure advisory firm HNTB writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: We may soon find ourselves with functional AV technology, but infrastructure so poor that in many places AVs cannot be safely deployed.

  • The U.S. needs both basic improvements to its roads — to the tune of as much as $1 trillion — and investment in a new generation of infrastructure that is smarter, more responsive and more sustainable.

Details: Beyond basic roadway repairs and improving visibility of road signs, several infrastructure improvements would have a particularly large impact.

  • Pavement with higher stress points will be crucial. AVs don’t drift in their lanes as much as human drivers do, so wear and tear will be focused on a fraction of the road. And connected semi-trucks traveling in "platoons" will give pavement less time to recover due to close following distances.
  • Recharging facilities and curbside parking will be necessary for ride-share fleets of electric AVs.
  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity would allow AVs to pull data from the environment immediately around them, enhancing situational awareness.

What’s needed: To develop integrated solutions, automakers, tech innovators and infrastructure providers have to expand their collaborative efforts and include telecommunications, big data, energy and financial companies.

Where it stands: Some public-private collaborations are already underway.

  • Michigan's American Center for Mobility provides a complex and flexible roadway environment for testing AVs, but also for evaluating infrastructure solutions to support automated driving systems.
  • Smart Columbus, another public-private partnership, is piloting AV technology on city streets to evaluate how vehicles interact with signs, traffic signals, pedestrian crossings, and other infrastructure.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

3. Prepping GM's Cruise Automation for launch

GM's Dan Ammann. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

GM president Dan Ammann is leaving the No. 2 job at the company to become CEO of its self-driving car unit, Cruise Automation.

Why it matters: GM has made a massive bet on shared, electric, autonomous vehicles, and by assigning her top lieutenant to run Cruise, CEO Mary Barra aims to make sure it turns into a money-making operation.

Ammann has played a pivotal role in every step of GM's journey since its 2009 bankruptcy.

  • The former Morgan Stanley investment banker managed GM's 2010 initial public offering and later became chief financial officer, then president.
  • He was the architect behind virtually every major strategic decision GM made over the last decade, including its withdrawal from overseas markets like Europe and a restructuring in Korea.
  • Ammann led the nearly $1 billion acquisition of Cruise in 2016 and negotiated capital infusions from SoftBank Venture Partners and Honda.

It's not unusual for senior executives to step in to run the show as parent companies prepare their startups for the next phase of growth.

  • Google hired auto industry veteran John Krafcik in 2015 to run its self-driving car project as it moved closer to commercialization.
  • GM Cruise plans to launch a robo-taxi service next year.
  • Ammann, 46, will replace Cruise co-founder Kyle Vogt, 33, who will become president and chief technology officer.
  • Analysts believe GM eventually will spin off Cruise to lift the company's stock.

The bottom line: Amid a storm of controversy over its decision to idle 5 car-making factories in North America and cut 15% of its workforce, GM seems more intent than ever on transforming its business for an uncertain future.

4. Driving the conversation

A self-driving shuttle bus in Germany. Photo: Uwe Anspach/Getty Images

Disclosure: Elon Musk said Tesla was "single-digit weeks" from death — Where are the disclosures? (Christopher Helman — Forbes)

Best vehicles: Finalists for North American Car and Truck of the Year were announced Wednesday in LA.

  • My thought bubble: As one of 54 NACTOY jurors, I am looking for vehicles that raise the bar in their category, including safety-assist technology and easy-to-use infotainment systems. Sexy styling is nice, but how comfortable and safe are you when you're in the driver's seat?

Roboshuttles: A lot of cities want them. But will they work? (Michael Laris — The Washington Post)

  • Where it stands, per Carnegie Mellon University's Stan Caldwell: "With all of the hype and speculation around self-driving 'cars,' these shuttles are demonstrating commercial use cases. Although not yet perfect these shuttles have been deployed in cities since 2015 and [are] growing in popularity."
  • What to watch, per May Mobility's Alisyn Malek: "Community leaders need to think about whether or not a shuttle that can operate on a private path is useful for their transportation challenges, or if they need a system that can operate on a street mixed in with existing traffic."
5. What I'm driving

Genesis G70 takes on German icons like BMW 3-series Photo: Genesis

Sharing my insights on some of today's most advanced vehicles ...

This week I'm driving the Genesis G70, a worthy finalist for North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).

If you don't know Genesis, it's Hyundai's new luxury brand. The G70 is the latest model in the lineup, a compact performance sedan aimed squarely at German icons like the BMW 3-series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Why it stands out: Starting at $35,895 (thousands less than the Germans), the G70's bang-for-the-buck combination of performance and luxury is hard to beat.

  • I drove the 2.0T rear-wheel-drive model with an optional 6-speed manual transmission — one of three powertrain choices.

Active safety tech: Like all Genesis models, the G70 comes with a suite of advanced driver-assistance systems like forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, blind-spot collision warning, lane-keeping assist, and driver attention warning.

The bottom line: The Genesis G70 has already won Motor Trend's 2019 Car of the Year. It's up against Volvo's S60 sedan and V60 wagon and Honda's reborn Insight hybrid in the independent NACTOY awards. The winner will be announced in January at the Detroit auto show.

Joann Muller