Jan 18, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller


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  • Today Expert Voices contributors Patrick Lozada looks at China's developing AV policy and Alex Gruden examines what it will take to enable wireless charging of electric AVs.

Situational awareness: Tesla will cut its workforce by roughly 7% as it ramps up Model 3 production, CEO Elon Musk says in company update Friday.

1 big thing: Self-driving cars' risky proposition

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Traditional SUVs and sports cars were the stars at this week's Detroit auto show, but behind the scenes, some auto industry executives openly fretted about an uncertain future, including big questions about whether society is ready for self-driving cars.

The big picture: Autonomous vehicles are supposed to make the roads safer and improve access to transportation for all. To prepare for their arrival, automakers are placing huge bets to transform their businesses, with massive implications for jobs and consumers.

The timetable for the arrival of fully self-driving cars is hazy, but it's clear at least two giant hurdles stand in the way: risk and trust.

The big question: How safe is safe enough for consumers and regulators?

"Is the government really willing to accept the risk of people dying at the hands of computers if a handful of people die along the way? I think the answer is no."
Jim Lentz, CEO, Toyota North America

Consumers aren't exactly clamoring for them. AAA found that nearly three-quarters of American drivers are afraid of riding in a self-driving car, up from 63% in 2017.

"Somehow we have to get consumers to trust that these computers will not put them in jeopardy."
Jim Lentz
  • People hold machines to a higher standard than human drivers because they have no empathy for them, says Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute.
  • Yet computers aren't as good at driving as humans and can't predict human behavior.
  • Toyota aims to win trust for full self-driving cars by first introducing Guardian mode, which intervenes when the driver is about to make a dangerous mistake like overcorrecting to avoid an obstacle.
  • Their hope is that consumers will gradually learn to trust AV technology, as they did with antilock brakes, cruise control and blind-spot warnings.

Yes, but: Safety advocates say automakers have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that the public is wary of AVs.

  • "As long as the tech and the auto industries are promising AVs will deliver zero deaths, that’s what people and regulators will expect," says Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety.
  • They can save more lives by installing proven life-saving technology like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping technology as standard equipment on all vehicles, Levine argues.
2. An obscure Chinese commission could change AV future

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) last month released a sprawling roadmap for AV development that named an “Internet of Vehicles Development Commission” to lead work on AV policy, China business consultant Patrick Lozada writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: AV leadership by this commission may indicate a more protectionist approach in China, given incentives to carry out President Xi's goal of limiting reliance on foreign “core technologies.”

Background: The commission's head, Miao Wei, is the minister of MIIT and the architect of the Made in China 2025 plan, which set detailed targets for replacing foreign technology with domestic substitutes.

  • The plan has drawn international criticism for acting as a barrier to trade and violating WTO rules.
  • Eliminating its targets has been a goal of the U.S. in bilateral trade negotiations.

What to watch: Miao, who is also the former CEO of state-owned Dongfeng Motors, identified 3 priorities for the commission...

  • Develop an AV demonstration zone in the Xiong’an New Area, where an AV-enabled metropolis is planned.
  • Expand infrastructure for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology.
  • Increase financial and policy support for Chinese companies producing core technologies like telematics and sensors.

The bottom line: Both American and Chinese officials increasingly see technology as a zero-sum game. But U.S. efforts to limit sales of AV tech to China through export controls and Chinese limitations on the foreign use of China's mapping data won't help vehicle development in either country. If AV development suffers, companies and consumers all lose.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Lozada is a director in the China practice of Albright Stonebridge, a strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm.

3. Future of urban transport is climate wildcard
Expand chart
Adapted from Hannon et. al., 2019, "The road to seamless urban mobility"; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

A new McKinsey report examines the potential climate impact of autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing, based on what city planners do, Axios' Ben Geman writes.

Why it matters: Uber and other companies are already changing the way people move around in cities, while AVs are poised to shake things up even further as the tech takes hold. But right now traffic is still getting worse for all kinds of reasons.

What they did: The report looks at 3 trajectories for how urban traffic and transport patterns could evolve, and what that means for the environment (among other things).

  • The best outcome, but hardly a foregone conclusion, is what they call "seamless mobility." This is reflected in the third bar in the chart above.

In essence, under "seamless mobility," they see people traveling further per year than under their other scenarios, yet more efficiently and cleanly.

But, but, but: That won't happen by itself, the report shows. If cities don't act, "the trends related to urbanization, population, and e-commerce are likely to make congestion and pollution worse."

What's next: The report lays out dozens of ways for cities to help manage population growth and the rise of autonomy, including using AV shuttles, electric scooters and bikes to connect people to mass transit, shifting commercial deliveries to off-peak hours, and creating low- or zero-emissions zones.

Go deeper: Read Ben's entire piece.

4. Challenges in wireless charging of electric AVs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Newly introduced electric vehicles are capable of charging wirelessly rather than tethered to a power cable, a technology that could one day help autonomous EVs stay running around the clock, entrepreneur and former Dell executive Alex Gruzen writes for Axios.

Why it matters: The ability to charge whenever they have a chance — through wireless charging source pads embedded in roadways and parking spots — would make AVs more efficient because they would never have to be taken out of operation for refueling.

How it works: These systems rely on resonant charging, which transfers electricity across an air gap between two magnetic coils and then to the vehicle's battery. It's a larger-scale version of technology already available for cellphones.

The catch: Significant public and private investment will be required to expand wireless source pads beyond private homes and offices and into roadways, especially to support electric AVs in ride-sharing and delivery fleets.

Go deeper: Read the Expert Voices piece.

Gruzen is the CEO of WiTricity, which develops technologies for wireless energy transfer.

5. Driving the conversation

Lame: Why the wheels came off Ford’s Chariot (Keith Naughton — Bloomberg)

  • Details: Ford CEO Jim Hackett says the ride-sharing shuttle was ahead of its time, but insists the experience will help shape future mobility efforts.
  • Ford has already moved on to scooters with its recent purchase of Spin, as Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva scooped back in November.

Burned: Man says CES lidar’s laser was so powerful it wrecked his $1,998 camera (Timothy B. Lee — Ars Technica)

  • Why it matters: Lidar is considered an essential sensor for self-driving cars, but if the laser in AEye's system was so powerful it burned a CES visitor's camera, what might it do to cameras in oncoming vehicles?
  • The company told Ars Technica its sensors pose no danger to human eyes, but acknowledged camera safety is an issue that needs addressing.

Seaworthy: Michigan Tech is making autonomous boats a lot smarter (Kyle Hyatt— Roadshow by CNET)

  • My thought bubble: If you think it's hard for cars to drive themselves on flat roads, imagine how hard it is for boats to navigate rough seas autonomously.
6. What I'm driving

Mazda Miata is a blast to drive even in winter. Photo: Mazda

It's the middle of January and I'm tooling around Detroit in a two-seat Mazda Miata MX-5 RF convertible.

There's something depressing about driving a droptop in the dead of winter. You want nothing more than to fold down the top and feel the breeze in your hair.

So I admit I wasn't enthusiastic about stuffing myself, down parka and all, into the low-slung coupe with the retractable aluminum hardtop — until I pressed the clutch and peeled out onto the icy street.

Tires make the difference. This 2019 Miata is outfitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires and standard traction control, so in light snow I felt as confident as I did zipping around in the ragtop last summer. The ride is slightly harsher, and a bit noisier, but who cares when you're having this much fun?

Mazdas are for people who like driving, so don't expect full autonomy in the future. But the Miata RF is available with the usual assisted-driving technology like blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and low-speed automatic emergency braking.

The Miata is one of my all-time favorite cars — in summer anyway — the kind of midlife crisis car you'd buy if you had an extra $33,000 lying around.

The bottom line: I found myself wishing for a blizzard so I could play around in the snow drifts. Sadly, I have to give it back today, just as a half-foot of snow is predicted.

Joann Muller