Jul 31, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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  • Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,169 words (<5 minutes)
1 big thing: Ford, the transit company

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Ford is starting to position itself as more than a manufacturer of cars and trucks. It also wants to be an orchestrator of urban transit, helping cities move people efficiently from A to B.

The big picture: Legacy automakers are scrambling to reinvent themselves in the face of disruptive technologies like automated vehicles and car-sharing. Ford is trying to take a more holistic approach than others, partnering with urban planners to address their cities' current transportation problems while laying the technology foundation for tomorrow's AVs.

What's happening: Ford has been slowly assembling the pieces of that transportation technology puzzle.

  • This week its subsidiary Ford Smart Mobility acquired Journey Holding, a software company that specializes in intelligent transportation systems for municipalities, universities, airports, hospitals and corporate fleets.
  • Journey, created in January through a merger between DoubleMap Inc. and Ride Systems LLC, will combine with Ford-owned TransLoc, which helps public and private transit providers optimize their on-demand and fixed route systems.
  • The plan is to tie them together with other Ford-owned mobility services like Spin scooters and GoRide Health nonemergency medical transportation — and someday, robotaxis, too — for an all-in-one, connected transportation platform, says Brett Wheatley, vice president of marketing and growth for Ford Smart Mobility.

Why it matters: Today, cities are cobbling together a potpourri of transportation solutions — parking, microtransit, ride-sharing, buses, subways — with no idea how effective they are or how they can work together.

  • Ford aims to provide city planners with easy-to-visualize dashboards so they can make better transit decisions.
  • The platform would also aid riders by providing a one-stop app for planning their trips.

There's competition in the space from many smaller firms and companies like Via, whose routing technology enables a fully dynamic, on-demand ride-sharing network in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

  • Most are niche players, though, focused on just one piece of the transit tech puzzle.
  • Uber is the exception. It, too, has ambitions for a one-stop transportation network, including AVs and even flying taxis one day.
  • Ford has at least one advantage over rivals, though: Many police cars and ambulances are Ford vehicles. It plans to leverage its city relationships and knowledge from those fleets to develop routing and dispatch technology for other transportation systems.
  • GM Cruise, which backed off its timetable for launching a robotaxi fleet in San Francisco this year, is meanwhile trying to win favor with city leaders and residents with a public awareness campaign.

Ford's shift toward urban transit comes as CEO Jim Hackett is simultaneously trying to lead a larger turnaround at the automaker.

The bottom line: Automakers need a new business model for the future, and Ford, like the rest, sees self-driving car fleets as key to its strategy. In the meantime, its focus is on building the relationships and track record in cities so that when AVs do arrive, urban leaders will choose Ford as their transit partner.

2. Jump-start for stalled self-driving car bill

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Congress appears to be trying to revive efforts to pass legislation on self-driving cars, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: Without federal standards, automakers and tech companies have to deal with a patchwork of state laws that they say is hampering the rollout of the technology. Consumer advocates want assurances that AVs are safe.

What's happening: Hope had faded for an AV bill anytime soon after Congress abandoned its efforts on the issue last December. "But a bipartisan contingent in both the Senate and House [has] held five meetings in recent weeks to see if they can forge a deal," according to The Verge.

  • In 2017, the House, with a Republican majority, passed the SELF DRIVE Act, but the Senate's similar AV START Act failed to pass after Democrats raised safety concerns.
  • The new bipartisan bill has input from both chambers.
  • The Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement on Tuesday it is “committed to finding a solution that balances the American creative spirit with a clear federal framework that advances technology that will save lives, improve mobility for so many, and drive economic growth."
3. When drones fall from the sky

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A frightening incident in Switzerland is a reminder of why we need to know more about the safety of urban delivery drones.

Driving the news: A malfunctioning drone operated by Swiss Post plummeted to the ground near Zurich, narrowly missing a group of kindergarten children, according to IEEE Spectrum.

  • The drone's emergency parachute failed after the line snagged on a sharp edge of the drone itself, causing the 22-pound device to fall quickly from the sky, a preliminary report found.
  • Swiss Post suspended the service indefinitely and called on the manufacturer, Mountain View, California-based Matternet, to make safety improvements before it resumes flying.

In a statement, Matternet said it had never seen its parachute system fail.

"At Matternet we take the safety of our technology and operations extremely seriously. A failure of the parachute system is a clear failure of our safety mechanisms and we are taking all the appropriate measures to address it."

What we're watching: The number of drones is expected to soar across multiple industries in the next few years, but only if they're proven safe.

  • In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration is weighing proposed rule changes that would allow drones to fly over people and at night — two circumstances that are currently prohibited without a waiver.
  • A series of pilot projects are underway in several states that aim to demonstrate how drones could be operated safely.

The bottom line: Drones have almost unlimited uses — delivering everything from medicine to pizza to inspecting infrastructure, such as pipelines and buildings. But regulators must ensure they're safe before people will accept them.

4. Driving the conversation

Quick exit: Lyft operating chief to depart after moving last year from Tesla (Dana Hull and Eric Newcomer — Bloomberg)

  • Why it matters: Jon McNeill's departure, so soon after Lyft's IPO, sent Lyft shares tumbling. No word yet on where he's going next.

Mass exit: Uber lays off 400 as profitability doubts linger after IPO (Kate Conger — New York Times)

  • The big picture: The cuts amounted to one-third of Uber's worldwide marketing team. The ride-hailing company is trying to cut costs and streamline operations to become profitable in the wake of its IPO 2 months ago.

AV logistics: This robo-van startup will handle Walmart's 'middle mile' (Alex Davies — Wired)

  • What's happening: Gatik isn't waiting for changing consumer behavior to launch a robotaxi service. By working with businesses like Walmart, it's finding a niche where cutting out the cost of human labor makes a robot valuable.
5. One drive-thru thing

Marvin Mateo works the drive-thru window at McDonald's. Photo: Hector Emanuel/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

In Portland, Oregon, you don't have to drive through the drive-thru lane anymore at fast-food restaurants. Now you can ride a bike or scooter, or even walk up to the window for service.

The catch: It's only allowed when the dining room is closed, according to Willamette Week, Portland's alternative newspaper.

  • "The rules apply to banks and pharmacies, too. If the walk-in lobby closes, people on two wheels have the same rights to the drive-thru as drivers on four wheels," notes WW.
"You shouldn't have to own a car to patronize a business."
— Chris Smith, Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission

(h/t for this tasty morsel to Reilly Brennan at Trucks Venture Capital.)

Joann Muller