Jun 26, 2020

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

Happy Friday! I'm off next week for the Fourth of July, so I'll be back in your inbox in two weeks. If you have any feedback, send me an email at joann.muller@axios.com.

It's been a big week for self-driving car news. Also, we look into the risks for low-income populations as cities reopen.

  • Smart Brevity count: 1,652 words, a 6-minute read.
1 big thing: Poor commuters at risk as cities reopen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Public transit agencies face gaping budget holes from the coronavirus pandemic that are likely to lead to service cuts and fare hikes, which could hurt the people from low-income communities who rely most on public transportation.

Why it matters: Access to safe, affordable and reliable public transportation is key to socioeconomic success. Yet poor communities often have little input when it comes to transportation policies.

Driving the news: As cities reopen, transit agencies are adapting on the fly while balancing daunting public health concerns and growing financial constraints.

  • They're introducing innovative ideas like "slow street" programs to reduce vehicle traffic and encourage more biking, walking and socially distant curbside dining.
  • But these programs sometimes wind up creating more congestion on surrounding streets, slowing bus traffic for those who can't work from home and don't have the option of driving or walking to their job.

The big picture: Heightened awareness of racial inequalities — from the way the coronavirus has ravaged Black communities to the outcry over police brutality — has created a unique opportunity for cities to stop and rethink the mobility revolution to ensure everyone has access.

  • Flashy, expensive projects like light rail systems and autonomous vehicle pilots don't solve racial and economic disparities or help meet the basic needs of poor people who just need to get to work, school or the grocery store.
  • Nor can scooter and bike companies be relied upon; many pulled out of cities during the pandemic, eliminating an option for essential workers.

"What this moment has done is really underscore the idea of public transportation. We need transportation that's accountable to the public in a way that private companies aren't," said Hayley Richardson, a spokesperson for TransitCenter, an independent non-profit focused on transit equity.

San Francisco offers a good blueprint. When the pandemic started, the city pared bus service down to the most-used routes and offered overnight taxi rides home for essential workers.

  • Now, as they begin to add back service, they are leveraging data to prioritize routes near hospitals, grocery stores and low-income neighborhoods.
  • "More and more transit agencies will have to make those choices," said Richardson.

And in Detroit, a city with majority Black residents where bus service was spotty and car ownership out of reach for many, officials were targeting improved mobility long before the pandemic.

  • They introduced a Night Shift program three years ago, adding more overnight bus routes and offering passengers Lyft vouchers to help them get home safely from the bus stop.
  • They also enlisted a neighborhood association to promote GM's Maven car-sharing service. Utilization was just taking off when the pandemic hit, and Maven folded nationwide.
  • Soon Detroit will introduce a program to provide free bikes or scooters to essential hospital and grocery store workers.

The key is community engagement — a challenge agencies are finding is harder than expected because of a lack of trust among marginalized groups, says Lilian Coral, director of national strategy and technology innovation at the Knight Foundation, which pledged $5.25 million to explore how self-driving cars could be deployed in five U.S. cities.

  • "Technology and data are helping us to rethink the way we make decisions and design these cities. But it's not enough. You have to engage people in understanding their needs. The data won’t tell you that."

The bottom line: The pandemic and recent protests against police brutality have put a spotlight on transportation inequities, giving urban planners new motivation to get it right.

  • "I feel like everything that's happened over the last three months has really focused the entire team on solving the problems that people are having," said Mark de la Vergne, Detroit's director of mobility innovation.

Go deeper: "Safe streets" are not safe for Black lives

2. Amazon buys Zoox in big AV deal

Zoox self-driving test vehicle. Photo: Andrei Stanescu/Getty Images

Amazon said this morning it is buying the self-driving taxi startup Zoox, its biggest move yet into autonomous vehicle technology. Amazon is paying around $1.2 billion, according to a source familiar with the price.

Why it matters: While Amazon's previous auto-related investments seemed focused on building its own third-party logistics network, Amazon made clear today it will help bring Zoox's ambitious robotaxi plan to fruition.

  • Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and co-founder and chief technology officer Jesse Levinson will continue to lead the company as a standalone business.

Yes, but: It's still possible Amazon would use Zoox's technology for self-driving delivery or warehouse vehicles.

  • Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated automated delivery could save Amazon more than $20 billion a year in shipping costs.
  • Last year, Amazon invested along with Sequoia Capital in self-driving startup Aurora Innovation.
  • Amazon has also backed Rivian Automotive, the electric pickup and SUV maker, and placed an order for 100,000 of its electric delivery trucks.

Background: Founded in 2014, Zoox has always been more ambitious than most, with plans to develop AV technology, design and build a robotaxi, and operate its own ride-hailing network.

3. Waymo and Volvo to develop electric robotaxi

Photo: Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Waymo is teaming up with Volvo Cars to develop a self-driving electric vehicle platform for ride-hailing services.

Why it matters: Volvo, owned by China's Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is the fourth major automaker to align with Waymo.

  • This partnership is different from the others, however, because instead of supplying cars to be outfitted with Waymo technology, the two companies will work together to design a new robotaxi platform.

The intrigue: Waymo will be Volvo's exclusive partner for Level 4 autonomy, but the deal won't affect Volvo's agreement to supply vehicles to Uber's Advanced Technology Group, which is also working on self-driving systems.

  • Of note: Volvo Cars, and its Chinese-Swedish sister brands, Polestar and Lynk & Co., are included in the Waymo partnership.

What they're saying:

  • "This key partnership with Volvo Car Group helps pave the path to the deployment of the Waymo Driver globally in years to come, and represents an important milestone in the highly competitive autonomous vehicle industry," said Adam Frost, Waymo's chief automotive officer.
  • "Our global partnership with Waymo opens up new and exciting business opportunities for Volvo Cars, Polestar, and Lynk & Co.," said Volvo's chief technology officer Henrik Green.

Waymo said it will continue working with Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.

4. The (auto) show must go on — even virtually

Actor Denis Leary (right) and Ford's Todd Eckert launching the F-150 online. Photo: Ford

Many of the year's most important new cars and trucks will be seen for the first time not on stage at an auto show but online in a virtual launch party.

Why it matters: The reveal of an all-new vehicle is typically a multi-million dollar marketing extravaganza, with pulsating music, bright lights and lots of hype.

  • The coronavirus has made that next to impossible, but there's a silver lining: Carmakers are finding they can reach a far bigger digital audience when most people are stuck at home.

Driving the news: Ford's reveal of the redesigned 2021 F-150 pickup last night on YouTube and Facebook was hosted by actor Denis Leary. (Read details about the truck.)

  • The 40-minute show, filmed at the former Willow Run assembly plant where Ford produced B-24 Bombers for World War II, captured 1.7 million views on Ford’s social media channels.
  • Before the pandemic, Ford had planned a live event in Texas with a few hundred hundred media, consumers and dealers in May.

This is the new normal for vehicle launches.

  • On July 13, Ford will launch its next generation of the legendary Bronco online, too.
  • On Aug. 6, GM will take the wraps off its first electric Cadillac, the Lyriq.
  • Toyota, Lexus, Nissan and others have also hosted virtual vehicle debuts.

Many of the models had been set to debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which, like other big auto shows in Geneva and New York, was canceled.

5. So long, Segway

Tourists in Boston ride Segway Personal Transporters. Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Image

The original Segway is kaput.

The two-wheeled, self-balancing personal transport device that Steve Jobs once said would be bigger than the personal computer is riding off into the sunset, as Fast Company first reported.

The Segway did not end up being "to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy," as inventor Dean Kamen originally predicted.

My thought bubble: Maybe Kamen's Segway was simply ahead of its time in December 2001.

  • After all, e-scooters have proliferated in recent years, proving there's demand for personal mobility devices in cities.

What to watch: The market for classic Segway PTs could heat up.

6. Driving the news

Lordstown Motors debuts electric truck against backdrop of presidential campaign (Kalea Hall — Detroit News)

  • Why it matters: The Ohio startup's battery-powered Endurance pickup truck shared the stage with Vice President Mike Pence, who touted the Trump Administration's claims on job creation.

California passes landmark mandate for zero emission trucks (David Shepardson and Nichola Groom — Reuters)

  • What to watch: The state's effort to wean trucks off diesel fuel starting in 2024 is another likely flash point in its fight with the Environmental Protection Agency over emissions standards.

Mercedes and Nvidia design a car that gets better with age (Joann Muller — Axios)

  • Why it matters: Self-driving technology won't arrive in a snap. Instead, it will roll out gradually through periodic software updates, extending the life of cars.
7. What I'm driving

Jeep Gladiator Mojave. Photo: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

I've rarely encountered as many thumbs-up, smiles and nods in a pickup truck as I did last week while driving the Jeep Gladiator Mojave.

Why it matters: Jeep built its reputation for crawling over rocks, but the Mojave was engineered for high-speed off-road performance, earning what its marketers say is Jeep's first "Desert Rated" badge of authenticity.

The big picture: There's a boom in desert-racing-inspired pickup trucks like the Ford F-150 Raptor, Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 and Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. Now, with a heavier-duty suspension for off-road thrills, the Gladiator is joining the fun.

I was dying to go off-roading in it, but had to settle for a two-hour drive to the shores of Lake Huron in Michigan's Thumb region. I folded back the Sunrider soft top for an easy open-air feeling but left the doors on for better acoustics while making calls over the truck's Bluetooth connection.

The Gladiator has surprisingly good road manners for a truck that's meant to fly over rough terrain.

  • And with leather bucket seats, an 8.4-inch infotainment system plus active safety features like blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control and a collision warning system, it's equipped like most many premium passenger cars.
  • But with a starting price of $43,875, the Gladiator can get expensive with all the add-ons. Mine topped out just shy of $60,000.
  • And since the mid-sized Gladiator is a toy for most buyers, that's a pretty pricey toy.
Joann Muller