Feb 28, 2020

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

Welcome back! If you have comments or tips, just email me at joann.muller@axios.com.

  • I'm excited to introduce you to Axios' newest newsletter author, Bryan Walsh! Check out Axios Future for his latest coverage on the mega-trends impacting our world. Sign up.
  • 📺 Mark your calendars - Season 3 of "Axios on HBO" kicks off 6pm ET/PT Sunday, March 1! Here's a clip.
  • Smart brevity count: 1,538 word, a 6-minute read.

Situational awareness: Next week's Geneva Auto Show, one of the industry's most important events, was canceled due to coronavirus fears.

1 big thing: My invisible Waymo chauffeur

Photos: Joann Muller/Axios

I recently took my first driverless Waymo ride — without a backup safety driver — an extraordinary experience, but also a reminder of how industry hype has skewed our expectations for self-driving cars.

Why it matters: Waymo is the first company to deploy automated vehicles on public roads without anyone behind the wheel, but all that means is they've crossed the starting line in the self-driving race.

  • Like every other AV developer, Waymo still has to win the public's trust, and make a business of it, neither of which will be easy.

What's happening: Waymo is plotting two commercial offerings: Waymo One, its fledgling automated ride-hailing service currently confined to the Phoenix suburbs, and a soon-to-be-named automated trucking business.

  • It's also willing to let other companies hire the automated "Waymo driver" for their own ride-hailing or delivery businesses.
  • A recent deal to shuttle packages from UPS stores to a distribution center suggests a broader partnership with the giant logistics company.
  • Longer term, Waymo is considering a yearly subscription program for individuals, whose personal car would come with a built-in Waymo chauffeur, CEO John Krafcik tells Axios. After trade-in, Waymo would use those same vehicles in its ride-hailing or delivery services.
  • "Just like everyone else, they're trying to figure out the business model," says Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Navigant Research.

What to watch: In an interview, Krafcik acknowledged automated trucking looks like a bigger opportunity at the moment.

  • "But in 10 years, the movement of people with automated ride hailing will be substantially larger."

My ride began in front of the Element Hotel in Chandler, Arizona, where Waymo does most of its AV testing.

  • "This ride will be different. With no one else in the car, Waymo will do all the driving. Enjoy the ride!" the Waymo app advised me.
  • About three minutes later, a white Chrysler Pacifica minivan outfitted with Waymo hardware and software arrived.
  • But instead of meeting me in the driveway in front of the lobby as I expected, it stopped about 30 feet away in the parking lot. (Waymo tells me I could have dropped a pin to make the pickup spot more precise.)
  • I climbed in the back seat, shut the door and pushed the big green "Start Ride" button on the screen in front of me.

My thought bubble: The 12-minute ride to a nearby shopping center was uneventful, as one would hope. Even at 45 mph, I felt confident, safe — even awed — during the ride.

But I was also struck by the constraints of the experience: this was a fairly simple route in an area the car knew well, traffic was light and weather conditions were ideal. (The threat of flash flooding earlier in the week suspended driverless operations for several days.)

  • Not everyone can summon a free driverless Waymo — the range is limited to about half of Waymo's standard 100-square-mile operating domain outside Phoenix.
  • And only about 400 hand-chosen "early riders" who agree to sign non-disclosure agreements can request a driverless ride, but it's not guaranteed.
  • About 1,100 paying Waymo One customers still get a safety driver — for now.
  • Deploying large-scale robotaxi services in every city will take time.

The bottom line: I've ridden in autonomous vehicles many times, but always with a safety driver. My first truly driverless ride, while thrilling, convinced me it will be years before autonomous mobility is widely available.

See how my ride went on Instagram.

2. Feds' lax oversight shares blame for Tesla crash

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's mounting evidence that people put too much trust in driver-assistance features like Tesla Autopilot, but federal regulators aren't doing enough to ensure the systems are deployed safely, experts say.

Why it matters: Nearly 37,000 Americans die each year in highway accidents. As automated features become more common, the roads could get more dangerous — not safer — if drivers use the technology in unintended ways.

Driving the news: The National Transportation Safety Board this week slammed Tesla and the federal government for failing to prevent "foreseeable abuse" of its Autopilot technology, which it found contributed to a fatal accident in California in 2018.

  • The driver, an Apple engineer, was using a video game on his phone when his Tesla Model X, operating on Autopilot, steered itself into a highway barrier at 71 miles per hour, the NTSB investigation concluded.
  • It was another example of a distracted Tesla driver being killed while using Autopilot, although NTSB members emphasized that drivers in any car equipped with similar technology could become complacent or distracted.

The agency issued nine safety recommendations, including the installation of driver monitoring systems as well as lock-out devices to prevent the use of cell phones while driving. And it said companies like Apple should adopt policies to prevent distracted driving by employees.

But its harshest criticism was reserved for Tesla and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

  • NTSB criticized Tesla for not restricting where Autopilot can be used, despite its known limitations, and said the company should evaluate the system to determine if it poses an "unreasonable risk to safety."
  • The agency also called NHTSA's hands-off regulatory approach to driver-assistance technology "misguided" because the government is waiting for problems to occur rather than addressing safety issues proactively.

The bottom line, from NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt:

"There is not a vehicle currently available to U.S. consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to U.S. consumers still requires the driver to be actively engaged in the driving task, even when advanced driver assistance systems are activated."

Read the full story.

Go deeper: Tesla safety probes bring scrutiny for regulators too

3. "Let the doubters doubt"

Zoox CEO Aicha Evans. Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Zoox is in "advanced discussions with several strategic partners and corporate investors" for its next round of funding, CEO Aicha Evans tells Axios.

Why it matters: The self-driving car developer has been especially quiet for the past year or so, and venture capital sources say the company has struggled to raise capital to fund its ambitious plans.

  • Last October, it raised $200 million in convertible note funding, which it said it would fold into an upcoming Series C round that has yet to occur.

Yes, but: Evans, a former Intel executive marking her one-year anniversary with Zoox, said, "This year is a huge year. We are finally showing the world what we've been up to."

Zoox is more ambitious than most AV tech startups, with plans to operate its own ride-hailing service using a purpose-built robotaxi currently under development.

  • The bi-directional electric taxi, with four-wheel steering and active suspension, will be revealed later this year, Evans said in an interview.
  • It has already passed federal crash safety tests and durability testing, she added.
  • Early commercial pilots will begin in 2021.

Where it stands: Zoox continues to develop its self-driving technology using Toyota SUVs on some of the most difficult streets of San Francisco.

  • I was impressed by the state of their technology a year ago, and a more recent assessment by Autonocast co-host Ed Niedermeyer suggests Zoox has improved even more.

The catch: It takes a lot of capital to develop autonomous vehicle technology; even more so to design and build a vehicle and then launch a ride-hailing network.

  • Evans, who once ran strategy for Intel, is confident in the company's plan and says it will have the capital to bring its vehicle to market.
  • "Let the doubters doubt."
4. Driving the conversation

Giddy-up: Autonomous driving startup Pony.ai raises $462 million in Toyota-led funding (Julie Zhu and Yilei Sun — Reuters)

  • Why it matters: It's an important validation of Pony.ai's technology after the two companies started working together on self-driving tests in China last year. It will also help Toyota expand its mobility footprint in the critical Chinese market.

Disengagement: Waymo and Cruise vie for supremacy in murky California self-driving data (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)

  • Quote of the day: "Much like Churchill's quip about democracy being the 'worst form of government except for all the other forms,' disengagement stats are of limited use but are the only public information available in the absence of standardized federal tests to evaluate self-driving technology."

Permit: Cruise Automation's self-driving cars can now carry passengers (Sean Szymkowski —Road Show by CNET)

  • Why it matters: The permit from the state of California puts Cruise one step closer to its goal of launching a ride-hailing service.
  • But, but, but: it still can't charge for rides.
5. What I'm driving

Off-roading in Sedona in the 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD. Photo: Bill Rapai/Axios

Last week in Sedona, Arizona, we spent time trail-driving in Toyota's new 2020 RAV4 TRD off-road model.

Why it matters: I don't always get to try out a vehicle's full capability during a short press loan. This was a rare opportunity to get off the beaten highway.

The big picture: The RAV4, America's top-selling crossover, is the latest Toyota model to get its TRD (Toyota Racing Development) package inspired by the brand's off-road and desert racing history.

Details: With an 8.6-inch ground clearance, its suspension, wheels and tires are engineered specifically for trail driving.

  • A knob on the center console lets the driver choose between terrains: Mud & Sand, Rock & Dirt, or Snow.
  • But even in normal highway driving, the RAV4 was comfortable and smooth — a great family hauler with tons of cargo space.
  • The TRD package includes a helpful 360° bird's-eye view camera in low-speed drive and reverse to ensure you don't clip a rock — or a curb.
  • And I adored the RAV4's two-tone "Lunar Rock/Ice Edge" matte paint job.
  • The TRD off-road model starts at $35,180; our test model was priced at $42,902.

In Sedona, we explored several trails, carefully crawling over red rock shelf on Schnebly Road until the trail got more challenging.

  • Later we kicked up some dirt on the dusty trails in the Coconino National Forest, terrain that seemed more suited to the RAV4's capability.

The bottom line: I spent $12 on an "ultimate" car wash at the end of the week, but it was worth every penny. Sometimes, it's still fun to drive.

Joann Muller