Oct 23, 2020

Axios Navigate

Happy Friday and welcome back to Axios Navigate! Drop me a line at joann@axios.com.

Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,318 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: We're all guinea pigs for Tesla's R&D

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tesla is beta-testing its latest self-driving technology with a small group of early adopters, a move that alarms experts and makes every road user — including other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists — unwitting subjects in its ongoing safety experiment.

Why it matters: Tesla hailed the limited rollout of its "full self-driving" beta software as a key milestone, but the warnings on the car's touchscreen underscore the risk in using its own customers — rather than trained safety drivers — to validate the technology.

  • "It may do the wrong thing at the worst time, so you must always keep your hands on the wheel and pay extra attention to the road," Tesla warns customers. "Do not become complacent."
  • "Be prepared to act immediately, especially around blind corners, crossing intersections, and in narrow driving situations."

Reality check: Boeing's 737 Max did the wrong thing at the worst time, resulting in two plane crashes and 346 people dead. So did Takata's airbags and GM's ignition switches, also with deadly consequences.

  • Yet so far, regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are taking a wait-and-see approach.
  • "NHTSA has been briefed on Tesla’s new feature, which represents an expansion of its existing driver assistance system. The agency will monitor the new technology closely and will not hesitate to take action to protect the public against unreasonable risks to safety," according to a NHTSA statement.

Be smart: Despite its name, Tesla's "full self-driving" software isn't fully autonomous, and — as its own warnings confirm — the car is not capable of driving itself.

  • Yet in videos posted this week by some of those enthusiastic beta-testers their hands weren't always on the wheel.

Details: The beta software was sent to a small number of "expert and careful drivers," according to CEO Elon Musk, though it's not clear how many car owners received access.

  • In a tweet Tuesday night, Musk said the rollout would be "extremely slow and cautious, as it should." The plan is to roll it out gradually with "wide release" by the end of this year.
  • Tesla didn't respond to a request for more information.

Tesla's approach set off alarm bells among safety advocates, policymakers and even AV competitors.

  • "Using untrained consumers to validate beta-level software on public roads is dangerous," said Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a coalition of AV companies, nonprofits and academics.
  • Tesla's "deceptive" use of the term "full self-driving" to describe driver-assistance technology will likely lead to more crashes and deaths, warned Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Threat level: Despite warnings to be attentive, drivers don't always stay engaged. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed Tesla Autopilot and a driver who relied too heavily on it for a fatal crash in California.

  • Even specially trained safety drivers get distracted. In September, a safety driver behind the wheel of an Uber autonomous test vehicle that struck and killed a pedestrian was charged with negligent homicide.

How it works: Autopilot enables your Tesla to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane — assisted-driving features that are available on many cars today.

  • Full Self-Driving is an $8,000 add-on package that introduces additional functions over time.
  • Things like highway lane-changes and automatic parking retrieval have already been added.
  • The new beta release, dubbed "Autosteer for City Streets," introduces features like non-highway lane changes, navigation around other vehicles, and left and right turns in traffic.
  • Along with the new functionality comes a price hike: Musk tweeted Thursday that the full self-driving option will increase to $10,000 starting next week.

The bottom line: Tesla has plotted its own path to autonomy and anyone sharing the road is strapped in for the ride.

2. Self-driving vehicles inch ahead

Ford's fourth-generation AV. Photo: Ford

Two weeks after Waymo opened up its driverless taxi service to the public in Phoenix, other autonomous vehicle developers are reporting progress, too.

Why it matters: The pandemic temporarily suspended on-road testing at many AV companies, but the past week shows they've been hard at work. Here's the latest:

Cruise and its major shareholder, General Motors, said they will seek regulatory approval to deploy a limited number of Cruise Origin driverless shuttles in San Francisco.

  • Because the Origin has no steering wheel or pedals, the company may seek an exemption from motor vehicle safety standards for up to 2,500 noncompliant vehicles.
  • The effort comes one week after Cruise received a permit from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles to test driverless cars on San Francisco streets.

Ford plans to launch its self-driving commercial business in 2022 with vehicles based on the Ford Escape Hybrid crossover.

  • “With our fourth-generation test vehicle, we have everything we need from a vehicle to stand up our self-driving service,” John Davis, chief engineer of Ford’s autonomous vehicle subsidiary wrote in a Medium post.

Motional and Lyft resumed their robotaxi service in Las Vegas this week.

  • Motional is a joint venture between Hyundai and Aptiv.
3. The EV disconnect

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Analysts and investors are getting ever more bullish on electric vehicles, but with little regard, it seems, for consumer attitudes.

Why it matters: Tightening regulations around the world could indeed shove the vehicle market toward electrics more quickly than expected. But if consumers are reluctant to buy, automakers will have to slash prices and absorb the losses, erasing investors' rosy hopes.

What's happening: Morgan Stanley raised its forecast for battery electric vehicles this week, saying they'll account for 31% of global auto sales by 2030.

  • IHS Markit says EVs will be 60-80% of cars sold by 2050.

Yes, but: While a new report from Resources for the Future finds 57% of future car buyers are willing to consider buying an EV, it also uncovered significant sources of hesitation based on perceptions that aren't necessarily accurate:

  • batteries may catch on fire
  • maintenance costs are higher
  • EVs have weaker acceleration than gas-powered cars
  • it's difficult to replace batteries
  • there aren't enough EV mechanics

Of note: 65% of respondents said they have not driven nor know anyone who has driven an EV. 

The bottom line: Automakers have a serious education challenge ahead.

4. Driving the conversation

Boeing research shows disinfectants kill virus on airplanes (Joann Muller—Axios)

  • Why it matters: Deep cleaning aircraft between flights is one way airlines are trying to woo back customers during the pandemic. The researchers say their study proves there is virtually no risk of virus transmission from touching surfaces on a plane.

Let Elon Musk go Giga: A U.K. upstart says microfactories are the profitable way to build electric vehicles (Alan Ohnsman—Forbes)

  • The intrigue: It's a detailed profile of the mysterious Russian entrepreneur behind Arrival, a promising electric delivery van manufacturer backed by Hyundai and UPS.

Out-of-the-box strategy could unlock money on your expiring lease (Susan Tompor—The Detroit News)

  • Why it matters: We've written about soaring used-car values before. Here's how you can profit from the trend.
5. What I'm driving

Polestar 2 electric vehicle. Photo: Polestar

I recently drove an electric vehicle from a brand you might not be familiar with: Polestar.

The big picture: Originally a Swedish racing brand, Polestar was acquired in 2015 by Volvo Cars, which put the Polestar label on its high-performance models —similar to Mercedes’ AMG hot rod label.

  • In 2017, Volvo and its Chinese parent, Geely, made Polestar a stand-alone EV brand.
  • It’s also an innovation lab for new technologies that could show up later in Volvo and Geely models.

Details: The Polestar 2, as its name suggests, is the brand’s second model, following the $155,000, limited edition Polestar 1 plug-in hybrid.

  • The $59,900 Polestar 2, the first fully electric model, features a 78-kWh battery and two motors — one on each axle — that together produce an exhilarating 408 horsepower.
  • The EPA-estimated range is 233 miles — still 90 miles less than a Tesla Model 3 — and it can recharge to 80% in 40 minutes at a public fast charger.

What’s new: The Polestar 2 is the first car embedded with Google’s Android automotive operating system.

  • It provides access to Google Maps, Google Assistant and Google Play apps through the 11-inch touchscreen and is compatible with both iPhones and Android-powered devices.
  • Also notable is the Polestar 2's widespread use of sustainable materials.

The bottom line: Polestar 2 is a newcomer worth knowing.

6. My own mobility challenge

My knee scooter. Photo: Bill Rapai

After recent foot surgery, I've been test-driving a different type of mobility device — a knee scooter.

  • It has a limited turning radius and lousy brakes. But it beats hopping on crutches when you're trying to navigate a busy Costco.

The bottom line: While recovering on the sofa I've had time to reflect on how much we still need to do to ensure spaces and transportation are accessible and welcoming to people with mobility impairments.