May 24, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today Expert Voices contributor Raphael Gindrat weighs whether parking garages are still needed as AVs loom.

We're all about brevity here at Axios. Today's newsletter clocks in at 1,043 words (~ 4 min. read).

1 big thing: AVs and the forgotten humans

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Global automakers are pouring billions of dollars into autonomous vehicles and governments are scrambling to figure out how to manage them. Often overlooked, it seems, are the people who will use them.

Why it matters: People, not robots, will ultimately determine whether AVs succeed. Aside from learning to trust the technology, people have to decide whether self-driving cars are useful, accessible and affordable.

Driving the news: At an event I moderated yesterday at Ford's City of Tomorrow Symposium in L.A., all 3 panelists said not enough attention is being paid to how self-driving cars could change our lives and communities.

What they're saying: The panelists pointed out more discussions are needed on: AVs' impact on building owners, how people will connect to public transit systems, and the unique challenges of improving mobility for people with disabilities.

“Important conversations are happening among government and industry on what these changes mean for the future, but residents have largely been left from the table. Without their input, we risk designing cities for new kinds of cars, rather than for people.”
— Lilian Coral, director for national strategy and technology innovation, Knight Foundation
"People with different types of disabilities have different needs. ... Pickup and drop-off spots are different for a person who is blind vs. someone who uses a wheelchair."
— Rebecca Grier, human factors specialist, Ford
"It's a scary proposition if you’re buying a building that has $5 million a year in parking income that's going to go away because the city all of a sudden says, 'We're not going to allow cars downtown anymore.'"
— Christopher Rising, prominent real estate developer in LA

My thought bubble: AV tech is proving to be more difficult to develop than many predicted, but a lot of smart engineers are working on it, and I'm confident they'll figure it out.

  • To me, the bigger challenge is how self-driving cars will ripple through society, touching everything from jobs to urban planning and public transit.

ICYMI: Last fall, the Knight Foundation pledged $5.25 million to fund pilot projects in 5 cities — Detroit, Long Beach, Miami, San Jose and Pittsburgh — that are designed to engage local residents about how self-driving cars should be deployed in their communities.

The bottom line: Bill Ford, the automaker's executive chairman, said at a separate panel yesterday...

"We have to continuously ask ourselves, 'Are we making people’s lives better?' It sounds simplistic, but it's easy to get sidetracked. You may fall in love with a particular technology ... but if it's not making people's lives easier, you need to think about something else."
2. Lidar is not "worthless" to Aurora

Aurora innovation engineers test a self-driving car. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Aurora Innovation, founded by 3 pioneers in autonomous driving technology, is acquiring Blackmore, a leading maker of lidar sensors.

Why it matters: Aurora, like most AV developers, believes lidar is critical to developing a reliable self-driving system that can navigate roads more safely than a human. Different sensors have their own strengths and weaknesses, so redundancy matters, the company says.

  • "Based on our decades of industry experience, we’re clear that lidar, specifically with the advancements Blackmore has made, is part of the ultimate sensing system," the company wrote in a blog post.
  • Blackmore is one of dozens of lidar companies that have popped up in recent years, but its laser scanning tech is unique because it can detect not only how far away an object is but also its velocity.

Yes, but: Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who says his company is closer to autonomy than others, has called lidar a crutch and told investors last month it is "worthless" and that "anyone relying on lidar is doomed."

Of note: Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson headed Tesla's Autopilot program before leaving the company in 2017.

3. AVs could change parking garage economics

A parking garage in Chicago in 1967. Photo: John Bulmer/Getty Images

The looming deployment of AVs could render parking garages obsolete, which has created a conundrum for developers — whether to invest in parking garages that can be converted for other uses or stop building them entirely, Raphael Gindrat writes for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: While the need for parking is acute in cities today, parking structures are typically financed with a 30-year payback and some believe AVs will reduce or eliminate the need for parking as soon as 2030.

What’s happening: In spite of the tension, most cities continue to require developers to add a minimum number of parking spaces.

The bottom line: Analysts predict AVs could be roughly 10 years away, and developers are already bracing for shifts in parking infrastructure status quo.

Gindrat is co-founder and CEO of Bestmile, which has developed a fleet-management platform.

4. Driving the conversation

Rulemaking: GM faces pushback on U.S. self-driving vehicle plan (David Shepardson — Reuters)

  • Why it matters: GM wants government regulators to waive some automobile safety standards so it can deploy a ride-sharing fleet of driverless cars without steering wheels or other human controls.
  • Among those raising objections are insurers, who want to see more data that the cars are safe.

Hands on wheel: Tesla's updated Navigate on Autopilot requires significant driver intervention (Keith Barry — Consumer Reports)

  • Why it matters: Tesla says its new computer hardware will enable a million self-driving robotaxis by next year.
  • But Consumer Reports tested Tesla's latest driver-assistance feature and found it "lagged far behind a human driver’s skills. The feature cut off cars without leaving enough space, and even passed other cars in ways that violate state laws."

Waymo's wooing: Hand gestures and horses: Waymo’s self-driving service learns to woo the public (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)

  • The big picture: The Google spinoff has been fairly quiet since launching its modest robotaxi service last December in Phoenix, with backup safety drivers still behind the wheel.
  • Waymo is slowly building trust in the community, Forbes reports.
5. What I'm driving

2019 Audi A6. Photo: Audi

I'm driving another Audi this week, downsizing from the flagship A8 to the midsize A6. The price is smaller, too: The A6 starts at $58,900, but the Prestige trim level starts at $67,100.

What's new: The A6 gets a new 3.0-liter V6 engine and a new infotainment system featuring 2 large touchscreens that operate like your smartphone.

  • Drivers can speak requests such as, “I’m cold,” and the A6 will respond: “What temperature would you like to set the cabin to?”

The A6 is loaded with driver-assistance technologies, all managed by a central controller that collects information from up to 24 cameras and sensors to create a digital picture of the car's surroundings.

  • Adaptive Cruise Assist is a hands-on system that handles acceleration and braking for stop-and-go-traffic and speeds up to 95 mph.
  • Audi's Pre Sense City system detects people, cyclists and other cars and will brake automatically when a collision is imminent.
  • Other technologies help with blind intersections or when backing up into crossing traffic, and warn the driver of approaching vehicles from behind before opening the door.

The bottom line: Costing far less than the $123,045 A8, Audi's midsize A6 has everything you'll want.

Joann Muller