Jul 24, 2019

Axios Navigate

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  • Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,279 words, <5 minutes
1 big thing: Cruise robotaxis need more work

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In a surprise to no one, Cruise today acknowledged it will not meet a 2019 target to deploy driverless cars in an urban robotaxi service.

The big picture: The news is likely a bit embarrassing for General Motors, Cruise's majority owner, whose ambitious timetable helped fuel some of the hype around self-driving cars in recent years. But it also shows GM is sticking to CEO Mary Barra's vow not to deploy automated vehicles before it can prove they're safer than a human driver.

Between the lines: The timing of the announcement, in a blog post by Cruise CEO Dan Ammann, comes the same day that Tesla reports second-quarter financial results and will likely provide an update on its own ambitious plan to have a million "full self-driving" cars on the road by next year.

  • Industry executives and regulators told the Washington Post they worry Tesla's expedited plan to put "unproven" and unregulated features in drivers' hands could result in crashes, lawsuits and confusion that would set back the entire industry.

While not criticizing Tesla or any other Silicon Valley rivals by name, Ammann is trying to distance his company from those others.

  • "When you’re working on the large scale deployment of mission critical safety systems, the mindset of 'move fast and break things' certainly doesn’t cut it," Ammann wrote.

Where it stands: Cruise has hired more than 1,000 engineers, raised $7.25 billion in capital, and integrated its hardware and software development with GM.

  • Ammann — who used to be president of GM — describes their partnership as a unique advantage.
  • "Today, we are the only company with self-driving cars that are manufactured on a large scale automotive assembly line to the same rigorous standards of safety and quality as any other production car."

What's next: In pushing back Cruise's timeline, Amman laid out the company's near-term plans in pursuit of deploying AVs safely at a "massive scale," including more than doubling the rate of testing and validation miles logged through the remainder of the year.

  • It will also build "the largest EV fast charger station in the country" in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood to service its fleet of electric robotaxis, currently at 180 cars.
  • Cruise continues to work with Honda on an innovative new self-driving car for future deployment.
  • They're also launching a new public awareness campaign to build trust in the community and try to avoid some of the "techlash" that has affected other companies, including scooter and bike-sharing companies.

The bottom line: Rushing to deploy technology that is not ready for the real world risks alienating the public in the long run. The industry has time to get it right: 71% of people are still afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles.

2. Scooter boom raises new safety questions

Illustration: Caresse Haaser/Axios

Electric scooters have already landed dozens of riders in the hospital in less than 2 years since they appeared on city streets — but it's not clear they are more dangerous than other modes of transportation like bicycles, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva writes.

While their characteristics differ, scooters and bikes share the same huge challenge — operating in an environment that's not built for them.

Scooters are inherently different from bikes, making them more prone to accidents in some ways.

  • Speed: Scooters (and e-bikes) tend to go faster than traditional bicycles, making them harder to control for riders and more difficult to anticipate for cars and others on the road.
  • Form: Experts also point to attributes of scooters like smaller wheels and lower center of gravity as factors that make them less capable of smoothly riding over uneven roads, potholes, swerving and so on.
  • Riders: In a recent Centers for Disease Control study of scooters in Austin, more than 30% of those injured were first-time riders, suggesting that lack of experience and safety education are factors in accidents.

Yes, but: Both scooters and bikes currently have to contend with roads that were designed only for cars. The growing popularity of scooters could force city planners to make room for them.

If people really do swap scooter trips for some of their car rides, there will be fewer cars on the road. That may have positive effects on overall road safety for scooter users.

Be smart: There’s still so little data about scooters (compared to the decades of bicycle use), that it’s tough to say quite yet how companies, cities and people should tackle safety issues.

Go deeper: Read the full post

3. The valet parking guy won't like this

Driverless parking using a smartphone app. Photo: Daimler

Daimler and Bosch have received approval from German regulators to operate an automated parking service without a safety driver behind the wheel.

Why it matters: It is the world’s first fully automated driverless parking feature approved for public use and represents an important building block for self-driving cars of the future.

How it works: Limited for now to a single parking garage at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, it is the product of 4 years of work by the two German giants.

  • The driver pulls the car into the parking garage, gets out and taps a few commands on a smartphone app and the car drives itself to an assigned parking space.
  • Later, the car returns to the drop-off point in a similar way.
  • Not any car can be parked this way; it requires an advanced vehicle equipped with SAE Level 4 autonomy, which means the public will need to experience the function in a Mercedes demonstration vehicle for now.

What's next: Daimler and Bosch are working to bring fully autonomous vehicles to urban roads “by the start of the next decade.” Last year, the companies announced plans to pilot a robotaxi service in San Jose, California, starting later this year.

4. Driving the conversation

Summer read: Was the automotive era a terrible mistake? (Nathan Heller, New Yorker)

  • My thought bubble: This is a long read on the cultural history of the automobile (and one very long anecdote about the author's driving test), but it causes us to think about how we've moved from A to B for the past 100 years, and how we're likely to do so in the future.
  • "Many drivers regard autonomous cars as a pervert technology, like sex robots or Nespresso machines, and plan to reject the things as soon as they show up. In reality, self-driving cars are likely to overtake the market through a gradual shift in norms and features, a process that ... has already begun."

Do-over: City planners eye self-driving vehicles to correct mistakes of the 20th-century auto (Katherine Shaver, Washington Post)

  • The big picture: If cities had do-overs, the advent of self-driving vehicles is a great opportunity. With proper planning, AVs could increase car-sharing and make cities more livable. But, they could also worsen traffic and sprawl if they’re so cheap and convenient that they encourage solo driving from long distances.

Data dump: Lyft releases open source data set for autonomous vehicle development (Kyle Wiggers, Venture Beat)

  • Why it matters: Lyft isn't seen as a leader in AV development, but it has racked up more than 50,000 miles on AV test vehicles with its partner Aptiv in the real world (well, in Las Vegas, anyway). Sharing the data helps other researchers in the quest to develop AV technology and bring self-driving cars closer to reality.
5. 1 electrifying thing

Photo: Ford

Ford is circulating video of its prototype electric F-150 truck pulling rail cars weighing a combined 1 million pounds (and more when they added 42 gasoline-powered F-15os to the load).

Quick take: It's a not-so-subtle attempt to show that the company's push into EVs won't come at the expense of performance of the F-150, the country's top-selling pickup, Axios' Ben Geman writes.

The intrigue: Per CNBC, it's also an effort to "defend its highly profitable pickup franchise from emerging all-electric truck competitors such as Tesla." GM is also working on electric pickups.

One big question: It's not clear when the truck will go on sale. A spokeswoman said "in the next few years."

Go deeper: Ford teases all-electric F-150 pickup truck by pulling a million-pound train (The Verge)