Sep 13, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Expert Voices contributor Alex Ryan writes about what cities are doing to manage dockless scooters.

Smart Brevity count: 1,202 words, < 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Designing AVs from the sofa

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Software designers can work almost anywhere, but writing code for a self-driving car tends to be a hands-on exercise — engineers need to directly experience how a vehicle performs and hone software as needed.

  • But AV companies are maturing and beginning to rethink that convention.

The big picture: There's a war for talent across all tech industries, requiring AV companies to get creative to attract the top experts.

What's happening: In Silicon Valley, which is the heart of the self-driving industry, AV startups are competing with gold-plated compensation packages from deep-pocketed tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google.

  • Plus, many people can't afford to live in Silicon Valley or won't move there.
  • One example is at Cruise, GM's San Francisco-based self-driving subsidiary, where 10 of the 42 senior engineers working for VP Tim Piastrelli's security team are working remotely from places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Voyage was an early pioneer in hiring remote engineers to work on self-driving technology. The Palo Alto-based startup, which raised $31 million this week, is piloting automated ride-hailing shuttles in a Florida retirement community and began experimenting with the arrangement about a year ago.

  • Early on, engineers really did have to be physically close to the car in Palo Alto, Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron tells Axios.
  • As the company matured and expanded testing, hands-on engineering instead became a "pain point," he says, so the company built tools that would let engineers work from anywhere.
  • Voyage now has veterans from Apple, SpaceX and Twitter working on critical AV projects in places like Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Boise.

How it works: Reliable simulation, along with powerful cloud computing and other tools to manage the massive amounts of raw data collected daily from self-driving test vehicles, make it possible, Cameron explains in a blog post.

  • Vehicle data can be quickly downloaded by an engineer who can iterate rapidly and test those changes in simulated environments.
  • When something can't be validated virtually, it can still be tested by human operators in the vehicle.

Yes, but: Hands-on vehicle experience remains critical to most hiring managers at AV companies, says Jessica Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Mobility Institute.

What's next: There's "a very obvious ceiling" to remote hiring in the AV industry as self-driving cars move out of the design phase and begin to proliferate on roadways, Brookings Institution fellow Adie Tomer tells Axios.

  • At that point, the workforce will shift to managing AV fleets, a decidedly hands-on occupation where it will be critical for redundant teams to work side-by-side.
2. Self-driving cars aren't ready — see for yourself

Ford Argo AI test vehicle in Detroit. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

Washington Post journalists have put together a fantastic interactive graphic that explains in simple terms why self-driving cars aren't close to being ready.

How it works: You get to be the backup driver in the Post's virtual AV for a trip to the airport.

  • With the aid of simple animated graphics, they first explain geo-fencing, how the sensors work and their limitations.
  • They also explain instances the AV can't handle, which is why the backup driver (you!) is so important.
  • Then you're on your own. There's a big red button you can hit quickly if you need to take control or if the car perceives a problem and disengages from autonomous mode.

Try it! It's a worthy 2 minutes of your time.

3. Cities try to get ahead of e-scooter rollouts

The scooter situation in Lisbon. Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images.

Cities are rushing to take proactive steps after dockless e-scooters have arrived in places ranging from Austin to Paris without safety or storage guidance.

Why it matters: This has resulted in imperiled pedestrians, vandalized scooters, hospitalized riders and bewildered governments, Alex Ryan of MaRS writes for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: Cities, especially those in the first wave of e-scooters, have been hamstrung in responding to unsanctioned, unregulated rollouts that call to mind Uber's playbook.

What's happening: Paris, for example, was deluged by over 20,000 e-scooters without consultation. Broken scooters have been thrown into the Seine, and victims of injuries caused by scooters are organizing to sue authorities, citing regulatory negligence.

  • Cities including Chicago, Portland and Calgary have attempted to make rules proactively, permitting small-scale pilot programs and experimenting with policies and practices designed to integrate tech into the transportation landscape.

How it works: The more control a city has over traffic and roadways, and the more notice it has about the arrival of e-scooters, the stronger its position can be in responding to rollouts.

  • For example, Montreal implemented stringent rules, where scooters are restricted to streets with speed limits under 30 mph and not allowed on sidewalks.
  • Details: In Montreal, scooters must be parked in designated areas. Riders must be 18, licensed and helmeted, and they have to watch a training video. Additionally, Lime must share data on its fleet (including accidents, complaints and remedies), which can inform updates to the rules.
  • Yes, but: The Montreal pilot program still experienced some backlash since launching in August, with complaints about sidewalk crowding, illegal parking and potential injuries.

The bottom line: The pilot program in Montreal could serve as a template for other cities anticipating e-scooter rollouts — and also for mobility tech companies.

Ryan is VP of systems innovation and program director of the Solutions Lab at MaRS.

4. Driving the conversation

Take two: Cities are trying — again — to plan for autonomous vehicles (Aarian Marshall — Wired)

  • Why it matters: The National Association of City Transportation Officials, representing 81 North American cities, this week published a second version of its AV planning guide, one that takes a more skeptical approach than its 2017 peak-hype version.

Highway robbery: More states hitting electric vehicle owners with high fees, a Consumer Reports analysis shows (Jeff Plungis — Consumer Reports)

  • Details: CR's study found that of the 26 states that currently impose fees on EV owners, 11 charge more than what owners of similar gas-powered cars pay in fuel taxes, and three charge more than twice the amount.
  • Be smart: As Axios' Expert Voices contributor Jim Barbaresso wrote recently, a mileage-based tax could be a better solution.

Unloading: Ford bows out of car-subscription biz with sale of Canvas (Sean Szymkowski — CNET)

  • Why it matters: Car subscription models, billed as an alternative to personal ownership, have yet to find much traction. Canvas is the latest mobility-related company that Ford purchased, then later unloaded.
5. What I'm driving

2019 Volkswagen Arteon SEL. Photo courtesy of VW

This week I'm driving the 2019 Volkswagen Arteon, a pretty car with a funny name.

Of note: Volkswagen has a history of assigning strange names to its vehicles — Touareg? Tiguan? EOS? At least they got it right with Atlas, the moniker for their big all-American SUV.

Why it matters: VW is trying to revive its brand in the U.S. after its devastating diesel-emissions scandal. Having car names that customers can latch onto certainly helps.

  • The question that VW faces — as do all automakers — is whether there's still a market for 4-door passenger sedans.

Arteon certainly is a looker, especially in the deep Atlantic Blue paint job on my test model.

  • Based on VW's new modular MQB architecture, it has an aggressive stance, which is low and wide, but with a sleek coupe-like profile that gives it an upscale presence.

Details: The base SE model I drove came with the standard 268 hp 2.0-liter turbo engine paired to an 8-speed transmission.

  • The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system cuts the fuel economy to an average 23 mpg (vs. 25 mpg for front-wheel drive) and raises the sticker price to $37,645.
  • Basic driver-assistance features such as automated emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring are standard. But more advanced safety tech — adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and automatic high-beam headlamps — are only available on higher trim levels.

The bottom line: Styling alone doesn't cut it, though. As with previous VW flagship sedans — the Phaeton and CC — the Arteon attempts to push into premium territory, but some of its interior materials and technology don't live up to that ambition.

Joann Muller