Nov 14, 2018

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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1 big thing: Self-driving cars expand airwave fight

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Hungry for more Wi-Fi capacity, the telecom industry is looking to snatch control of underutilized airwaves reserved for the auto industry. But this is coming just as carmakers begin to make progress on developing and adopting technologies for connected and autonomous cars that currently rely on that spectrum.

The big picture: Tech and telecom companies have been fighting for years over spectrum to support exploding demand for mobile services and smartphones. Automakers have had exclusive access to a band of spectrum for almost 20 years but haven't done much with it, prompting telecom providers to argue, "Use it or lose it."

The FCC is looking at a third possibility — share it.

The dilemma: Some safety advocates and automakers worry that commercial Wi-Fi will interfere with vehicle-to-vehicle communications in an emergency.

"The last thing you want is to be approaching an intersection and your kids are streaming a video in the back seat and a car is about to run a red light but you don’t get the safety message."
— James Barbaresso, SVP of intelligent transportation systems, at infrastructure advisory firm HNTB

What's happening: The Federal Communications Commission is assessing whether cars and Wi-Fi services can safely share the same frequency.

  • The agency just completed the first phase of a study that found Wi-Fi can operate in the 5.9 GHz band set aside for vehicle communication without interference.
  • "Not so fast," says the U.S. Department of Transportation, which insists that all 3 test phases be completed before making any decisions.
  • Meanwhile, the advent of new cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technology — based on improved cellular networks — is muddying the debate over spectrum-sharing.

The background: In 1999, the FCC set aside part of the communications spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for the development of dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) that would allow vehicles to communicate with each other and with devices planted alongside roads.

  • But DSRC technology has been slow to develop, and only now is beginning to be deployed.
  • Toyota, Lexus and Cadillac models will be equipped with DSRC by 2021 and dozens of states are installing the roadside units.
"OEMs have been sinking tons of money into DSRC applications to demonstrate this would work. They want to see a return on their investment."
— James Barbaresso

Meanwhile, a coalition of other automakers and telecom operators are pushing instead for the fast rollout of C-V2X technology.

  • Because C-V2X leverages cellular networks, it won’t require a massive deployment of roadside units.
  • Supporters say consumers are familiar with cellular service from their mobile phone service and C-V2X will one day migrate to even faster 5G technology.

What to watch: The FCC has already signaled the debate may have shifted away from spectrum-sharing and that further tests might be unnecessary, suggesting a cellular approach will be the winner. Europe is leaning toward DSRC but the progress of C-V2X in China may prove decisive, per the World Economic Forum's Eric Jillard.

2. What's needed for AVs to drive in bad weather

Driving in the Auvergne region of France in October 2018. Photo: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images

Most AVs use a combination of lidar, radar and cameras to survey their environment, but these technologies can fall short in even mildly inclement weather, and few AV systems meaningfully incorporate external data on weather and road conditions, Kevin Petty, chief science officer at Vaisala, writes for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: Fully automated AVs will need to be able to pull and analyze information from various sensors on and off the vehicle to safely navigate. Despite industry optimism, however, getting this technology up to speed will likely take years.

Details: AVs can struggle to collect accurate data in adverse driving conditions, let alone make use of it.

  • Ice, snow, water, and even dust or fog can obscure camera lenses.
  • They can also cause a vehicle's lidar to interpret anything obscuring the sensor as an obstacle, triggering a sudden brake.
  • Radar works proficiently in poor weather because it can penetrate thick fog, rain and snow. But it doesn’t offer enough detail for navigating busy roads.

Where it stands: Carmakers have begun to develop and test technology to address the challenges posed by weather.

Connectivity will be key, including data transmitted by other vehicles.

  • Road weather information systems, which measure weather and pavement conditions, also produce highly accurate data that should be made accessible to AVs.

What to watch: The American Meteorological Society and other organizations are stepping in to help develop industry standards for weather data, such as how often it should be transmitted and what level of precision is needed for AVs to operate safely.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

3. Driving the conversation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

I want to hear — and share — what you're reading about AVs. Send me a link to an article and your expert analysis of why it matters to joann.muller@axios.com.

Smarter cars, costly repairs: More safety means higher insurance costs (Felix Salmon — Axios)

  • "The big picture: As cars evolve from being mostly mechanical to being computers on wheels, they become increasingly fragile," Felix writes.
  • What it means for AVs: In theory, autonomous cars won't crash so you won't be dishing out hundreds of dollars to fix a broken tail light with a sensor buried inside.

Roadblocks: The $6 trillion barrier holding electric cars back (Anjani Trivedi — Bloomberg Opinion)

  • "The bottom line is we’re at least five years away from bringing the price of a good electric car down to that of comparable conventional one, without factoring in tax credits and subsidies," Trivedi says.

Scooter and bikes: Mapping the impact of dockless vehicles (Kristin Musulin, Chris Teale and Sean GibbonsSmart Cities Dive)

  • Why it matters: As cities get more crowded, more people will be using scooters and bikes to complete their journey, which is why GM, Ford and other carmakers are introducing micromobility solutions.

Funding fight: Congress looks to restore $20 million for AV test sites (Shaun Courtney — Bloomberg Government)

  • What to watch: Without picking "winners and losers," the DOT has to decide how to reallocate the money to advance the safety of autonomous vehicles.
4. New AV industry could look like the old

1962 Belvedere sedans at the Plymouth factory in Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Waymo, Uber, Zoox and other companies aiming to produce AV technology on their own are in the spotlight but in some cases, suppliers that have carved out highly specialized technical niches are emerging as major contributors, Qasar Younis, CEO of AV simulation software supplier Applied Intuition, writes for Axios.

The big picture: As AV technology advances, legacy automakers, tech companies and startups are likely to become increasingly dependent on other players for mapping, simulation, tele-operations and more. For all its new technology, the AV industry may end up with a tiered system just like that of the conventional auto industry.

Two examples that make the case for the horizontal approach:

  1. Personal computing: The companies that prevailed were not the ones that manufactured everything in-house, but rather those that aggressively specialized and bought everything else off-the-shelf.
  2. Conventional cars: The automakers that have survived haven’t done so by making their own airbags and seats; instead, they look to Tier 1 suppliers, who in turn often procure component parts from more specialized Tier 2 and Tier 3 firms.

Yes, but: Vertical AV companies do have the advantage of working with a fully integrated set of technological systems, whereas horizontal companies have to adapt to the various standards companies use for everything from mapping data to annotation.

What to watch: In the future, AV software will only become more modular, and it's likely that horizontal suppliers will be increasingly able to deliver faster, more sophisticated solutions at lower costs, giving way to a new tiered system.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

5. 1 new old thing: internal combustion engines

Nissan's VC-turbo engine is one of the most advanced internal combustion engines ever created. Photo: Nissan

The era of EVs — and with it, AVs — may be dawning, but guess what? "2018 has been a phenomenal year for the humble internal combustion engine," writes Richard Truett in Automotive News.

Why it matters: Even with a flood of new EVs coming to challenge Tesla, fewer than 8% of vehicles will be electrics or hybrids by 2025, up from 2% today, per Automotive News. The rest will still be gasoline-powered cars.

  • Absent huge consumer demand for EVs, automakers must invest heavily in engine technology to satisfy stricter fuel economy standards set under the Obama administration.
  • The EPA says average fleet-wide fuel economy improved to a record 24.7 mpg in 2016.
  • The Obama-era target is about 47 mpg by 2025.

What's happening now: Automakers are investing in new engine architectures and technologies that boost power, reduce emissions and increase efficiency. Some notable innovations cited by Automotive News:

What to watch: The Trump administration has proposed freezing emissions standards at 2020 levels, but automakers say even if the mandates are relaxed, they'll keep investing in cleaner, more efficient engines to satisfy global standards and to address consumers' environmental concerns.

Joann Muller