Nov 15, 2019

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

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I'm off to L.A. next week for the AutoMobility LA conference, where Axios managing editor Alison Snyder and I will be your emcees. Stop by and say hello! Then it's on to Miami, where I'll be moderating a panel at the Florida Automated Vehicles summit.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,567 words, ~ 6 minutes.

1 big thing: Waymo and the Wright brothers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A leading AV developer this week said self-driving cars just quietly had their "Kitty Hawk moment."

The big picture: It was a surprising assertion as the hype around self-driving cars has calmed, and most companies are recalibrating their plans for AVs. But in his optimistic blog post, Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron wrote Waymo's recent expansion of "rider-only" taxi service for early adopters near Phoenix puts us in a "post-driverless world."

  • Citing a journalist's first-hand account of the experience, Cameron called it a "monumental achievement" that "bears comparison with the great transportation innovations through time: the birth of flight, rail, the automobile, or the first crossing of the oceans."

If you ask Waymo, they might say their Kitty Hawk moment occurred back in 2015, when they gave a visually impaired man the first ride in an AV. Or in 2017, when they demonstrated their fully driverless capabilities on YouTube.

Orville and Wilbur Wright didn't have the internet to spread the news in 1903 after Wilbur flew their fixed-wing plane for 59 seconds, at 852 feet, near the outer banks of North Carolina.

  • The press was skeptical, even two years later, when they flew another plane — "a machine of practical utility" — for a full 40 minutes, says Peter Jakab, chief curator of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
  • The Wright brothers buckled down and further developed their aircraft, finally achieving fame in 1908, but it wasn't until the late 1920s and early 1930s that safe, reliable, commercial air transportation was available to the public, Jakab tells Axios.

Fast forward: As with aviation or the spread of electricity (which took 30 years to hit 70% of U.S. households), the shift to autonomy will occur gradually, block by block and city by city.

  • We hear it consistently from virtually every CEO Axios has interviewed, including Argo AI's Bryan Salesky, Waymo's John Krafcik, Cruise's Dan Ammann and Uber's Dara Khosrowshahi.
  • The only exception is Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who says his company will have one million self-driving cars on the road by next year.

What to watch: The challenge is proving tougher than expected, but now that Waymo has shown self-driving technology is possible in some circumstances, the focus is shifting to commercialization.

  • "The industry now has to figure out how to scale this technology in a way that is as cost-effective and reliable as running water," Cameron tells Axios in an interview.
  • Venture capital will gravitate toward those with the best business models, and a shakeout will occur.
  • Cameron predicts fewer than 20% of the 64 companies licensed to test AVs in California will survive, while Ammann says it could be just a couple.

Of note: Amid all the pessimism and recalibrated plans, Cameron, whose company is working on robotaxis for retirement communities, says he just felt the urge this week to pause and celebrate a competitor's accomplishment.

  • "It just felt like it needed to be noted."
2. Uber's driverless plan

Uber self-driving test vehicles in Pittsburgh. Photo: Angelo Merendino/AFP via Getty Images

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says the first AVs could be deployed on the ride-hailing network within three to five years, but it will be other companies bearing the cost of owning and maintaining those self-driving cars.

Why it matters: Driverless technology is a key to profitability for Uber, which has warned investors to expect losses of almost $3 billion this year. But if all it does is replace the cost of a human driver with the overhead from managing its own fleet of self-driving cars, it won't be any closer to achieving a profit.

  • "Marriott doesn't own a single hotel, right? There are these financial entities that own the hotels. Marriott is the brand," Khosrowshahi tells Axios.
  • "There are going to be financial players ... who own these cars. There will be operating companies that take care of [them], refuel them, repair them, etc. And then we want to be the operating system that drives the car."

Catch up fast: Khosrowshahi talked about financials, autonomy, rider safety, unions and politics during a wide-ranging "Axios on HBO" interview with Dan Primack and Mike Allen on Sunday.

3. That electric car buzz

Ford's Mustang Mach-E crossover debuts Sunday. Photo: Ford

Some highly anticipated battery-powered vehicles are debuting next week from Tesla, Ford and others.

The big picture: "After spending billions on eco-friendly, all-electric cars that resulted in lackluster sales, automakers are shifting their target market from earthy environmentalists to gearheads and thrill seekers looking for speed," per CNBC.

Two important debuts to watch:

1. The Ford Mustang Mach-E, a performance-oriented electric crossover, will be unveiled Sunday night in Los Angeles, on the eve of AutoMobility LA, an auto and technology trade event.

  • Ford is trying to keep the wraps on the car's specifications until the big reveal, but some details leaked on a Ford consumer forum website.
  • The starting price would be $43,895 ($36,395 after a federal tax credit) for a car with 230 miles of battery range. An extended range version would get up to 300 miles and cost around $50,000, according to the site.

2. A Tesla pickup truck will be unveiled Thursday, also in L.A., near the SpaceX rocket factory.

  • CEO Elon Musk has said the electric truck, which was first announced in 2013, will have a starting price of less than $50,000.
  • Why it matters: There's an unmet customer need for an electric truck that can also power a work site, and both GM and Ford have electric pickups on the way.
  • My thought bubble: Tesla's truck will find an audience among high-end, tech-savvy buyers, but it's hard to imagine they'll steal many traditional truck customers from Chevy, Ford or Ram. Pickup truck owners are fiercely loyal, and productivity is their primary concern.
4. Cutting transportation emissions is hard
Expand chart
Reproduced from the Department of Energy; Chart: Axios Visuals

Using carbon pricing to cut transportation emissions could be tough, and Axios' Ben Geman says that some Energy Department data from this week helps to explain why.

Driving the news: The latest entry from the Vehicle Technologies Office's handy "transportation fact of the week" series compares a decade of changes in U.S. gasoline prices to vehicle miles traveled.

The big picture: The chart above nicely illustrates something that climate advocates and analysts already know: Big fuel price swings don't change driving levels much.

  • There's a number of reasons, including the fact that lots of driving isn't particularly optional and that people lack reliable alternatives in many areas.
  • But transportation is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so cutting pollution from the sector via cleaner cars, efficiency and mass transit is a priority.

Quick take: The data suggests that a carbon tax would have to be really high to put a big dent in vehicle miles traveled. Plus, high carbon prices — for that matter any carbon prices — are politically a tough sell.

What they're saying: "It’s just really difficult to move the needle on emissions in the transportation sector," Noah Kaufman, an economist with a Columbia University energy think tank, said.

  • "Consumers may be a lot more responsive to CO2 prices than typical gasoline price changes, but even so, the impact on vehicle emissions of a double-digit CO2 price will be small, at least in the near-term," Kaufman said.

But, but, but: Kaufman, a carbon tax supporter who analyzes various Capitol Hill proposals, says they can still be a useful part of the transportation policy toolkit.

Read more

5. Driving the conversation

Expanding: Elon Musk announces new Tesla factory in Germany (Ben Geman — Axios)

  • My thought bubble: With so much factory overcapacity in Europe, it's surprising that Tesla did not look for a deal on a cast-off factory as it did in California when it purchased a former GM-Toyota joint venture.

Panic button: Cirrus’ private jet can now land itself, no pilot needed (Eric Adams — Wired)

  • Why it matters: If the pilot is incapacitated, all the passenger has to do is push a big red button and the Garmin technology will find the nearest suitable airport, calculate a flight path, communicate with air traffic control, and autonomously guide the aircraft onto the runway and to a complete stop.

Outlier: VW challenges rivals with $66 billion splurge for electric era (Christoph Rauwald — Bloomberg)

  • Why it matters: Other automakers are tightening their belts, but Volkswagen says it will increase spending on EVs and AVs by 36%, a sign of the increasing pressure on automakers to adapt to disruptive technology shifts and tighter pollution regulations.
6. What I'm driving

2020 Hyundai Palisade. Photo: Hyundai

This week, I'm driving the 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited.

Quick take: After more than nine inches of unexpected snow in Detroit, I felt safe in the big three-row crossover with its all-wheel-drive capability.

The big picture: Starting at $31,550, this is Hyundai's biggest model, and it's going up against some stalwarts in the three-row crossover segment like the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.

  • Plus, it will compete against the new Kia Telluride, which shares many components, including its 291-hp, 3.8-liter V6 engine and 8-speed automatic transmission.

Details: The Palisade's styling, including a wide cascading grille (which isn't for everyone) and well-appointed interior with quilted leather upholstery, give it an upscale feel.

  • The center console is wide, with a push-button gear selector and climate and infotainment controls that took a while to find. But once accustomed to the layout, the controls were easy to use.

Driver-assistance features: Several advanced safety systems come standard, including forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assistance, a driver attention monitor, and a rear-occupant alert.

  • A unique blind view monitoring system displays a camera image of what's in the car's blind spot — a car, pedestrian or cyclist — whenever the turn signal is activated.
  • A safe exit system uses radar to detect a car approaching from the rear and won't let passengers open the door until the car passes.

The bottom line: Even my loaded $47,605 Palisade Limited seems like a lot of car for the money.

Joann Muller