Mar 13, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today Expert Voices contributor Rob Toews looks at the growing demand for urban real estate to manage robotaxi fleets.

1 big thing: What Tesla knows about you

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Every mile, every block, every inch of pavement driven by a Tesla vehicle generates a trove of information that can reveal as much about you as about your car.

Why it matters: Tesla is more of a tech company than a car company. And because data is critical to self-driving cars, it has designed its vehicles from the outset to be sophisticated rolling computers.

  • As all cars get smarter and more automated, the data they collect will unlock new conveniences for drivers — but also new privacy concerns.

Most modern vehicles already gather some data. They include a cellular Wi-Fi connection that transmits basic telematics data from the car to the cloud.

  • The data they collect could include your vehicle's location and your car's personal settings, such as contacts you've synced from your phone, addresses you've plugged into the navigation system, and even your favorite radio stations.
  • Automakers use that information to suggest pre-emptive maintenance, for example, or to offer remote help such as unlocking the doors or roadside assistance.

But Tesla collects more information than most.

  • It knows your speed, your mileage, and where and when you charge the battery.
  • It also monitors airbag deployments, braking and acceleration, which helps in accident investigations.
  • And it knows when Autopilot, Tesla's assisted-driving feature, is engaged or disengaged, and whether you have your hands on the wheel as you should.

Teslas are constantly in record mode, using cameras and other sensors to log every detail about what they encounter while driving, even when Autopilot is turned off.

Most important, Tesla uses data from its vehicles to crowdsource advanced technology features like high-precision maps and improvements to Autopilot.

"What makes Tesla unique is the two-way nature of its data capability."
— Bryant Walker Smith, assistant law professor and AV expert, University of South Carolina

What you can do:

  • You can contact Tesla to stop sharing basic data, but that could affect your car's operation, prevent software updates and disable some features, Tesla says.
  • You can also opt out of sharing location-related data, including video clips.
  • But bystanders whose images are captured by Tesla's cameras don't have any ability to opt out, which presents potential privacy concerns.

For the record: Tesla says its customers’ privacy is of the highest importance to the company. It recently joined a host of American companies and government agencies in an effort to help define a new international standard for consumer privacy protection.

The big picture: Big data captured from cars could be worth $450 billion to $750 billion globally by 2030, according to McKinsey.

What's next: Cars are the next data-guzzling platform, as Tesla has demonstrated. It might be too late to stop the flow of information, but the challenge is to control how it's used and shared.

Go deeper:

2. Voted most likely to succeed

Waymo's self-driving minivan in Arizona. Photo: Waymo

It's passé to talk about the "race to develop self-driving cars" nowadays since everyone seems to acknowledge the deployment of AVs will take longer than expected. But it's still interesting to assess the players' relative progress.

The big picture: Waymo, GM Cruise and Ford's Autonomous Vehicles unit are seen as the current leaders among 20 companies developing AVs, according to a new report from Navigant Research.

Why it matters: The AV landscape is shifting, along with expectations about the technology's readiness. Companies that are simultaneously developing new business models along with AV technology are most likely to succeed in commercialization, Navigant says.

To create the leaderboard rankings, principal analyst Sam Abuelsamid assessed the companies on a range of 10 criteria, including somewhat subjective measures like vision, go-to-market strategy and staying power.

  • The companies were grouped, based on their scores, in one of four categories: leaders, contenders, challengers and followers.

What they found: After the leaders (Waymo, GM Cruise and Ford), there were 14 "contenders."

  • These include major auto suppliers like Intel-Mobileye and Aptiv as well as tech newcomers like Zoox and Navya.
  • Tesla, Apple and Voyage Auto brought up the rear in the "challenger" category.
  • No companies scored low enough to be considered "followers."

The intrigue: The study will no doubt take some heat for rating Tesla so low.

  • Abuelsamid argues that Tesla's Autopilot software had "stagnated" since its 2015 launch until late last year when when it added its new Navigate on Autopilot feature.
  • Tesla's Model 3 production problems, along with several high profile crashes, also factored into the scoring, he said.

What to watch: Tesla plans to update Autopilot this year with a new proprietary AI processor to replace the Nvidia chips used in its current system. And CEO Elon Musk says its full self-driving system will be completed by the end of 2019.

  • If those things come to pass, Tesla will likely march up that leaderboard.
3. Real estate is emerging as an AV battleground

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As leading AV companies seek to bring robotaxis to market, their competition could extend from AI-powered software into real estate, Zoox's Rob Toews writes for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: Today's ride-hailing companies are software-only platforms. But as AV technology goes commercial, companies that plan to own and operate fleets of robotaxis — including Waymo and GM Cruise — will need a considerable footprint to store, clean, refuel and repair thousands of vehicles.

Where it stands: AV companies are focusing their robotaxi efforts on cities, which offer the densest population centers and largest markets.

Details: Within each launch city, robotaxi operators need to find property that satisfies a particular set of requirements to support their go-to-market efforts — such as a large area in a strategic location near busy neighborhoods and an electric substation.

The catch: The U.S. has a finite number of large and attractive launch cities, particularly after factoring in regulatory and climate considerations. And in any given city, there are limited real estate parcels that will check all of these boxes.

The bottom line: As more companies get serious about bringing robotaxi services to market, real estate strategy could become an increasingly important part of the AV competition. Expect plenty of land grabs.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Toews works on strategy at Zoox and is the co-founder of SHFFT, a Stanford-Harvard group interested in the future of transportation.

4. Driving the conversation

GM Cruise's latest self-driving car has no steering wheel or pedals. Photo: GM

Relic: GM's first autonomous car heads to Henry Ford Museum (Mark Phelan — Detroit Free Press)

  • My thought bubble: History sure moves fast. GM's first self-driving car, a 3-year-old Chevy Bolt electric car, is already an artifact. The company has moved on to its fourth-generation AV, which has no steering wheel or pedals.
  • NHTSA still hasn't granted GM a waiver to put that car on the road, however, so when its Cruise self-driving subsidiary launches a robotaxi service later this year, it'll likely do so with its third-generation technology.

Legal limbo: Uber death leaves questions about self-driving car liability unanswered (CNN Wire —

  • Why it matters: The death of Elaine Herzberg, who was killed last year by an Uber AV undergoing testing in Arizona, was the first big liability test case for self-driving cars.
  • Prosecutors said Uber won’t face criminal charges but it wasn't clear whether they felt Uber bore no responsibility or because there is no law in Arizona under which the company could be charged.

Growing: GM Cruise snags Dropbox HR head to hire at least 1,000 engineers by end of year (Kirsten Korosec — TechCrunch)

  • The big picture: GM Cruise plans to double its headcount by the end of the year — most of them in San Francisco but some in Seattle, too. The company seems to be forging ahead with plans to launch a driverless taxi service by the end of 2019.
5. 1 cash hog thing

Uber's self-driving car in Pittsburgh. Photo: Angelo Merendino/AFP/Getty Images

Newly unsealed court documents reveal that Uber's self-driving car unit was burning through $20 million a month in the run-up to this year's expected IPO.

  • "The figures, dating back to 2016, paint a picture of a company desperate to meet over-ambitious autonomy targets and one that is willing to spend freely, even recklessly, to get there," TechCrunch's Mark Harris reports.

My thought bubble: What's the big deal?

The bottom line: Self-driving cars require billions of dollars of investment, with no guarantee of success. Many companies will lose their shirt.

Joann Muller