Aug 23, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Situational awareness: China says it will impose retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion worth of U.S. goods and resume 25% duties on American autos and 5% tariffs on auto parts.

Smart brevity count: 1,371 words, ~ 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Inside Honda's safety labs

Honda engineer takes measurements ahead of a simulated crash test. Photo: Honda

In the ever-evolving world of car safety where billions are being spent on the most advanced lidar systems and deep learning algorithms, some companies are also focusing on how to improve occupant protection.

The big picture: Self-driving cars are a long way off, and newly available crash avoidance technologies like automatic emergency braking can’t prevent all collisions.

  • Until cars are smart enough to avoid crashing entirely, automakers will keep working on ways to reduce the potential for injuries when they inevitably do.
  • There are many aspects of safety under the microscope, including mulling how to compensate for gender differences in crash tests, developing better seats for women, and redesigning the air bag.

Driving the news: Honda is introducing a next-generation airbag designed like a giant catcher's mitt. It not only cushions the front passenger's head but also reduces twisting neck injuries that often lead to brain trauma.

This week, I got a rare peek behind the curtain at Honda's safety labs on the campus of the company's huge research and development facility in Raymond, Ohio.

  • Besides the new airbag, Honda showed journalists its work on improving pedestrian safety and its use of crumple zones and other structural engineering tricks to divert crash energy away from the occupant cabin.
  • From behind plexiglass we watched as technicians crashed a bright yellow 2019 Honda Civic coupe into a 90-metric-ton block of concrete.
  • Seeing a crash test in person is pretty horrifying. (Watch how high-speed cameras capture the impact from multiple angles. You can actually see the energy flow through the vehicle.)
  • The car was destroyed, but the crash test dummy inside fared pretty well.
  • "Any time something deforms, breaks or bends, it's a beautiful thing," because it means energy was directed away from the cabin, said Brian Bautsch, manager of crash safety at Honda R&D Americas.

How it works: Before Honda crashes its vehicles into a concrete barrier, it spends a lot of time in a simulation lab.

Details: Honda's new passenger airbag is designed to reduce the potential for injuries that can occur in the real world, where crashes rarely happen directly head-on. Per Honda...

  • When a crash occurs at an angle, the lateral forces can cause an occupant’s head to rotate severely or slide off the airbag, increasing the chance of serious brain injury.
  • Instead, its new airbag has multiple chambers that sandwich and cradle the passenger's head, mitigating the potential for injury. (Watch video here.)
  • The airbag, which will debut in 2020, was co-developed with Autoliv, Honda's new airbag supplier.

Flashback: Honda recalled 12.9 million Honda and Acura vehicles in the U.S. to replace faulty Takata airbag inflators in recent years.

  • The Takata airbag recall hit Honda the hardest, but has affected virtually all major automakers.
  • With 56 million defective air bags being recalled, it was the biggest auto safety recall in U.S. history, according to the NHTSA. (Check your car's status.)
2. Nuro could help set rules for unmanned delivery vehicles

Nuro's unmanned delivery vehicles are half the width of a Toyota Camry and limited to 25 mph. Photo: Nuro

U.S. transportation officials are considering a new class of motor vehicles — ones with no occupants — in preparation for an expected surge in robot deliveries of everything from groceries to pizza.

Why it matters: Unmanned delivery vehicles are different from self-driving passenger cars, but both require exemptions from federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) in order to operate on public roads.

  • Carving out a new class for delivery robocars would be a step toward defining standards for future automated vehicles.

Where it stands: DOT is reviewing petitions from 2 companies — GM and Nuro — for exemptions from FMVSS.

  • GM's Cruise subsidiary wants permission to deploy a fleet of robotaxis with no steering wheels or pedals in San Francisco.
  • AV startup Nuro is seeking large-scale deployment of its compact delivery vehicles, currently in pilot phase with Kroger and Domino's.

Of note: A DOT official tells Axios the agency will consider updating the standards on a case-by-case basis, but says a simpler approach could be to create a new motor vehicle class for AVs.

Between the lines: Nuro is the perfect test case.

  • Vehicle safety standards were created with human drivers in mind. But, in Nuro's case, there are no occupants at all — so things like seat belts, backup cameras and mirrors don’t apply.
  • The vehicles are equipped with lidar and camera sensors that provide a 360-degree view.
  • If DOT were to approve an exemption for Nuro's R2X model, it could generate data that would help regulators develop standards for a new class of unmanned delivery vehicles, the DOT official said.

The backdrop: There is a precedent — 20 years ago, as electric golf carts grew popular on subdivision streets, NHTSA created a new motor vehicle class for low speed vehicles.

  • Those low-speed vehicles are now the basis for limited AV passenger shuttles run by companies such as May Mobility and Optimus Ride.

The bottom line: DOT's goal is creating standards that ensure safety but can accommodate new technologies over time.

3. Curbing roadside chaos

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The lowly curb has become a coveted piece of urban real estate, Axios' Kim Hart writes.

It's also a chaotic mess thanks to exploding demand for street-side access — by hordes of delivery trucks, taxis and ride-hailing services; electric bikes and scooters; city buses; pedestrians; construction crews; garbage trucks; parked cars; and meters.

My thought bubble: It'll only get worse when self-driving cars are added to the mix. They're likely to be cruising around or waiting to pick up riders rather than paying to park, researchers say. So they'll be elbowing their way to the curb as well.

State of play: This mismatch of supply and demand has spurred cities and suburbs to think about treating curbs like a public utility and charging for access to them.

What's next: Tech is entering the picture. A slew of startups see a golden opportunity to restore order to the curb with maps, data, sensors and apps.

Go deeper

4. Driving the conversation

Protecting V2X: States call for preserving 'talking car' spectrum (Leslie J. Allen — Automotive News)

  • Why it matters: There's a tug-of-war going on between the auto and telecom industries over wireless spectrum in the 5.9-gigahertz range. Transportation chiefs in all states, D.C. and Puerto Rico are urging the Federal Communications Commission to continue reserving that spectrum for future vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.

Picked up: DoorDash acquires autonomous driving startup Scotty Labs (Megan Rose Dickey and Ingrid Lunden — TechCrunch)

  • Why it matters: It's the latest in a slew of acquisitions for DoorDash, the delivery startup which appears to be trying to build up its capabilities in autonomous deliveries. Scotty Labs specializes in remote control driving technology.

Think: A reality check for AI hubris (Kaveh Waddell — Axios)

  • The big picture: What's missing from deep learning, some AI pioneers fear, is common sense.
  • My thought bubble: This is one reason why self-driving cars have yet to arrive. Algorithms can control the vehicle using statistics and patterns, but teaching a car human nature is hard.
5. What I'm driving

2020 Range Rover Evoque Photo: Range Rover

I'm driving the 2020 Range Rover Evoque, a compact, wedge-shaped SUV that looks like it belongs in the future.

Styling has always been the big selling point for the Evoque, first introduced in 2012. It's all been updated for 2020, including new retractable door handles, which are cool but take an extra second to open the door.

  • The Seoul Pearl Silver paint job on my tester adds to the allure.

What's new: For the 2020 model, there's a 48-volt mild-hybrid powertrain, which shuts off the engine when coasting at speeds below 11 mph.

  • The result, unfortunately, is an initial hesitation when starting from a stop, then a huge burst of power as the engine kicks in.
  • And the fuel economy is not great: 21 mpg city and 26 highway.

What's cool: The Evoque is loaded with new tech that's worth investigating...

  • The rear view mirror transforms into an HD video screen at the flip of a switch if rear visibility is obstructed.
  • It also features a "ground view" system that lets the driver see virtually under the front end of the car to negotiate tough parking spaces, curbs or off-road terrain.
  • It's the first Land Rover to use AI to learn the driver's preferences and automatically set the seat position, media settings and climate control.
  • It can also receive wireless over-the-air updates for infotainment and vehicle systems.

Standard safety features include driver-assistance technology like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, traffic sign recognition, and a head-up display.

The bottom line: It's a Land Rover, so expect it to be expensive. The base model starts at $42,650. But add more than $11,390 in options to the Evoque HSE, and the sticker soars to $67,190.

Joann Muller