Jun 21, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

Good morning!

  • This week on "Axios on HBO": A 📷 interview with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, how memes may be influencing Andrew Yang's 2020 bid, plus the inequities of marijuana legalization. Tune in Sunday at 6pm ET/PT. 
  • Update on our survey last week: 80.8% of respondents said they love the word count. Thanks for your feedback — and look out for more questions soon!

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,095 words, ~4 minutes.

1 big thing: A wave of showy AV deals

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Waymo has inked an exclusive partnership with the giant Renault-Nissan Alliance on autonomous vehicles, the latest in a dizzying array of headline-grabbing deals in the AV space.

The big picture: Carmakers and technology companies need to work together on self-driving cars because neither industry has the expertise to do it alone.

  • But some so-called partnerships lack substance or seem to be driven as much by ambition and the need for credibility and capital as they are by true commercialization efforts.

No one would argue Waymo lacks credibility — it is widely considered a leader in autonomous technology — but its partnership with Renault-Nissan to take its technology to "a global stage" seems a bit of a stretch.

  • The deal is exclusive only "for an initial period" and is limited at this point to researching commercial, legal and regulatory issues in France, Japan, and potentially, China.
  • For Renault-Nissan, it is being portrayed in Europe as a salve between two bickering alliance partners in the wake of a failed merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the downfall of former CEO, Carlos Ghosn.

Between the lines: In a field as competitive as self-driving cars, it's instructive to pay attention to the language of partnership announcements and to the motivations behind them.

  • This is especially true among lidar technology companies, for example, that are fighting for attention and hungry for investment.

Not all partnerships are equal. Some are just a MOU — memorandum of understanding — signaling an intention to move forward on something more substantive, but not a legal contract.

  • One recent example is Aurora Innovation's deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to develop self-driving commercial vehicles.
  • In a blog post earlier this year, Aurora explained it preferred working with multiple carmakers rather than being locked into an exclusive deal so it could deliver its technology more broadly.
  • But it's hard to imagine Aurora's relationship with Volkswagen, the world's largest automaker, wasn't a factor in securing a $530 million investment led by Sequoia Capital in February, at a $2 billion valuation.

Be smart: Unless money and board seats are involved, partnerships can be fleeting. Where big money is involved — as in the billion-dollar-plus investments made in Cruise by GM, Argo by Ford and Uber by Toyota — it's serious.

Go deeper.

2. Risky behavior in semi-automated cars
Expand chart
Adapted from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; Chart: Axios Visuals

Vehicle automation systems are creating a lot of misunderstanding among consumers, leading to unsafe driving behavior, according to new studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Why it matters: Partially automated technology like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist can make cars safer, but the marketing names manufacturers use for their systems often send the wrong messages to drivers regarding how attentive they should be.

  • "Unless drivers have a certain amount of knowledge and comprehension, these new features also have the potential to create new risks," says IIHS President David Harkey.

Details: IIHS surveyed more than 2,000 drivers about 5 semi-automated driving technologies currently on the market.

  • Participants were told the names of the systems but not the vehicle brands associated with them and weren't given any other information about the systems.
  • All of the systems require drivers to pay attention, and most require the drivers to keep their hands on the wheel.
  • Only Cadillac's Super Cruise system uses a camera to monitor the driver's gaze.

The results were alarming, especially when it comes to what people thought they could do with Tesla's Autopilot system engaged.

  • 48% thought it would be safe to take their hands off the wheel while using Autopilot (compared to 33% or less for other systems).
  • Autopilot also had substantially greater proportions of people who thought it would be safe to look at scenery, read a book, talk on a cellphone or text.
  • 6% thought it would be OK to take a nap while using Autopilot, compared with 3% for the other systems.

"Tesla's user manual says clearly that the Autopilot's steering function is a 'hands-on feature,' but that message clearly hasn't reached everybody," Harkey says. "Manufacturers should consider what message the names of their systems send to people."

3. Driving the conversation

Milk Run: Walmart's Kickstarting a $1 Trillion Driverless Delivery Market (Keith Naughton and Matthew Boyle — Bloomberg)

  • The big picture: Robovans moving packages from one warehouse to another — the so-called "middle miles" — might be the easiest to deploy, experts say. Startups like Gatik, which just emerged from stealth with $4.5 million in funding, are testing well-tested runs with Walmart.

Argoverse: Self-driving car startup Argo AI is giving researchers free access to its HD maps (Kirsten Korosec — Techcrunch)

  • Why it matters: The Ford-backed AV tech company follows Uber, Cruise and others that have open-sourced data and software tools in an effort to spur the development of self-driving cars.

AV-friendly: Florida gives the green light to fully autonomous vehicles (Taylor Garre — Cheddar)

  • Why it matters: The law will put Florida in position to compete with states that already have driverless car test fleets like Arizona, California, and Nevada.
4. What I'm driving

Volkswagen e-Golf. Photo: VW

A mini-review of some of the latest automotive technologies.

This week I'm driving the Volkswagen e-Golf, and perhaps just for sentimental reasons, since it's about to become obsolete.

The big picture: The e-Golf will go away once a wave of new electric models from VW hits, starting next year. VW plans 70 EVs across all its brands by 2028 — a total of 22 million EVs worldwide. It's the automaker's way of finally putting the past behind it after a devastating diesel emissions cheating scandal.

The e-Golf is no Tesla, with a range of just 125 miles, half that of a Tesla Model 3. But neither does it carry the Model 3's $41,000–$61,000 price tag.

  • The e-Golf starts at $31,895. The SEL Premium model I'm driving is $39,790.

Driver-assistance features come standard on higher-priced trims; optional on others. These include VW's Front Assist system combining forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking and pedestrian monitoring, plus lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control.

More important, it's a hoot to drive. Put an electric powertrain in one of the world's most popular hatchbacks and there's just more to love. It's a great city car, but because of its range limitations, I wouldn't recommend it for a road trip.

The bottom line: The eGolf is an appetizer for what's to come from VW.

Joann Muller

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