Aug 28, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today Expert Voices contributor Charity Allen writes about the challenges presented by road rules that vary from city to city.

Smart Brevity count: 1,311 words, ~5 minutes.

1 big thing: CEO indictment hangs over Pronto.ai

Anthony Levandowski, at the Mobile World Congress in February 2017. Photo: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Tuesday's indictment of former Uber executive Anthony Levandowski for allegedly stealing trade secrets when he worked at Google puts his latest self-driving technology company, Pronto.ai, in a tough spot.

The big picture: The San Francisco-based startup, believed to be funded mostly by Levandowski himself, has been working on aftermarket kits to outfit heavy-duty trucks with driver-assistance technology.

  • Already facing an uphill battle against big truck manufacturers working on their own integrated systems, Pronto.ai's future seems uncertain.

Catch up fast: Levandowski, 39, was charged by federal prosecutors with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from Google and its self-driving unit, Waymo.

  • Levandowski, an original member of Google's self-driving car project, allegedly stole more than 14,000 proprietary files, including designs for lidar technology, from Waymo before leaving in 2016 to start his own company, Otto.
  • Uber acquired Otto a few months later for $600 million, and made Levandowski the head of its self-driving project.
  • Waymo sued Uber in February 2017, but the companies abruptly settled in the midst of trial a year later.

Levandowski was not a defendant in that case, but U.S. District Judge William Alsup referred the matter to the FBI for further criminal investigation, which resulted in Tuesday's indictment.

"All of us have the right to change jobs. None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation."
— U.S. Attorney David Anderson

The big question is what will happen to Pronto.ai, which is only a year and a half old and has fewer than 100 employees.

  • The company moved swiftly to control the fallout, promoting chief safety officer Robbie Miller to CEO, replacing Levandowski.
  • Miller is an outspoken safety advocate who as an employee sent an infamous "whistleblower's email" to Uber leaders in 2018 warning of safety concerns just 5 days before a pedestrian was killed by an Uber self-driving test vehicle. 

In an emailed statement, Pronto.ai noted that the criminal charges filed against Levandowski "relate exclusively to lidar and do not in any way involve Pronto’s ground-breaking technology."

  • The company said it still plans to begin shipping its first product, Copilot, later this year to unnamed fleet customers.
  • Copilot is a Level 2 driver assist system that provides collision avoidance, full-stop emergency braking, lane centering, and adaptive cruise control — similar to tech found in today's luxury vehicles.
  • Priced at $5,000, it is a camera- and software-based system that the company says does not rely on "hardware crutches like lidar."
  • Over time, Pronto.ai plans to add additional driver-assistance features.

Yes but: The company's chances for survival without Levandowski are unclear.

  • Amid a war for talent, competitors are likely to swoop in to try to poach employees; some already are.
  • It's possible the company could be more attractive to outside investors now that the controversial Levandowski is gone.

What to watch: There's a lot of consolidation happening in the AV space and Pronto.ai's driver-assistance technology isn't much different from what's in the pipeline from big players like Daimler, Volvo Trucks, Paccar and Navistar. Chances are high the company gets swept up by another player.

2. Drivers turn off "annoying" safety tech

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some motorists are turning off driver safety systems because the technologies are "annoying or bothersome," a J.D. Power consumer study found.

Why it matters: Consumers who disable driver-assistance features are depriving themselves of the safety benefits of the technology, potentially putting themselves and others at risk. Their criticism could also be a red flag for consumer acceptance of self-driving vehicles, writes CNBC.

"If they can't be sold on lane-keeping — a core technology of self-driving — how are they going to accept fully automated vehicles?"
— J.D. Power's Kristin Kolodge

The details of J.D. Power's 2019 U.S. Tech Experience Index study:

  • 23% of customers with lane-keeping and centering systems complain that the alerts are annoying or bothersome.
  • For these owners, 61% sometimes disable the system.
  • The technologies can "come across as a nagging parent; no one wants to be constantly told they aren’t driving correctly," says Kolodge.

The bottom line: Dealers play an important role in teaching buyers about their car's safety technologies, but owners need to be able to trust the systems will kick in when they are supposed to. Their first experience with lower-level automation will affect how they view self-driving cars in the future.

3. Conflicting road rules across cities could be a challenge for AVs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For all the concern over the patchwork of regulations governing AVs from state to state, a similar issue has been largely ignored: idiosyncratic road rules that vary not only state to state but also city to city, Charity Allen writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Human drivers in an unfamiliar city will use their knowledge of familiar road rules to determine whether a right turn on red is allowed, for example.

  • AV developers face a much bigger challenge: how to program self-driving software to ensure compliance when the rules of the road vary from one place to another.

Background: Currently, 29 states have passed some kind of legislation for self-driving cars, some more extensive than others.

  • NHTSA recently encouraged states to pursue a "consistent regulatory and operational environment," warning that discrepancies between state and local laws lead to confusion and compliance challenges.

Reality check: There are already varying road rules for all road users, not only in all 50 states, but in thousands of cities.

  • These variations are not insignificant; states differ, for example, on when vehicles must stop for school buses and how cars should make turns across bike lanes.

Where it stands: Right now, self-driving technology is being tested in limited jurisdictions, so companies can feasibly program rules for each municipality individually.

  • As AV companies eventually expand to all 50 states and thousands of cities, that task will become much harder. 

The bottom line: States, cities, and AV companies may eventually need to collaborate to standardize road rules, not just AV regulations.

Read more

Allen is the head of regulatory counsel at Aurora.

4. Driving the conversation

Ferdinand Piech. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images

Obituary: The complicated legacy of Ferdinand Piech (Bob Lutz — Motor Trend)

  • An appreciation of one of the world's most iconic car guys, written by someone who would know.
  • "Ferdinand Piech will be remembered and admired. More than likely, he will not be 'loved.' But that was never one of his goals."

Excerpt: How Uber got lost (Mike Isaac — The New York Times)

  • Why it matters: This unflattering portrait of the ride-hailing company founded by Travis Kalanick — from a forthcoming book by Isaac — comes at a difficult time for current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who is under pressure to cut costs and turn a profit.

Replacement cycle: Ford says its autonomous cars will last just four years (Connie Loizos — Techcrunch)

  • My thought bubble: Today's cars, which sit parked most of the day, last about 11 years. If an AV is on the road nearly round-the-clock, in stop-and-go traffic, it will naturally wear out faster. AVs won't kill the auto industry; they'll help keep it afloat.
5. 1 Olympics thing

Toyota's Accessible People Mover will help people with disabilities get around the Olympic venues. Photo: Toyota

Toyota is prepping like an elite athlete for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo to try to convince the world it's transforming into a mobility services company.

What's happening: The Japanese carmaker plans to deploy a fleet of 3,700 mostly electrified vehicles — including dozens of self-driving shuttles, about 500 fuel-cell vehicles and 850 battery-electric cars — to ferry athletes and organizers around the games.

  • Toyota's self-driving e-Palette will run on a continuous loop within the Olympic and Paralympic Village to shuttle athletes and staff.
  • Its space age-looking Concept-i will travel alongside torch relay runners and lead the runners' marathon. Toyota will also offer rides in Concept-i to demonstrate Level 4 autonomy.
  • About 200 specially designed "accessible people movers" (APMs) will help move people with disabilities.
  • Toyota will also have personal mobility devices for security personnel and those who have trouble walking.
  • Other robots will carry javelins, shot puts, and other items from the field, writes Popular Mechanics.
  • There will even be a telepresence robot that lets people talk with and see each other, according to Bloomberg.

The big picture: Like other carmakers, Toyota faces an uncertain future in the face of new technologies and business models. The company is pouring billions of dollars into tech partnerships with players like Suzuki, announced today, and Uber.

Joann Muller