Friday, March 22, 2024

Five Weeks of Cars: Autonomous, Electric, Teledriven, and a Governmental Push for Change

The article flow on automobiles is getting less concentrated.  Instead of the late-2010’s emphasis on driverless vehicles and the early 2020’s on electric ones, we’re seeing variety, and at least one sort-of-new concept.  What’s turned up recently?

As if it wasn’t sputtering enough, we found out from Jordyn Grzelewski in Tech Brew on February 16th that “AV sector hits latest speed bump with Waymo incident in Phoenix.”  On December 11th, a Waymo robotaxi “struck a pickup truck as it was being towed “across a center turn lane and a traffic lane,”” followed by another Waymo automated taxi doing the same thing.  The company described it as an “unusual scenario,” due to their algorithms misfiguring which way the truck on the hook was likely to go.  Another situation where self-driving vehicles need to be programmed to deal with situations easy for humans to comprehend. 

In Fox Business on February 26th, Sunny Tsai told us how “Teledriving company Vay brings new transportation option to streets of Las Vegas.”  It uses “remote drivers,” who, from their workstations, in this case deliver vehicles to renters and retrieve them the same way afterwards.  It clearly could be used for other propositions, such as taking over from automatic operation when driverless cars or trucks get into predicaments.  This technology could find its niche, which could end up being something vastly different from what Vay is doing with it.

On February 27th, we looked on as “Apple Kills Its Electric Car Project” (Brian X, Chen, The New York Times.)  “A secretive product that had been in the works for nearly a decade,” it involved another category as well, as the company had “plans to release an electric car with self-driving abilities.”  As was the case in the automotive industry a century ago, there is certain to be a great winnowing of involved companies – it seemed surprising, though, to happen to a player this large, which had been working on its product since before self-driving seemed inevitable.  Indeed, “the cancellation is a rare move by Apple, which typically doesn’t shelve such public and high-profile projects.”  On the rationale, unfortunately, “Apple declined to comment.”  If something leaks out, we may learn more about EV’s true robustness.

Despite the problems described in the first piece here, we learned that “California officials give Waymo the green light to expand robotaxis” (Sarah Al-Arshani, USA Today, March 3rd).  It will now be allowed to have them in Los Angeles County and San Mateo County, expanding from San Francisco.  There is still controversy, though, as several local legislators have expressed reservations, describing the decision as “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

Given competition across borders, we want to learn “How China Is Churning Out EVs Faster Than Everyone Else” (Selina Cheng, The Wall Street Journal, March 4th).  Per the author, “Chinese automakers are around 30% quicker in development than legacy manufacturers, industry executives say, largely because they have upended global practices built around decades of making complex combustion-engine cars.  They work on many stages of development at once.  They are willing to substitute traditional suppliers for smaller, faster ones.  They run more virtual tests instead of time-consuming mechanical ones.  And they are redefining when a car is ready to sell on the market.”  That sounds good, but is it all true?  Are they getting advantages from cutting corners in ways that business laws and practices would not allow elsewhere?  Is it possible that they are putting forward massive amounts of scale and effort, such as multiple identical factories, that would be capital-prohibitive in the West?  Could they be substantially losing money or getting huge subsidies?  We must be able to answer these and related questions before we can give them credit in context.

The news Wednesday, in the New York Times, was headlined “Biden Administration Announces Rules Aimed at Phasing Out Gas Cars” (Coral Davenport).  Well, according to the text, not quite.  They want to “ensure that the majority of new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States are all-electric or hybrids by 2032.”  The piece acknowledged that only 7.6% of American car sales were electric (not clear whether that included hybrids), and the regulation’s target, just eight years off, was 56% for all-electrics and another 16% for hybrids.  These “rules are expected to face an immediate legal challenge by a coalition of fossil fuel companies and Republican attorneys general,” could be hampered by the need for over 1.8 million additional “public charging stations,” and was initiated when “growth in sales of electric vehicles is slowing.”  This edict is almost certain to be cancelled or postponed – we’ll get a better view of which it will be, and what else happens with vehicles, during this critical year.

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