TOP EV NEWS #1 – THE RISK ASSOCIATED WITH SELF-DRIVING CARS
WHO SHOULD BE ON TRIAL, THE TECHNOLOGY OR THE BRAND?
The big news of the week, apart from the impact of Trump’s trade war on the EV sector, must be the first documented fatality associated with the autonomous driving program in the USA. In an incident, a week short of a year after Uber had to suspend its self-driving program due a to a non-fatal crash in Tempe Arizona, the raid-hailing company became the first self-driving permit holder involved in a fatal crash. The crash itself is well documented now, and I wish to extend my condolences to the family of Elaine Herzberg. With the incident, self-driving cars are hyped up in the press, and the reality of the technology is sinking in for the general public. Questions related to the safety of the technology, how it will impact insurance companies and premiums, job security for people making a living out of transport services and the future of auto companies are becoming more frequent in social discussions, but let’s keep the focus on the safety aspect related to the UBER crash for the moment.
The arrival of autonomous cars came surprisingly fast for most people, and they don’t realize that there is already a huge fleet of self-driving cars on public roads all over the globe. Most people don’t even realize that companies such as GM plan to build the first commercially available self-driving cars as early as next year, while Waymo will roll out a fleet of self-driving taxis later this year. It si also not widely known that testing over millions of miles has already resulted in various crashes. One of the best-run self-driving programs must be the program run by the Californian Department of Motor Vehicles (CA DMV) where 52 companies have already received permits to test self-driving cars on public roads since 2014. The CA DMV requires permit holders to file disengagement reports showing the number of times humans had to take over control of the test vehicle. Based on reports filed autonomous vehicles of Waymo (Google) and GM has already been involved in 50 crashes since the start of reporting in 2014.
UBER though is not a permit holder in California, the company’s permit was suspended in February 2017 where its vehicle ran a red light, barely missing a pedestrian. The company was also cited for not and not following proper permitting procedures. Shortly after this incident, UBER temporarily halted its pilot project after a crash in Arizona. UBER found that the crash was caused by the other vehicle. UBER’s self-driving program is also held up in courts as Waymo claims the company stole some of its secrets.
Coming back to the facts surrounding the incident of March the 18th where UBER’s Volvo XC90 SUV struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, at about 10 p.m. local time in Tempe Arizona. The Tempe police department released the video of the crash, showing both the inside and outside view. Police Chief, Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle that preliminarily it appears that UBER was not at fault largely because Mrs. Herxberg did not cross the road at the crosswalk. Chief Moir was quoted saying “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode” — self-driving or human-driven — “based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.” With this viewpoint, I agree, but the question is since its an autonomous car equipped with LiDar and Radar, its suppose to pick-up obstacles even in the dark. Looking at the inside view UBER’s self-driving program becomes even more questionable. The view shows the engineer, which is supposed to disengage the vehicle in case of the system failing, clearly not doing his work and most probably engaged with his cellphone. UBER took another fail-safe out of the testing by reducing the number of engineers overseeing the system in the car from two to one. A New York Times reporter got hold of internal UBER report showing that its program was not as successful as its competitors. The reports showed that drivers have to disengage the UBER system on the Volvo XC90 SUV more frequently than its peers. UBER set itself a goal of one disengagement per 13 miles on its path to offer commercial self-driving ride-hailing by the end of 2018 but failed to even reach this rather easy target. From the table below more than half of the participants were able to exceed 13 miles per disengagement.
WIthout the benefit of the technical report of the crash, it seems that UBER’s self-driving program is more at fault than self-driving technology. Already Waymo’s CEO said that he believes that the company’s vehicle would have detected Mrs. Herzberg and reacted to avoid an accident. The incident how unfortunate it might be will add to the improvement of the technology and regulations for testing and operating such programs around the world. It is expected that the implications for UBER will be felt for some time as its partner companies will re-evaluate its involvement in the self-driving pilot.
Although most companies continued undeterred with their pilot programs, Toyota announced that it would temporarily suspend its self-driving program in California and Michigan so its drivers could “emotionally process” the accident.
TOP EV NEWS #2 – UTILITIES NOT PREPARED FOR EVs
A report by the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), “Utilities and Electric Vehicles: Evolving to Unlock Grid Value“, concluded that most utilities are not prepared for the expected change in demand on the grid. Based on the latest forecast for EV demand by Bloomberg New Energy Finance SEPA believes electricity consumption will grow from a few terawatt-hours (TWh) a year in 2017 to around 118 TWh by 2030. The California Energy Commission (CEC) filed a report last week, called “California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Projections” which sets out the number of chargers needed in the State by 2025. The report also looks at the load impact of EV chargers on the grid, whereby it is expected EV chargers can add up to 1 GIG demand in peak time, supporting the SEPA report.
TOP EV NEWS #3 – CHJ AUTO AND CHINA’s UBER TO BUILD SMART EVs
Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing and Chinese EV start-up CHJ Auto announced a JV partnership 51% owned by Didi to develop smart electric cars. Didi operates the worlds largest fleet of EVs on its platform which stood at 260,000 EVs and PHEVs as at November 2017 according to the company. Didi targets to operate one million EVs by 2020. Didi is co-owned by Tencent which is a shareholder in Tesla and Weima mentioned in our story #5 below.
CHJ Auto also announced that it secured around $500 million in a Round B fundraising. The company is to launch an $8,000 city EV this year with battery swapping capabilities.
TOP EV NEWS #4 – SAIC & VW TO BUILD EV PLANT
According to an interview by Auto Market Online with VW China CEO Joachim Heisman at the Geneva International Motor Show, the SAIC VW JV company is to construct an EV plant in China to produce the Volkswagen I.D. series. The first two vehicles to be assembled at the plant is a compact crossover and sub-compact crossover. Production of the two vehicles with an expected range of over 400km is expected to start in 2020 for a 2021 launch in the country. The SAIC EV plant will be VW’s second EV factory, following on a 100,000 unit plant it is constructing with JAC.
TOP EV NEWS #5 – WM MOTORS CONSIDER LISTING IN THE US
Bloomberg reported that Chinese start-up WM Motors is exploring a potential listing in New York, despite recent trade tensions between the two countries. WM Motors CEO, Freeman Shen, who headed up Volvo in China see’s the company in a global light, signaling that it intends to take on other EV producers such as Tesla. WM Motors is to bring its Weima EX5 SUV to market this year and will compete head-on with the Tesla Model X but at a much lower price of only ¥200,000 which is less than a quarter of the Model X price.
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