Good morning! Welcome to The Morning Shift, your roundup of the auto news you crave, all in one place every weekday morning. Here are the important stories you need to know.
1st Gear: The Raptors Are Coming
The tastes of the Chinese car buyer mirror that of many Americans in odd ways. They like luxury, specifically very ostentatious displays of luxury, and they like size. Big, bold, opulent.
So it makes sense that the American automakers would want to hawk some of their biggest, boldest, most opulent vehicles in China now—expensive pickup trucks and SUVs. But regulations there, and public perception that has left trucks regarded as low-class worker vehicles, have acted against them. Can that change? Via Reuters:
Trucks are largely restricted to overnight driving in most Chinese cities, but four provinces - Yunnan, Liaoning, Hebei and Henan - have this year launched trial programmes allowing them into urban zones in an attempt to stimulate production as economic growth, and car sales, slow.
With those looser restrictions, U.S. pick-up makers aim to distance their trucks from local models made by Great Wall Motor (601633.SS), Jiangling Motors Corp (JMC) (000550.SZ) and others - and appeal to Chinese premium buyers.
[...] Ford and GM - which displayed its Chevrolet Colorado and Silverado trucks around the Guangzhou show, with t-shirt clad urban cowboys and an all-leather rock band selling the trucks’ macho, all-American appeal - have not yet announced prices for their pick-ups, expected to be launched next year. But they should command a sizeable premium to locally made models as China slaps a 25 percent tax on imports.
If it works here, it can work there, right?
2nd Gear: Meet The New Transpo Boss
So Elaine Chao is President-Elect Donald Trump’s pick for Transportation Secretary. This is a critical position both for the country and for things that you, reader of this fine website, might care about, from the quality of America’s road infrastructure to how we’re going to regulate self-driving cars.
It’s easy to write Chao off as an insider-y pick given she’s the former Labor Secretary under George W. Bush and the spouse of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but as City Labs points out in this profile, Chao has a pretty interesting story. She’s an immigrant who came to the U.S. with her family from Taiwan at eight, speaking no English, and within 10 years she was at Mt. Holyoke College and then Harvard Business School.
She’s clearly sharp in her own right, but how she’ll handle the job remains to be seen:
During Chao’s tenure at the DOL, occupational fatalities, workplace injuries, and mining fatalities fell to record lows, and the department “helped workers win a record amount of back pay for minimum wage and overtime violations,” according to the New York Times.
But critics of Chao said safety statistics were more a result of the country’s shift away from more-dangerous manufacturing jobs, and that those back-pay victories merely reflected the desire of corporations to tamp down on private lawsuits. Under Chao, the DOL did not pass a single new rule on workplace hazards, outside of what courts mandated. The agency was also critiqued by the Government Accountability Office for shoddy enforcement of wage and hour laws, and by labor groups for its lax regulation of mine safety violations.
What might this record say about Chao’s prospects in her new job? The DOT is tasked with creating and enforcing safety standards for emerging transportation technologies, including autonomous vehicles and high-speed rail, as well as for existing roads (see: the DOT’s newly created pedestrian safety initiative).
It’s worth watching whether Chao advocates more for drivers, riders, and pedestrians, or for the companies manufacturing cars and other mobility choices.
That story is worth a read in full.
3rd Gear: The New Ford Fiesta Is Quite High Tech
Ford said the new Fiesta has the most sophisticated range of driver assistance technologies and connectivity features offered to date in a volume small car in Europe. It has technology that small-car customers “could only have dreamed of just a few years ago,” Farley said.
The Fiesta’s 15 driver assistance technologies include a number of firsts for Ford or the segment, such as:
Enhanced pedestrian detection technology that can help prevent collisions at night by detecting people who are in or near the road ahead, or who may cross the vehicle’s path.
A parking assistant that helps drivers find suitable spaces and park hands-free nose-to-tail and side-by-side with other cars. It can also apply the brakes to prevent low-speed bumps if drivers do not respond to system guidance and proximity warnings while maneuvering.
A “Cross Traffic” system that warns drivers reversing out of a parking space of vehicles that may soon be crossing behind them.
Much as we clamor for basic inexpensive small cars again, it is impressive to see this kind of tech trickle down to the humble Fiesta.
4th Gear: Akio Toyoda To Head Up Toyota’s EV Division
As Toyota finally gets serious about battery-powered electric vehicles, it puts a familiar face in charge of the effort: Akio Toyoda, the company president and grandson of its founder. Via Reuters:
“By putting the president and vice presidents in charge of the department, we plan to speed up development of electric cars,” said Toyota spokeswoman Kayo Doi, following a personnel change announcement by the company.
“The president will directly oversee the department’s operations to enable decisions to be made quickly and nimbly.”
The department comprises a new in-house unit to plan Toyota’s strategy to develop and market electric cars as part of the company’s efforts to keep pace with the tightening global emissions regulations.
Toyota is also shifting the chief engineer of its Prius petrol-hybrid to its EV efforts, appointing Koji Toyoshima to head the division’s engineering team. Toyoshima will also join the four-member EV strategy unit, which will include representatives from group suppliers - Denso Corp, Aisin Seiki Co, and Toyota Industries Corporation.
This is good news. Toyoda is an extremely competent, sharp executive who’s passionate about his family’s company. He also happens to be an enthusiast and amateur racer who has been working to bring back some fun cars with the Toyota badge. We wish him luck in this role.
5th Gear: Autonomous Yinzers
Several cities are racing to take the lead on autonomous car testing. Detroit is one. But another cold-ass Rust Belt city may be taking the lead, and that is Pittsburgh, thanks to Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. Via The Detroit Free Press:
Ottomatika is just one company incubated at CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center. The company operates with a staff of 30 out of a modest office in a suburban office park north of the Allegheny River. Delphi is treating it like a start-up. Glen DeVos, Delphi’s vice president of services, said the new company will find a larger home next year and he expects to more than double its workforce, mostly with software engineers.
Michigan has begun construction on the American Center for Mobility in Willow Run. The University of Michigan’s Mcity test center is attracting automakers, suppliers and preparing University of Michigan engineering students with the robotics and software skills to accelerate driverless cars.
But Pittsburgh and CMU are in the thick of the automated mobility race.
A fleet of Uber’s autonomous Ford Fusion hybrids can be seen on selected routes near the city’s central business district and the neighborhood known as The Strip, a hub of weekend nightlife.
A good place to test these cars, both for the realistic road conditions and for the university.
Reverse: You know I’ve never read that, and I probably should
Neutral: What Must The New Transpo Secretary Do To Be Successful?
What are Chao’s biggest challenges and opportunities?