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: Driverless Cars Are Already Putting Us To Sleep
I mean, they’re not putting me to sleep. I’ve been up since 6 a.m. writing this news briefing. As an outside observer, I’m fascinated by driverless cars. It’s just that the people who have to use them can’t stay awake, as a new report on Ford’s driverless car test engineers confirms in Bloomberg:
As Ford Motor Co. has been developing self-driving cars, the U.S. automaker has started noticing a problem during test drives: Engineers monitoring the robot rides are dozing off.
Company researchers have tried to roust the engineers with bells, buzzers, warning lights, vibrating seats and shaking steering wheels. They’ve even put a second engineer in the vehicle to keep tabs on his human counterpart. No matter — the smooth ride was just too lulling and engineers struggled to maintain “situational awareness,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief.
“These are trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening,” Nair said in an interview. “But it’s human nature that you start trusting the vehicle more and more and that you feel you don’t need to be paying attention.”
Ford’s response has been to partner closer with Google’s hilariously-overpaid Waymo engineers and work to get rid of their cars’ steering wheels altogether. Designing for driver takeover seems increasingly like the wrong developmental path to take.
2nd Gear: Maybe The Opel Deal Is All About Electric Cars
This PSA/Opel deal in the works at the moment makes absolutely no sense to me, personally. The two marques offer the same kinds of cars and suffer from the same kinds of high-cost, low value problems. But! Opel gets GM’s electric car tech, and GM CEO Mary Barra reportedly approved PSA to license that tech, as noted in Automotive News Europe:
General Motors will make available its electric-car technology to PSA Group if a deal to sell GM’s Opel/Vauxhall business to the French automaker goes through, a German magazine reported.
GM CEO Mary Barra to allow PSA to use the technology in the new Opel Ampera-e/Chevrolet Bolt long-range battery powered cars under license in Europe, Manager Magazin said on Friday, citing sources familiar with the GM-PSA discussions.
Earlier his week the magazine said Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann has been working on a strategy to turn Opel into an electric car only brand by 2030. It’s possible that PSA will put the plan into practice, the magazine said.
This is the only tech I could think of that would interest anybody in buying Opel, which is possibly the world’s most boring car brand at the moment.
I will also note here briefly that Opel’s CEO took to Twitter this morning to say that the deal between Opel and PSA “makes sense in principle,” whatever that means.
3rd Gear: Or Maybe GM Just Wants To Dump Opel And Vauxhall Over Brexit
There aren’t a ton of upsides for anybody buying Opel beyond that potential EV win, but there are certainly gains to be made for GM in letting Opel go, as a number of reports from Bloomberg suggest.
At the crux of things is Vauxhall, Opel’s British sister brand that may exports cars and parts back to the rest of Europe, but may face stiff tariffs in the wake of Brexit:
“Opel has a huge problem with its plants not being fully utilized,” said Thomas Goettle, head of automotive at PA Consulting in Frankfurt. “They’re probably hammering out a deal that’s in favor of Germany and France, so I don’t see the brightest future for the U.K.” Either Ellesmere Port or Vauxhall’s second plant at Luton, north of London, could close, he said.
While the Astra model built at Ellesmere Port, which has almost 2,000 workers, has been one of Britain’s best-sellers for 3 1/2 decades, 85 percent of the site’s annual output of about 120,000 autos goes for export to mainland Europe. Those cars could face sales taxes equal to 10 percent of their price on entering the EU if May favors immigration controls over landing a comprehensive trade deal and commerce with Europe is subject to World Trade Organization tariffs.
As Automotive News notes, this is exactly what David Cameron warned Britain about, standing outside a Vauxhall plant last year.
4th Gear: Chinese Audi Dealers Demand $4 Billion From Audi After Bad Sales
This is a new one for me: Audi dealers in China are demanding 28 billion yuan ($4 billion)from Audi itself as compensation for poor sales over the past three years. The dealers blame Audi for their misfortune, and after reading this report in Bloomberg on it, I’m inclined to agree:
In its statement, the Audi dealers said that back in 2012, the automaker had targeted 1 million in sales by 2020 on a network of 580 outlets. However, there are now 530 outlets even though deliveries failed to break through a “bottleneck” in the past three years of about a half million units. Audi should come up with a “suitable solution” based on the target and excess number of distributors, the group said.
Audi delivered 591,554 units in China including Hong Kong last year, an increase of 3.6 percent. The automaker is seeking clarification as it didn’t set a target of 1 million sales units by 2020 in China, Barth said.
Audi’s plan for recovery has been to propose adding more dealers and a second joint venture in China, which led the existing already-over-saturated Audi dealers to threaten to strike.
Audi used to be the de-facto car for government officials around the year 2000, Bloomberg also notes, though now Mercedes and BMW outsell Audi over there.
5th Gear: The UAW Wants To Bring Back ‘70s-Style ‘Buy American’ Campaign
It’s time to bring back the Volaré and the Fairmont, because the UAW wants to bring back its ‘Buy American’ campaign of the ‘70s and ‘80s, as The Detroit Free Press reports. I never lived through this era, so I can only look back on how hopelessly vain it was to plead with Americans to buy creaky K-Cars and Malibus instead of efficient Civic and Accords.
Worse still, a ‘Buy American’ campaign modeled like the ‘70s won’t work like it did in the ‘70s, as foreign auto companies now build their cars in non-union U.S. plants, as the Freep points out:
The challenge that [UAW President Dennis Williams] faces is that buying American could, in some cases, hurt unionized domestic automakers and help foreign automakers.
For example, the Ford Fusion and about half of the Chevrolet Silverado pickups sold in the U.S. are made in Mexico. Meanwhile, the Chrysler Pacifica is made across the river from Detroit in Windsor, with a lot of parts from the U.S.
But the Honda Civic is made in Greensburg, Ind., while the Toyota Camry is made in Georgetown, Ky. — U.S. plants where the UAW doesn’t represent workers.
But look, this is Trump’s America now. Things don’t need to make sense.
Reverse: Speaking Of Imports...
Neutral: How do you think carmakers should deal with sleepy autonomobile pilots? Should we give up on human/car interaction altogether, or should we fight on with buzzers and beeps and flashing warnings like you see in semi-autonomous cars today?