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: ‘A Sigh Of Relief’
Yesterday America’s auto safety regulator the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed its investigation into the fatal Tesla Autopilot crash from last year—the first known U.S. death in a car driving autonomously—without ordering a recall. It seems like standard regulator news, but in the industry it’s a surprisingly big deal for all the reasons Bloomberg points out.
Basically, it comes down to who was at fault here: the human or the car? And in this case, it seems to have been the driver, and had the reverse been true it could have been a significant setback for autonomous vehicles.
“The auto industry just let out a giant sigh of relief,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at consultancy AutoPacific Inc. “This could have started a snowball effect of letting automakers and suppliers become liable for human error.”
The finding concludes NHTSA’s first investigation into the role played by automated driving systems in a fatal crash. It was a win for not only for Tesla but for companies from General Motors Co. to Alphabet Inc.’s Google that have invested billions of dollars in what they see as the future of personal transportation. Safety regulators, too. have backed the nascent industry, giving it the flexibility to develop products that they think could greatly reduce highway deaths.
At the same time, safety advocates have criticized Autopilot’s inability at the time to distinguish the truck involved in the fatal wreck from the sky.
Some auto-safety advocates have criticized Tesla for what they said was a premature introduction of its Autopilot system and said NHTSA could have taken stronger action.
“If a vehicle could not distinguish between a white truck and the sky, that to me would seem to be a defect,” said Joan Claybrook, NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter and an auto safety advocate.
Realistically and unfortunately, this is not the last time something like this will happen. Autonomous cars will enable new means of getting around, but they also will potentially kill us in new ways. As the technology becomes more prevalent I doubt this is the last time we’ll be seeing such a story.
2nd Gear: BMW’s Top Designer Is Out
Karim Habib, BMW’s current design boss, is leaving the company, reports Automotive News. It’s not yet clear whether he is going to another automaker, though I would not be shocked to learn he got lured away to one of the (allegedly) cash-rich startups like Faraday Future or Lucid Motors.
Also, Habib’s the latest of many BMW designers to peace out recently:
Habib’s departure follows closely on the heels of two other key designers, exacerbating a period of upheaval in BMW’s design department. Habib joins Anders Warming and Benoit Jacob, the former respective design bosses for Mini and BMW i, who departed last year for Chinese-backed companies. That leaves just Giles Taylor of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars as the sole remaining brand head of design reporting to van Hooydonk.
Am I the only one who thinks their cars haven’t looked that great in the last few years or so? Or maybe I’m just stuck in the 1990s.
3rd Gear: More Alexa In The Car
Amazon Alexa voice control is apparently the next big thing for your vehicles. I’m not exactly thrilled to be able to impulse buy video games and watches and other shit I don’t really need from my car, but if it makes voice control over navigation and stuff better, more power to it. Via Automotive News:
Volkswagen will offer the first embedded application of Amazon’s Alexa voice service in a vehicle, as the growing focus on network-connected appliances and other home devices inspires collaborations between automakers and technical service providers.
While other automakers including Ford, BMW and Hyundai are introducing Alexa, their applications work only with via a smartphone app connected to the car’s infotainment system.
VW says it is the first to have directly integrated the feature into the car’s own system without an intermediary as interface.
I’m eager to try that on the next VW I drive that has it.
4th Gear: Deals Work Both Ways
You should read Ryan Felton’s big explainer on NAFTA and how it has affected the auto industry. At the same time the U.S. has trade deals with other countries, and Germany’s finance minister hinted at possible repercussions if deals are not upheld, reports Reuters:
The United States must stick to international agreements under the presidency of Donald Trump, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Friday, adding he did not expect a major trade war despite Trump’s attack on German car makers.
Trump, taking office on Friday, has vowed to make sweeping changes to U.S. trade policy and economists see his protectionism as the biggest risk to U.S. growth.
“The United States also signed international agreements,” Schaeuble told magazine Der Spiegel. “I don’t think a big trade war will break out tomorrow, but we will naturally insist that agreements are upheld.”
Schaeuble told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “I am quite optimistic that even the U.S. and the rest of the world as a whole will not (abandon) the defence of free trade.”
He said the German economy would feel the effects of any protectionist backlash emanating from Washington, but Germany would be somewhat insulated since its growth was currently driven by domestic demand.
We’ll see what happens.
5th Gear: It’s Hard Out There For Small Automakers
The Detroit News describes the Detroit Auto Show as a show of haves and have nots, where the big automakers have huge, dazzling displays and product unveilings and the smaller companies do the best they can. That has always been true, but the disparity is ever greater as the auto industry becomes increasingly driven by tech, electrification and autonomy. How do the small players, which naturally have smaller budgets, compete?
While big manufacturers like General Motors, Nissan and Ford invest billions in battery-powered cars and the driverless transportation of the future, smaller manufacturers like Mitsubishi, Mazda and Fiat Chrysler are literally being left out in the cold.
Mitsubishi hasn’t had floor space in Cobo since 2006, much less had an executive sit on a panel speaking about robot cars. With U.S. sales under 100,000 last year, Mitsubishi is desperately trying to keep up with a market that has gone whole-hog for SUVs. But while it retools to make new utes, it must also keep up with exploding regulatory costs in the U.S. that it can’t absorb as easily as bigger manufacturers.
“Clearly in the U.S., emissions and safety rules are huge costs,” said Mitsubishi North America Executive Vice President Don Swearingen. “Those regulations are starting to grow and be as restrictive in the rest of the world. When we look at bringing a product into market with a smaller volume, it’s very difficult to make a strong business case.”
So Mitsubishi has sold a 34 percent ownership stake to Japanese giant Nissan. “Our partnership with Nissan makes life a lot easier,” adds Swearingen. “Being able to share a platform in the future (with Nissan) will help us better share costs.”
Reverse: You Know Them As Pontiac
Neutral: What Happens If Lots Of People Start Dying In Self-Driving Cars?
That could, theoretically, stunt the development of driverless cars. Then again people die all day long in cars they drive themselves!