Autonomous Vehicles May Stop Looking Like Cars

Photo: AP
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Autonomous vehicles without steering wheels, EV tax credit update, and lower speed limits coming soon to a city near you (probably). All this and more in The Morning Shift for Monday, December 23, 2019.

1st Gear: What Even Is A Car, Anyway?

If you ask someone to describe a car, they will probably mention a steering wheel at some point. But the Feds may soon allow autonomous vehicles not to include what was once considered a pretty critical piece of equipment.

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From Reuters:

Acting NHTSA Administrator James Owens said his agency aims to make a decision soon on GM’s January 2018 petition as well as a request by Softbank Corp-backed (9434.T) driverless delivery startup Nuro to deploy a limited number of low-speed, highly automated delivery vehicles without human occupants.

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GM Chief Executive Mary Barra and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last week met and discussed the petition at a high level, officials said, but significant work remains at the technical level. Owens said NHTSA officials are “crawling through these petitions because we want to make sure” they are at least as safe as cars on the roads.

“At least as safe as cars on the roads” is not quite right. NHTSA wants to make sure they’re at least as safe as current drivers on the road. I, for one, hope they’d aim for a higher bar than that.

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In any event, this potentially opens the door for AVs to start looking very different, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, why should a vehicle without a human driver retain the design of a human-controlled one?

The decision to allow steering wheel-less cars hasn’t been made yet, but considering the Federal government has so far allowed—or looked the other way on—pretty damn near everything AV companies want to do, I’m pretty sure we can all guess where this is headed.

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2nd Gear: No Expansion For EV Tax Credit

Congress passed a mammoth spending bill as they sometimes do at the end of every year when they don’t want the government to shut down, as they sometimes do. There were some rumblings this one would include an expansion of the electric vehicle tax credit but in the end it did not.

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From Automotive News:

The incentive program provides tax rebates that decline after the first 200,000 EVs an automaker sells in the U.S. Congress was lobbied to raise the threshold to the first 600,000. Last week, lawmakers rejected the idea and moved on.

General Motors and Tesla, the only automakers to reach 200,000 sales, had lobbied for the increase, along with a slightly lower tax credit for consumers: $7,000 per BEV instead of the current $7,500.

However, the incentive program remains unchanged, and buyers of other EV brands will still be able to benefit from the $7,500 credit. Nissan, Ford, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are the next automakers likely to reach 200,000 in EV sales, but they are still several years away from the mark at their current sales rates.

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Both GM and Tesla have hit their sales quota for the tax credit, so GM’s reduced EV credit will completely expire on March 31, while Tesla’s is over in just a few days.

It’s worth noting that Trump’s original budget proposal was to eliminate the credit entirely, so I suppose this can be viewed as a compromise of sorts. It’s certainly not the kind of aggressive policy many experts believe we need to significantly reduce transportation-related emissions over the next decade, but then again, no one expected that from this administration.

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3rd Gear: More Evidence Driver Assistance Features Make Us Bad Drivers

We’ve been over this, time and time again: semi-autonomous or Advanced Driver Assistance (ADAS) features make us worse drivers, and it’s not at all clear the systems themselves are good enough to make up for that.

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The AAA Foundation has released a report that confirms, yes, this is definitely the case:

The results from the VCC data set indicate that the simultaneous use of ACC and LKA systems was associated with a 50% increase in the odds of engaging in any form of secondary task and an 80% increase in the odds of engaging in visual and/or manual secondary tasks, compared with when the same drivers who were not using the automated system. Drivers using both systems simultaneously also took more frequent and longer glances at non-driving-related tasks and spent less time with their eyes on driving-related tasks.

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The acronyms make that confusing, but basically they found drivers did stuff while driving other than looking at the road and making sure they do not crash into something.

The upshot is ADAS systems are definitely great at making people distracted drivers if nothing else.

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4th Gear: Tesla Gets Microloan

Tesla got a tiny little loan from Chinese banks as it makes its final push to start deliveries from its Shanghai factory:

Tesla Inc. clinched more than 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) in financing from local banks for its Shanghai factory as it prepares to begin deliveries of China-made Model 3 sedans in the country, people familiar with the matter said.

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I remember when people were saying the Shanghai factory was the most important element to Tesla’s future but then EV sales tanked there and Tesla made a weird truck and now no one talks about it anymore.

5th Gear: Seattle Joins Lower Speed Limit Movement

This one is from a few weeks ago but whatever: Seattle is lowering the city-wide speed limit to 25 mph. Here is the Seattle Times:

SDOT now plans to install 2,000 to 3,000 new 25 mph signs over the next 18 months on nearly all city arterials. Installing the new signs will cost about $1 million, according to the agency. There will be more of them than existing signs, about every quarter- to half-mile.

Seattle Police will conduct limited “emphasis patrols,” according to SDOT, which will include plainclothes officers attempting to cross the street to find drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. Police plan to mostly issue warnings, not tickets.

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I like the phrase “emphasis patrols,” if only for its Orwellian features.

Anyway, lower speed limits in dense cities and populated areas are good. As WIRED notes, they save lives:

The reason is simple, and science-driven: The World Health Organization has suggested that lowering speed limits by 5 percent means 30 percent fewer crashes that result in deaths. A study published earlier this year by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety found that states raising their speed limits in the last 25 years had a deadly effect, leading to 36,760 additional road deaths.

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But, speed limits are only a part of the overall puzzle, as we’ve seen in other cities that have made similar moves like New York, Boston, and Portland, Oregon.

First, speed limits—like any law—are only as good as their enforcement, which typically requires extensive speed camera systems. As much as drivers hate them, speed cameras work at catching dangerous drivers and reducing the number of crashes.

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Second, street redesigns to force drivers to slow down by narrowing lanes or adding speed bumps can do much more than changing the number on a sign. Seattle is doing some of that, too, and if I had to guess I’d predict those measures will do far more to make streets safer than speed limit changes alone.

Reverse: How Was This Only A Decade Ago?

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Neutral: What’s Your Preferred EV Credit Policy?

Electric is the future, but it’s still finding its footing in the present. Will losing the tax credit make our battery operated future less certain?

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About the author

Aaron Gordon

Senior Reporter, Investigations & Technology, Jalopnik