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: An EV For The Proletariat
The future of cars is electrified. But while advancements in EVs over the past few years have certainly been impressive, they remain appropriate choices only for a relatively small segment of the driving population thanks to high prices or range limitations.
The reasonably-priced and impressively-ranged Chevrolet Bolt aims to change that, or so General Motors claims. The same case is being made for its re-badged European sister, the Opel Ampera-e, but Opel’s boss makes the intentions clear for any continent. Via Automotive News:
Opel said its Ampera-e battery powered car will eliminate range anxiety for customers because it can travel more than 400 km (249 miles) on a single charge.
“Opel is democratizing the electric car with the Ampera-e,” the brand’s CEO, Karl‑Thomas Neumann, said in a statement.
Under the New European Driving Cycle, the Ampera-e will clear the 400 km barrier without recharging “by a considerable margin,” Opel said. By comparison, BMW’s i3 has a 300 km range, the Nissan Leaf 250 km, the Renault Zoe 240 km and the VW e-Golf 190 km, it said.
It’s got more range than a base Tesla Model S while being about half as expensive, too. But the people’s EV won’t come to the United Kingdom as a Vauxhall; GM “will evaluate the possibility of right-hand-drive models being produced in the future,” the company said. Hmm.
2nd Gear: And Our Charging Infrastructure Is Getting Better, But...
The range problem isn’t just a battery issue, obviously. It’s an infrastructure one. But the U.S. is getting a lot better in that regard, probably more than people realize. Here’s Bloomberg on the advancements being made:
Rest easy, Tesla-heads and Nissan Leaf geeks; we’re finally getting there. The number of charging stations in the U.S. has reached a critical mass.
The U.S. Department of Energy says there are now 14,349 electric vehicle charging stations nationwide, comprising almost 36,000 outlets. Meanwhile, electric vehicle owners still do most of their charging at home outlets that aren’t included in that tally, according to the agency.
But! Gas is cheap and EV offerings are relatively few, so we’re still burning dinosaur bones like crazy. Not that people can be blamed for that—we still have to get around, and who doesn’t like cheap gas?
In June, U.S. drivers bought 9.7 million gallons of gasoline per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—more than they have since the government started keeping track in 1945. Gas prices this past Labor Day weekend were the cheapest they have been in 12 years.
“I don’t think anybody could have seen this coming a few years ago,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president at the National Association of Convenience Stores. “They’re driving more, and the sustained period of $2 gas has changed behavior both behind the wheel and in the showroom.”
The EVs are coming, but a lot of other things have to happen first.
3rd Gear: Football Advertising Is More Expensive Than Ever
You pretty much can’t watch football anymore without a slew of car ads every couple minutes. That’s because NFL games have become some of the most coveted advertising real estate for automakers, and that real estate is more expensive than ever. From Advertising Age (via Automotive News):
According to national TV buyers, the going rates for ad units in this season’s NFL games are at an all-time high, despite the fact that last year’s prices were already up in the stratosphere. On average, the networks that carry NFL games secured rate hikes of around 8 percent versus their year-ago unit costs, although NBC is said to have secured slightly greater increases than its peers.
For the sixth year running, the most valuable unit in primetime is a 30-second spot in NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Marketers looking to take advantage of the reach afforded by NBC’s pro pigskin showcase are paying on the order of $717,375 per unit, with late scatter buys and slots in marquee matchups like the Sept. 8 NFL Kickoff game fetching appreciably higher rates.
NBC is also making a killing on its new five-game “Thursday Night Football” package, which kicks off on Nov. 17 with an NFC South battle between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. Unlike its “SNF” units, which are not uniformly priced, the rates for NBC’s Thursday night quintet effectively were non-negotiable. “They asked for $560,000 per :30, and that’s exactly what they got,” said one TV buyer. “There wasn’t any wiggle room on their price.”
Maybe the snowboarding Nissan Altimas will get priced out of existence. One can only hope.
4th Gear: The Google Car Lags
Apple isn’t the only tech company struggling to figure out how to break into autonomous cars. Google’s self-driving car project has been around longer than anyone, but besides roving koala cars and Lexus SUVs, it hasn’t materialized into any kind of commercial service or actual product yet, unlike what Tesla and Mercedes have on the road, what Uber and Volvo are doing together, or the first autonomous taxi service in Singapore.
Chris Urmson, the mild-mannered robotics expert who ran Google’s self-driving car project, used to say that when his son reached driving age in 2019 the technology would be available so the teenager wouldn’t have to take a driving test.
In August, less than a year after auto industry veteran John Krafcik took the helm of the project, Urmson left with much work remaining: Google has yet to launch an autonomous vehicle service for the public.
Other top technologists have also departed and progress has been slow. Once considered a leader in the field, Google has lost its first-mover advantage to other companies pursuing more practical, less-ambitious self-driving car services, said former members of the project and other people familiar with the situation. They asked not to be identified because details of the effort are private.
“They need a partner, a sales force, a strategy,” said Roger Lanctot, associate director of Strategy Analytics’ Global Automotive Practice.
The whole story is worth a read in full, but part of the problem is Google insists on 100 percent full driverless autonomy—no pedals and steering wheels—when the tech and the market may not be there yet. Or they may not even need to, as other automakers focus on the building blocks instead.
Slow progress caused frustration among some members of the Google car project, and that’s been exacerbated by early momentum of rivals that entered the race later, according to former members of the team and a person familiar with the situation.
The team knew what it would take to deliver a fully-autonomous system, known in the industry as L4, but some Google executives didn’t understand the complexity, according to one former member of the project. The person left to help run an active business with paying customers, something that’s missing from the car project.
Yes, making cars is hard!
5th Gear: And Yet Google And The Feds Are Besties
At the same time, The Atlantic reports Google has or had an especially “cozy” relationship with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the White House when it comes to autonomous car policy:
More than 1,000 pages of emails between top executives at Google and senior officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy reveal a tight relationship between the federal government and Google going back to at least 2011, with regular in-person meetings, repeated vehicle demonstrations, ongoing policy discussions, and several one-on-one emails between top leaders in government and in Silicon Valley. The documents were obtained in an open records request by the nonprofit government watchdog group Campaign for Accountability and provided to The Atlantic.
“At a minimum, the documents show a pretty cozy relationship between Google and the Department of Transportation, as well as the White House,” said Anne Weismann, the executive director of the Campaign for Accountability. “Google, it appears, had a lot of input into how the federal government was going to deal with driverless cars. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything suspicious or improper about that, but there’s a fine line.”
Neutral: Is The Bolt The People’s EV?
Or will it be doomed by cheap gas and its lack of sexiness?