Photo: AP

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: How Reassuring

In light of the fatal autonomous Uber test car crash in Arizona on Sunday evening, car companies and tech companies alike that test such vehicles are due to face a great deal more scrutiny on how these cars work and how they’re deployed on public roads. Don’t expect any good answers for a while, though. While companies like Toyota and Nutonomy have halted autonomous testing for the time being, thanks to a loose state-by-state regulatory framework and the general newness of the technology, a collective shrug seems to be what we’re getting for a while.

It’s kind of a catch-22 for these companies: they need to test these autonomous cars in real-world situations in order to make them safe, but they also need to be safe enough to deploy on public roads for testing.

Here’s Reuters on the process of figuring it all out:

Automakers including General Motors Co (GM.N), technology companies such as Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) and ride services providers like Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] have all urged policy makers at the federal and state level not to put a heavy regulatory hand on an industry still in development. They have said their extensive testing demonstrates commitment to safety.

But the Uber accident in Tempe, Arizona - the first death attributed to a self-driving car operating in autonomous mode - has given ammunition to critics of the industry concerned that the lack of clear standards allows manufacturers to test faulty, or partially developed technology on public streets.

[...] “There is no question whatsoever that regulations are coming,” said Doug Mehl, a partner at A.T. Kearney’s automotive practice, based in Detroit. “But right now (automakers), software developers and service providers have an opportunity to shape what those regulations are going to look like.”

Alphabet’s Waymo self-driving car unit, for example, has underscored in a report that its autonomous vehicles have now logged 5 million miles in real-world testing, and billions more in computer simulations. GM’s Cruise Automation unit has highlighted its decision to teach its driving system to navigate San Francisco’s congested streets.

Still, Amnon Shashua, head of Intel Corp’s (INTC.O) Mobileye vision systems unit, said the industry must do more. He has called for the self-driving vehicle industry to develop “provable safety assurances”.

“We need to prove that these vehicles are much, much safer than humans,” Shashua told Reuters. “How do you go and guarantee that you have a technology that the probability of a fatality per one hour of driving is 1,000 times better than a human? Nobody talks about that because nobody knows what to do.”

Advertisement

It’s almost like we should have figured this out ahead of time!

2nd Gear: Elon Musk Will Not Abscond To Mars Anytime Soon

As we reported yesterday, Tesla’s board approved a bananas $2.6 billion compensation package for Elon Musk. It’s a huge number, but it comes with massively ambitious targets he must now deliver on. Bloomberg’s point is that this means he probably isn’t peacing out to Mars, at least not for a while:

“I expect to remain CEO for the foreseeable future,” Musk said during last month’s earnings call with analysts. But he didn’t rule out handing over the CEO responsibilities if a suitable successor would appear, allowing him to focus on “design and engineering, which is what I like doing best.”

Musk is also the CEO of Mars-bound Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and has embarked on several other projects of late, including tunnel digger Boring Co. and a brain-computer interface startup called Neuralink. The new award — which was approved at Tesla’s special meeting in Fremont, California — requires Musk remain at the electric-car maker either as CEO or executive chairman and chief product officer.

Advertisement

You hear that, Elon? You’re stuck on this garbage planet, same as the rest of us!

3rd Gear: Ford’s Central Station Deal May Be Tough To Close

We’re all excited to see what Ford does with Detroit’s iconic but sadly abandoned Michigan Central Station. The automaker is working on a deal to buy and renovate the building and use it for future-facing mobility projects. Only one problem: the deal’s not done yet, and the guy who owns it is a tough negotiator (he almost convinced an entire city to reject a totally free multi-lane bridge into Canada) so we’ll see. From The Detroit Free Press:

Ford wants Michigan Central Station in Corktown to be a hub for the next generation of transportation known as Auto 2.0, the shift toward self-driving, shared and battery-operated cars and logistics supporting the rapidly changing industry.

Its work on a deal to occupy the long-vacant train station could bring hundreds of advanced technology jobs and a Ford executive presence to Detroit, the Free Press has learned.

Any deal involving Ford faces a multitude of obstacles and is weeks from being final, if it is completed at all.

Proposals to redevelop the iconic building, which has become symbolic of Detroit’s ruins, have come and gone over the years. Negotiations with the depot owner, Manuel (Matty) Maroun, have been described by those familiar with recent discussions as complex and difficult. He has an established reputation as a tough negotiator often unwilling to close deals.

Advertisement

I hope Ford pulls it off, or someone does. I love that building.

4th Gear: Things Looking Up At... Mitsubishi?

We worry about Mitsubishi—a lot—but 2017 was the best sales year it’s had in a decade, and American buyers are warming up to the Outlander PHEV. Plus, the Eclipse Cross, despite a name that spikes my blood pressure, is poised to be a hit too. Via Automotive News:

Mitsubishi Motors North America is coming off its best sales year in the U.S. since 2007. The Japanese automaker that was struggling to crack the six-figure sales mark did so last year when it sold 103,686 vehicles in the U.S., up 7.7 percent from a year earlier.

Last year was the first time Mitsubishi sold more than 100,000 units since 2007.

New product is starting to reach Mitsubishi dealerships with the most visible being the Outlander plug-in hybrid, the first nonluxury plug-in hybrid crossover in the U.S., which launched late last year.

Don Swearingen, COO of Mitsubishi Motors North America, has said the PHEV could be a halo vehicle for the brand.

An all-new vehicle, the Eclipse Cross, joins the lineup in 2018, which is welcome news to Mitsubishi dealers hoping to capitalize on consumers’ shift to crossovers.

Advertisement

Cool, I guess.

5th Gear: Dealers Annoyed With Mini

I like Mini a lot because it’s my job to have the Good Opinions around here, but it’s impossible not to see the challenges the brand faces. It’s still a small car brand, and the market has gone hard toward crossovers, SUVs and trucks. And now Mini is mulling a shift toward electric vehicles.

Advertisement

Problem is, dealers aren’t crazy about either situation; they want to be profitable and they’re traditionally terrible at selling EVs.

Here’s Automotive News on their frustration, in an interview with Jason Willis, member of the Mini National Dealer Council:

Mini’s U.S. sales peak was around 66,000 vehicles. At one point, annual volume of 100,000 was anticipated. Can Mini get back to 66,000 at some point? Is 100,000 still possible?

From the communications we’ve had here, the 100,000 number shared with us three or four years ago is not the long-term goal of Mini going forward. As the market has shifted, Mini falls in more of a specialized vehicle [category rather] than the volume vehicle they were once anticipating. No, I don’t think 100,000 cars a year is realistic — 67,000 certainly can be. With some added focus on marketing and a gotta-have vehicle lineup, we can absolutely get there.

Do U.S. dealers think Mini should get into bigger vehicles or go fully electric?

We’re in the wait-and-see pattern on what electric vehicle demand really is going to be. Here in the Midwest, there’s a lot of talk about electric cars but very little demand. Dealers just want to have a plan for the future. To be an electric-only car company, I’m not sure that is the goal that the dealers have. But to have some electric vehicle options to differentiate us in the market is a want.

[...]

So dealers want a crossover or SUV bigger than the Countryman?

I believe there’s room in the model lineup for that. I also believe there’s room for a halo car, whether it be the Superleggera, the two-door convertible concept shown two or three years ago. We continue to have customers come in and ask about it and wonder when they can buy it. That is a wow, got-to-have product, and that is the type of thing that really shows what Mini can be.

Advertisement

I’m for a Superleggera too, if anyone asks.

Anyway, that interview’s worth a read in full, it’s pretty illuminating.

Reverse: Hummer

Advertisement

Neutral: What’s Missing From Autonomous Car Regulation?

How should states and the federal government be doing this? Or should it be left as a free-for-all?