Our Roads And Bridges Still Suck

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The infrastructure in this country just earned a grade only slightly worse than mine in 11th-grade calculus, Jaguar Land Rover has put a dollar amount to its perception of poor quality and all the phone companies want to be car companies. All that and more in The Morning Shift for March 3, 2021.

1st Gear: Is A C- Good, Or...?

All the United States needs to get its tattered infrastructure in check is just $2.59 trillion, according to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. That shortfall doesn’t merely reflect roads and bridges, or even land transportation broadly speaking, but also water systems, electrical grids and internet access.


But here’s the good news: The ASCE publishes this report every four years, and although we got a C- this time, last time it was a D+. That’s technically better! From Reuters:

The study graded 17 categories of infrastructure, ranging from a “B” for rail to a “D-” for transit.

“We risk significant economic losses, higher costs to consumers, businesses and manufacturers – and our quality of life – if we don’t act urgently,” said ASCE Executive Director Thomas Smith in a statement.

The biggest projected gap is in surface transportation, which faces $1.2 trillion in projected unmet needs over 10 years, while water systems face $434 billion and schools $380 billion in funding gaps.

In total, 11 of 17 categories reviewed merited “D” range grades — “aviation, dams, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, stormwater, transit, and wastewater.” The report cited incremental gains in aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports.

The infrastructure gap rose by $359 billion over 2017.

Biden plans to meet with lawmakers on Thursday to discuss infrastructure along with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who said the report card documents “what Americans already know: failure to fully invest in our infrastructure over the years is now catching up to us. Consequences are appearing nationwide, in the form of dangerously degraded roads, bridges, and other assets.”


Here’s a question: When was the last time our infrastructure didn’t totally suck?

2nd Gear: Plug-Ins Are Still Rad, Says Toyota

The Japanese automaker that made the Prius and hybrids in general household names has been astonishingly slow on true electric cars. Though it has some EVs on the horizon – one likely to be badged a Toyota while the other may be a Lexus – it’s still big into those plug-in hybrids, too, as Automotive News reports:

The three new [plug-in hybrid] vehicles are part of Toyota’s broader strategy to become what Toyota Motor North America sales head Bob Carter called “the Macy’s department store” of automotive powertrains to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

An analysis by Gill Pratt, Toyota’s top scientist, argues that plug-in hybrids offer one of the best overall returns for automakers to reduce carbon emissions, especially for consumers who have access to a plug and have average commutes. His analysis, shared with the media last month, seemed to advocate for an additional plug-in hybrid sedan and crossover as Toyota’s most attractive option for cutting emissions.

“Not only do plug-in hybrid vehicles perform extremely well in reducing carbon emissions, but actually even hybrid vehicles do remarkably well when you consider them in the context of other vehicles, including full battery-electric vehicles,” Pratt said. “Most of the time, if these vehicles are used for commuting, they’re being used in the battery-electric mode, and only occasionally does the engine run in those cars.”


Sure, there’s a reason that carmakers seem to be heavily marketing full battery-electric vehicles versus their less-flashy plug-in hybrids. PHEVs tend to be more expensive than conventional hybrids, and if your commute involves highway driving, you’re basically going to be leaning on the gas engine to do all the work anyway, plus it has to carry the dead weight of batteries that aren’t being used. It’s almost like Toyota is talking them up because it was totally caught sleeping...

3rd Gear: The Real Cost Of Jaguar Land Rover’s Quality Issues

Jaguar Land Rover CEO Thierry Bollore estimates that the company could sell 100,000 more cars annually if people didn’t think its vehicles were so unreliable. That’s a significant chunk for a company that sold 425,000 vehicles globally in 2020.


Bollore said customer dissatisfaction is currently at a new low for the brand, while JLR design chief Gerry McGovern said simplified designs should help reduce the future potential for problems. Per Automotive News:

David Bailey, professor of business economics at the Birmingham Business School in central England, said Jaguar Land Rover’s quality issues “go back to Ford ownership and before that even.”

JLR’s current owners, Tata Motors, bought the company from Ford in 2008.

“It’s been a significant issue in China, with customer protests back in 2018 outside of JLR’s Chinese head office in Shanghai,” Bailey said.

Quality issues cost not just future sales but can also trigger discounting of current models and increase warranty costs, Bailey said.

JLR’s warranty costs have been reducing recently as quality levels improve, Adrian Mardell, JLR’s finance chief, told investors when announcing the automaker’s latest quarterly results on Jan. 29.

In the nine months to the end of December, warranty costs nearly halved to 489 million pounds ($680 million) from 812 million in the same period the year before.


4th Gear: Phones Are Out, Cars Are In

Last week, we learned Huawei – the embattled Chinese tech giant that made its name making Android smartphones but has been forbidden from selling products with U.S. components for the past two years — was looking to enter China’s burgeoning electric car market. Now, it seems competitor ZTE will do the same, according to a company spokesperson by way of Reuters:

The Shenzhen-based company did not say whether the product line will supply parts for partner companies, or whether the company would be producing its own branded vehicles.

Chinese technology firms have been stepping up their focus on electric vehicles (EVs) in the world’s biggest car market, as Beijing promotes greener vehicles as a means of reducing air pollution.


Asian technology companies, including Baidu, have announced plans to make their own cars, while Shenzhen-based dronemaker DJI is building an engineering team to work on self-driving technologies.


ZTE’s phones were also briefly banned from the U.S. market, when the company admitted to selling technology that employed American components to Iran, violating U.S. trade sanctions. Unlike Huawei, ZTE’s ban eventually lifted. But who needs smartphones anyway when you can make electric cars, which are like big, expensive phones on wheels?

5th Gear: Volkswagen Will Do The Robotaxi Thing, Too

This year, Volkswagen will begin testing using its cute and funky ID.Buzz electric van for autonomous taxi duties in Germany, utilizing tech developed by a firm called Argo AI that it and Ford have invested in.


The production version of the ID.Buzz is set to arrive next year, though you won’t be able to book a ride in these charming self-driving vans until 2025 at the earliest. And even then, of course the privilege will be restricted to select cities. From Automotive News:

Last June VW completed a $2.6 billion investment in Argo AI.

In additional to the investment in Argo AI, VW Group is also investing billions in its Car.Software Organisation. This business unit develops, in parallel with Argo AI, assisted and automated driving functions up to level 4 for all VW Group brands.

The German government is currently in the process of passing legislation through parliament that would enable the commercialization of robotaxis.

Development of the robotaxi service is part of VW Group’s five-year investment of 27 billion euros in digital applications that includes autonomous driving. VW Group has doubled its planned expenditure in software to cut into Tesla’s lead.


Reverse: George M. Pullman Is Born

On this day in 1831, George M. Pullman, developer of the Pullman railroad sleeper car, was born. While Pullman’s sleeper car, first commercialized in 1865, was not the first of its kind ever built, it was the first successful attempt at the design in the United States. Upper berths unfolded out of the roof of the car, sort of like overhead luggage compartments on passenger airlines, above lower berths that normally served as seats during the day.


Neutral: What Are You Listening To?

Music is the only constant pleasure and stress reliever in my life. This morning I’m spinning some Pavement, because it’s goofy but also kind of bleak, which describes my mental state and probably many people’s these days! What about you?