One of Toyota’s autonomous research vehicles
Photo: Toyota
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Toyota’s driverless vision, the UAW corruption probe widens, Volkswagen gives Trump a win, and more await you in this is The Morning Shift for Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.

1st Gear: Driverless (Sorta?)

Toyota has a manufacturing prowess unlike most of its competitors, but the Japanese automaker is well-aware that it has a lot to do to catch up in the autonomous tech industry. It so far has sketched out plans to dump $4 billion into the sector, and even has a weird modular automated box called the e-Palette that it hopes to debut for 2020.

Unlike practically anyone else, however, Toyota is focusing on an area that doesn’t go all the way toward removing the driver from the equation, and instead utilizes a middle-ground. It’s not exactly similar to Tesla’s Autopilot or General Motors’ Super Cruise systems, which implore drivers to be ready to take the wheel back at any second. As Bloomberg describes it in a fascinating feature published on Wednesday, Toyota’s system—dubbed Guardian—offers up something more like a system that augments human driving.

Toyota is seeking a middle ground with a system it calls Guardian, which would harness the machine-intelligence and sensor capabilities that make full self-driving theoretically possible and bundle them in vehicles designed for human drivers. These cars and trucks would be able to see much farther ahead and behind, across multiple lanes of traffic, than any human would, and would be more adept at anticipating the behavior of other cars and pedestrians. Actual people would continue to steer and brake, but when Guardian detected potential danger, it would assume control and swerve, slow, stop, or otherwise act to avoid the problem.

And here’s why Toyota officials are stoked about it, per Bloomberg:

A video produced by the institute shows Ryan Eustice, TRI’s senior vice president for automated driving, at the wheel of a Guardian car on a test track. Eustice lets the vehicle drift as he pretends to fall asleep. A dashboard camera spies his head drooping and eyes closing. In an instant, Guardian takes over and moves the car back into its lane. When Eustice perks up, he’s asked to tap the brake to resume driving.

This is what excites Leonard, not least because his teenage son recently learned to drive. “An order-of-magnitude reduction in fatalities should be technically possible,” he says. Instead of 40,000 traffic deaths a year, the U.S. could have 4,000.

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This is honestly a smart approach. The semi-autonomous systems on the road today require too much of a juggling act, and could lull drivers into thinking they’re more capable than they truly are. What Toyota’s describing is a system that keeps the driver in charge, but can assume control if danger arises. Sure seems to make sense.

2nd Gear: The UAW Corruption Probe Widens

“If proven, this says that the union leadership is corrupt.”

That’s a biting line from University of Michigan business professor Erik Gordon, in a story today from The Detroit News about the federal corruption probe of the United Auto Workers and Fiat-Chrysler.

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Now, the News reports, the feds are looking at certain expenditures from a UAW-funded trip to Palm Springs, and by “funded” I mean “use official member dues”:

UAW officials spent member dues from 2014 to 2016 in Palm Springs for little, if any, legitimate union business or labor-management purposes, according to a key government witness who is helping investigators unravel a broad conspiracy that has shaken the auto industry. During those three years, the union spent $953,692 in Palm Springs, according to the UAW’s annual financial filings.

The allegations reveal a new thread of a federal corruption investigation into a multimillion-dollar conspiracy involving the UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The focus on Palm Springs is emerging at a crossroads in the investigation as federal prosecutors have secured convictions against all seven labor leaders and auto executives charged so far.

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The problem is that the UAW has long said that member dues weren’t used in the years-long conspiracy, which has so far resulted in the indictment of several UAW and FCA officials. A UAW spokesperson told the News the reported expenses were publicly-known and “reasonable.”

This whole thing is a mess.

3rd Gear: VW Gives Trump a Win

One of President Donald Trump’s main policy initiatives since taking office has been to undo a deal struck with Iran that limited the country’s nuclear program. Trump’s counterparts in the European Union believe the deal should be kept in place, but now they’ll have a weaker argument as a result of a decision made by Volkswagen to end “almost all of its business” in Iran, reports Bloomberg:

The Trump administration persuaded Volkswagen AG to comply with sanctions on Iran and end almost all of its business in the country, according to a U.S. official, a symbolically charged step in undercutting European Union efforts to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive.

The U.S. and Volkswagen hammered out the final details on Tuesday after weeks of talks, according to U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who led discussions with the Wolfsburg-based company. Volkswagen will still be allowed to do some business in Iran under a humanitarian exception, Grenell added.

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This followed VW’s July 2017 announcement that it would begin selling cars in Iran, for the first time since the turn of the Century. Now, that’s kaput.

4th Gear: GM’s Ignition Switch Criminal Case Ends

The General Motors ignition switch scandal resulted in the death of nearly 125 drivers, and ended with the company facing criminal charges on top of massive fines. Thanks to a deal GM struck with the government in 2015, the automaker managed to avoid seeing any official go to jail.

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Under the so-called “deferred prosecution agreement,” GM agreed to pay a $900 million fine and accept three years of oversight by an independent monitor, reports Reuters. On Wednesday, that three-year period ended.

More from Reuters:

A federal judge in New York on Wednesday dismissed a criminal case brought against General Motors Co in 2015 over the largest U.S. automaker’s handling of an ignition-switch defect linked to 124 deaths.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan approved a request filed Monday by federal prosecutors to dismiss the two-count criminal information.

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GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 people, including eight executives, but alas no one went to jail, Reuters says—for what’s arguably one of the worst auto defect scandals in history. Some civil lawsuits over the issue remain ongoing, Reuters reports.

5th Gear: Aston Martin Preps IPO for October

Aston Martin wants to raise money, and so it’s planning to take the company public next month. If all goes according to plan, Aston thinks it’ll achieve a valuation of $6.7 billion in the initial public offering, according to Reuters:

The company, famed for making the sports car driven by fictional secret agent James Bond, said last month it was pursuing an initial public offering (IPO), the first British carmaker to do so for decades.

The automaker will publish a prospectus later on Thursday and hopes to announce its final pricing on or around Oct. 3. It expects its shares to be admitted to the London Stock Exchange on or around Oct. 8.

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Despite the possibility of so-called Brexit coming to life in a few months, Aston isn’t worried, unlike its counterparts in the United Kingdom. Aston’s boss told the news agency that it has boosted its stock of engines and components, in the event free trade with the European Union ends in a few months, if the U.K. leaves the EU.

Reverse: Whoosh

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Neutral: Autonomy and Drivers

Completely driverless cars are already being tested in Arizona and California. Can you handle that? Or do you want a driver in the seat at all times, forever and ever amen?