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: Travis Kalanick’s Taking The Stand

There’s a big trial underway this week involving Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, and Uber. The former accuses the latter of hatching a plan to steal intellectual property with a former Google employee to advance its own self-driving car ambitions, something that sounds very Uber-like.

The company, led for years by the somewhat loathed Travis Kalanick, has been shellacked by controversy, mostly due to his pugnacious leadership style. And this week, Kalanick’s leadership is on full display, with Waymo trotting out documents that present him as willing to do literally anything to prevail in the race to develop functioning self-driving cars.

Here’s how Reuters recapped it:

One internal Uber document from April 2016 that Waymo presented in court shows a list of Kalanick’s priorities that had been recorded by another executive. Kalanick wanted to use “cheat codes” against competitors, and he declared “the golden time is over. It is war time” and that “going slower is NOT an option anymore,” according to the document.

The competitive pressures were so great to develop self-driving cars that Kalanick decided “winning was more important than obeying the law,” Verhoeven told the jury.

Advertisement

Uber has outright denied Waymo’s claims, saying the 14,000 some odd documents taken by former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski never made its way to the ride-hailing company when it brought Levandowski aboard to run its self-driving car program. Waymo’s trying to convince a jury that indeed transpired.

The trial’s expected to continue for at least two more weeks.

2nd Gear: Another Guilty Plea In The UAW/FCA Case

Fiat Chrysler and the United Auto Workers are dealing with the fallout of a major scandal involving unseemly employees on both sides who allegedly spent millions of dollars from one of FCA’s training centers on personal items.

Advertisement

The federal investigation into the situation revealed executives have purportedly paid off high-ranking union members, and UAW employees themselves have now filed suit against the union over the entire shitshow.

Now, the feds have secured another guilty plea, reports The Detroit News:

Monica Morgan-Holiefield, 54, pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and prosecutors have agreed to drop a five-year conspiracy charge and other counts related to a scandal involving Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and the UAW. She is the fourth person to strike a plea deal in the scandal and admitted guilt two weeks after former Fiat Chrysler labor negotiator Alphons Iacobelli pleaded guilty.

The plea marks a stark downfall for Morgan-Holiefield, a celebrated photographer who portrayed a lavish lifestyle on social media and in society columns – a lifestyle secretly bankrolled by money that was supposed to help train blue-collar UAW workers.

Advertisement

Morgan-Holiefield’s attorney said she’s “contrite” over the situation. More indictments are reportedly forthcoming.

3rd Gear: Marchionne Believes In The Brands

It hasn’t been the most spectacular week for FCA, which decided to run an ad over the Super Bowl that relied on the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to hawk some Ram trucks.

Advertisement

But, never one to back down, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne wants you to know that he believes in the power of The Brands. Without them, he proclaims, automakers would be worthless. Here’s more, from The Detroit Free Press:

Marchionne delved into the importance of brand identity as he spoke about the future of Alfa Romeo in January at the North American International Show in Detroit. Marchionne explained that he didn’t expect the payoff from the reintroduction of the Alfa brand before 2022.

He highlighted the potential of a storied brand like Alfa Romeo, noting that if an automaker’s brands are worth attending to, such as Alfa, then the automaker should remain successful.

“Generic brands, on the other hand, will have a tough time because then they become indistinguishable, and if they become commoditized, then the price will give you everything that matters,” Marchionne said.

Advertisement

Praise be to the Brands. Without them, what would we be! Nothing more than meager peasants, helplessly floating through this crazy thing we call life, wondering what we should buy.

4th Gear: Mazda’s Profits Are Good

This week, everyone’s reporting quarterly earnings, and on Wednesday, Mazda joined the fray. Things are good for Japan’s fifth-largest automaker, reports Reuters, despite smaller sales in the U.S.

Advertisement

Here’s more from Reuters:

Mazda Motor Corp on Wednesday said its third-quarter operating profit more than doubled as a weaker yen and lower costs including those for R&D offset weaker sales in North America, its biggest market.

Japan’s No.5 automaker posted an operating profit of 30.6 billion yen ($280.3 million) in October-December, jumping from 13.64 billion yen a year ago.

However, the profit was slightly lower than the median forecast of 33.44 billion yen in a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S poll of nine analysts.

Mazda kept its forecast unchanged for full-year operating profit to rise 19 percent to 150.0 billion yen. This is based on an assumption that the U.S. dollar will trade around 111 yen through March, compared with its previous forecast of 110 yen.

Advertisement

With car sales projecting even lower in 2018, it seems like an inopportune time for Mazda to open a new car plant with Toyota in the U.S. But perhaps it’ll help alleviate some of the woes of a downturn by having more production taking place in the company’s largest market.

Good news for people who like fun cars.

5th Gear: Another New Autonomous Car Test Track

Michigan has a number of test tracks for self-driving cars, and a new $5 million facility’s set to open west of Detroit, reports the Livingston Daily News:

FT Techno of America’s Fowlerville Proving Ground is gearing up to build a new $5 million test track specially designed to test advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicle technology.

“We wanted to create a facility that creates real world conditions to validate these systems, because you want to be able to practice to see how well it would work in reality,” vehicle evaluation general manager Jason Musson said.

Advertisement

An already-operating 950-acre proving ground handles numerous self-driving car exercises, according to the newspaper, with a three-mile loop track and a four-lane straightaway readily available. The new facility’s going to include connected traffic infrastructure, like stop lights that can communicate with vehicles, along with freeway ramps and a five-lane signaled intersection.

Maybe the robot cars won’t be on the road in droves anytime soon, but they’ll be alive and well in testing facilities everywhere.

Reverse: The Actual Firestone Dies

Advertisement

Neutral: Do You Care About Uber v. Waymo?

Six months ago, I was gung-ho about this trial. I thought it was going to be a blast. I feel jaded at this point. It’s going to get appealed, it’ll get appealed again, and meanwhile, both sides will still be pursuing their own autonomous car programs. And no one seems to care, despite a huge cadre of reporters covering it onsite.

Does this case matter much after all?