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: Are You Ready For Another Crossover Concept Hell Yeah
Volkswagen, ensnared by the ever-lasting stench of Dieselgate, is amid a $82.5 billion dollar effort to introduce new models with electrified powertrains. One such offering is—get very damn excited—a new crossover, the Atlas Cross Sport concept. Can you dig it?
Following the release of the three-row Atlas last year and the success of the embiggened new Tiguan, VW’s trying to woo new buyers with the more compact Atlas Cross Sport Concept that’s being showed off at this week’s New York Auto Show. In keeping with the electrified mantra, VW says the Atlas Cross Sport Concept—which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue—is a plug-in hybrid that delivers 276 HP, thanks to a 3.6-liter engine that’s coupled with a pair of electric motors and an 18-kWh battery pack. Altogether VW believes it’ll push out 355 HP.
The concept car’s suggested sprint time to 60 mph is 5.4 seconds, and if VW goes ahead and ditches the plug-in capability, the automaker thinks the Atlas Cross Sport can hit 310 HP and a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds. The plug-in system appears to be the main intention, though, and VW says it should net about 26 miles on a single charge. Expect to see the production version soon.
The exterior takes cues from the Atlas, expectedly, and it’ll be built alongside the seven-passenger SUV starting next year in VW’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant.
Will people buy it? I mean, sure, but I really don’t know how many more crossovers the world can take. But for now, VW seems intent on getting the success in America it hasn’t seen in decades through the crossover boom. It has nothing left to lose.
2nd Gear: NHTSA Scraps Carmaker Penalties Because Why Not
Thanks to the anti-regulatory frenzy pushed since President Donald Trump took office, automakers have convinced his administration to reconsider, among other things, fuel economy and vehicle emission standards, and now Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing to do away with other, allegedly burdensome penalties for the automakers.
As Trump’s wont to do, he’s seeking to nix a proposed “gas-guzzler” penalty put into place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The idea, reports Reuters, involved penalizing automakers when their vehicles fail to meet minimum fuel-economy standards. Trump’s looking to reshape those standards, and so these penalties might be jettisoned in the process.
Here’s more from Reuters:
NHTSA in July suspended a 2016 Obama administration regulation that more than doubled penalties. Automakers protested the hike, saying it could increase industry compliance costs by $1 billion annually.
Congress ordered federal agencies in 2015 to adjust civil penalties to account for inflation. In response, NHTSA under the administration of former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, proposed raising fines for every gallon of fuel that new cars and trucks consume in excess of required standards under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program, but delayed the effective date to September 2018.
Automakers have massive cash reserves, and I think it’s a safe assumption it could’ve absorbed the compliance cost increase just fine. But apparently that’s all today’s NHTSA needed to hear. In a proposed regulation issued Tuesday, Reuters reports, the agency said that it “tentatively concludes” that hiking the fines would have a “negative economic impact.” Sure.
3rd Gear: Moody’s Downgrades Tesla
Covering Tesla involves having to watch Wall Street investors volley back and forth about the company’s viability like it’s a potentially life-altering event for all of society. It’s very boring. Tuesday became one of those days, after ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Tesla’s credit rating for well-known problems—particularly with producing the Model 3.
With the end of the first quarter approaching, the decision expectedly drew a lot of attention from observers, reports Bloomberg.
Moody’s cut Tesla’s overall rating to B3, or six levels below investment grade, from B2 and said its outlook on the company is negative. Tesla’s $1.8 billion of senior unsecured notes, issued in August, were downgraded to Caa1, seven steps into junk, from B3.
“Tesla’s ratings reflect the significant shortfall in the production rate of the company’s Model 3 electric vehicle,” Moody’s analyst Bruce Clark said in the report. “The company also faces liquidity pressures due to its large negative free cash flow and the pending maturities.”
Tesla didn’t comment to Bloomberg, but I’m sure it’ll offer up something on a call with investors next week. There’s certainly been a significant shortfall in the Model 3 production rate. At first, Tesla anticipated making 5,000 per week by the end of 2017; then it pushed that goal back to the end of this month. And then it pushed it back again, to the end of the summer.
So, yes, the problems are evident. But Tesla’s balance sheet has been out of whack for years. At this point, I won’t be be convinced that investors can be deterred—even by a credit ratings agency—until they literally stop giving Elon Musk money to keep the company afloat. Maybe this signals a change. I’m not sure just yet.
4th Gear: Uber Used Fewer Safety Sensors In Arizona On Volvos
Prior to introducing a fleet of autonomous Volvo XC90s, Uber relied on Ford Fusions outfitted with self-driving car technology. The Fusions came equipped with seven LIDAR units. (LIDAR’s a laser-based radar that allows an autonomous vehicle to see the road.)
But as Reuters pointed out on Tuesday, when it transitioned to the Volvo XC90, Uber made the decision to reduce the number of LIDARs used to just one mounted on the roof.
That resulted in giving Uber’s autonomous cars more blind spots than the earlier Fusions had, according to five former employees and industry experts who spoke to the news agency. And as investigators look into why one of Uber’s self-driving cars fatally struck a pedestrian, questions about the car’s hardware is almost certainly to be of interest.
In scaling back to a single lidar on the Volvo, Uber introduced a blind zone around the perimeter of the SUV that cannot fully detect pedestrians, according to interviews with former employees and Raj Rajkumar, the head of Carnegie Mellon University’s transportation center who has been working on self-driving technology for over a decade.
The lidar system made by Velodyne - one of the top suppliers of sensors for self-driving vehicles - sees objects in a 360-degree circle around the car, but has a narrow vertical range that prevents it from detecting obstacles low to the ground, according to information on Velodyne’s website as well as former employees who operated the Uber SUVs.
Velodyne said earlier that it believes its LIDAR would’ve caught the pedestrian in the road, and that the “problem lies elsewhere.” But similar to Uber’s decision to rely on one safety driver when conducting self-driving car tests, Reuters said that company’s main rivals outfit their autonomous vehicles with at least five LIDAR sensors.
Reuters said Uber declined to comment on its decision to reduce the LIDAR count.
5th Gear: Nvidia Halts Self-Driving Car Tests
The fatal self-driving Uber crash has many companies rethinking their testing strategies, with some pausing—for now—while the investigation is ongoing. On Tuesday, chipmaker and self-driving car developer Nvidia joined the fray and said it suspended autonomous driving tests around the globe, reports Reuters.
Uber should be given a chance to understand what went wrong, Nvidia Chief Executive Officer Jensen Huang said at the company’s annual GPU Conference in San Jose, California. “We don’t know what happened.”
In addition, Huang said he expected investments in self-driving technology would rise, not fall, in the aftermath of the Uber fatality.
Nvidia leads the autonomous industry with its artificial intelligence platform and has partnered with major global automakers such as Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE), Tesla Inc and Audi AG.
Nvidia conducts tests in Santa Clara, California and New Jersey, as well as in Japan and Germany, according to Reuters. It’s unclear if, or when, the company plans to resume tests, but a spokesperson told the news agency that its fleet of “manually driven data collection vehicles” is still in operation.
Reverse: And Now It’s Gone Anyway
Neutral: What Happens To Uber From Here?
We could see this potentially being the beginning of the end of Uber’s autonomous car program, which its new CEO considered killing off anyway. Or will it re-tool and move forward?