Narrative: Tech Disrupts Transportation
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Narrative: Tech Disrupts Transportation (Jan 28, 2017)
Written: January 28, 2017
There are three major shifts underway in transportation: electrification of the powertrain in vehicles, increasingly autonomous vehicles, and a move away from ownership and towards sharing and other models. It’s fair to say that none of these shifts has been primarily driven by the traditional players and stakeholders in the market, while all three have been driven by tech companies coming from outside the industry.
Though traditional car companies have pursued partial electrification through hybrids for years, it has really been Tesla which has lit a fire under the automakers with regards to fully electric vehicles – it’s almost impossible to imagine the Chevy Bolt without Tesla’s influence in recent years. The pace of adoption of electrification has increased dramatically as a result of this pressure from outside the traditional bastions of car making.
Similarly, when it comes to autonomous driving, it’s been Google (now Waymo) and companies like Uber and Tesla once again which have really pushed the envelope in terms of aggressively pursuing autonomy. and which have in turn put pressure on the traditional carmakers to move faster here.
And in sharing and other new models for urban transportation, it’s Uber and Lyft and their equivalents in various markets around the world which have begun to suggest a world in which many people who previously owned cars won’t do so, and will instead use a combination of ride hailing, ride sharing, car sharing, and other models to get to and from work and elsewhere.
Having said all that, the major carmakers have now embraced each of these three major shifts and are working hard to catch up where necessary, or even to build on existing leads in certain areas. I mentioned the Chevy Bolt, but we’re seeing an increasing number of pure EVs as well as more plug-in hybrids, and experimentation with other fuel sources such as hydrogen fuel cells. Autonomous driving is a major focus at most of the big carmakers, and I spent considerable time talking with them about the efforts being made at the North American International Auto Show earlier this month. And when it comes to urban mobility and other new models for car usage, the carmakers are again investing in both proprietary and agnostic models for ride sharing on at least an experimental basis, and in some cases by investing in existing large scale services (such as GM’s investment in Lyft).
The big question is how all this will come together over the next few years – Tesla is very much plowing its own furrow when it comes to its major initiatives, with few partnerships with other entities, while Waymo is partnering with Fiat Chrysler and potentially others around autonomous driving, Uber is working with Volvo on the same topic, and I already mentioned GM’s investment in Lyft. And I haven’t even mentioned the chipmakers like Nvidia, Qualcomm, Intel, and others and the multitude of other suppliers to the car industry like Mobileye who will need to come together to make this technology work in practice. Where will the dividing lines be between the various domains these companies will occupy? Will it continue to be the tech companies from outside the industry who shake things up and drive the greatest change, or will the existing scale and scope of operations of the big automakers allow them to catch up and begin driving this change? I think there are far more questions than answers here at this point, but I’m loath to accept the idea that it’s the tech companies and not the automakers who will drive all the disruption in transpiration in the next few years.
What’s interesting here is that Microsoft is licensing patents rather than selling technology to Toyota – in other words, Toyota gets the right to use ideas patented by Microsoft, but not products or services built on top of them. That suggests that, while Microsoft has an impressive patent portfolio, it hasn’t necessarily built with those patents technology carmakers consider valuable. And that remains a big challenge for Microsoft in the connected car space – Windows and related technologies have been used in cars in the past, and Azure is being used as a cloud service behind some connected car services today, but Microsoft continues to struggle to build technologies carmakers actually want to use in cars, while other players continue to make headway in the space. I could certainly see Microsoft doing more deals like this – indeed, it describes this as a first for a new auto licensing program – but that doesn’t mean Microsoft is any closer to a stronger role in in-car technology.
Lyft will be breathing a big sigh of relief over the finalization of this settlement, which has been in the works for months, and Uber probably is too. Even though the latter is the focus of a lot of news coverage of how ride sharing companies treat drivers, it’s worth remembering that Lyft has exactly the same relationship with its drivers, which it insists on treating as independent contractors rather than employees. Both companies have now fought (and in Uber’s case are continuing to fight) groups of drivers lobbying for employee status and the benefits that would come with that, and so far they’ve prevailed. Keeping this arm’s-length arrangement in place is critical for maintaining the current financial structure of the ride sharing market, and any change to employment status would have pretty severe effects on the business model, so expect these companies to continue fighting these attempts to reclassify workers tooth and nail.
Uber’s autonomous cars drove 20,354 miles and had to be taken over at every mile, according to documents – Recode (Mar 16, 2017)
One of the great things about autonomous driving technology is that regulators require companies to keep track of how those cars are performing, and in the case of California that data is published annually, providing a great insight into how each company’s technology is advancing. However, occasionally, internal documents on testing emerge that provide lots of detail too, and such documents have apparently been leaked to Recode (and BuzzFeed). There’s lots of interesting data here, and it suggests progress is being made and Uber is driving lots of miles in its various cars. It’s worth comparing some of the numbers here for Uber with those reported by other companies in California by way of putting them in context: Uber says its rate of disengagements per mile is 0.8, for example, whereas Waymo’s cars in California are now at a rate of 0.2 per 1000 miles, or some 4,000 times better. Now, Waymo’s cars have been driving in the state for much longer than Uber’s, but that’s still a massive discrepancy in performance. And it’s also worse than Tesla’s rate of 182 disengagements over 550 miles driven in 2016. So it appears Uber has a long way still to go in autonomous driving, and it’s therefore remarkable that it’s already using these cars to ferry real passengers around Pittsburgh.
Nvidia Partners with Bosch and Truck Maker Around Autonomy (Mar 16, 2017)
Here are two partnership announcements from Nvidia, the first a deal with automotive component maker Bosch to incorporate Nvidia chips in self-driving solutions, and the second with truck maker PACCAR for self-driving truck technology. Nvidia continues to be one of the biggest names in autonomous driving, and certainly one of the most successful chip vendors (hence Intel’s Mobileye deal). These deals come on top of lots of existing ones, but trucks are a particularly interesting area – it feels like that’s a segment of the market that could actually see real-world adoption of autonomy much sooner than cars.
I think it’s safe to say that Tesla’s plans for Model 3 manufacturing represent the biggest test the company and Elon Musk have faced by a long way. The ramp contemplated is so rapid and takes the company so far beyond its historical production rate that it seems almost impossible for it to meet its targets. And yet here it is raising more money to fund what’s going to be a massive capital spend in the first half of the year to prepare for that production run that’s scheduled to begin in July. In the first half of last year, the company spent around half a billion dollars on capex, and it plans to spend $2-2.5 billion in the first half of 2017, which gives some sense of just how big the leap is from anything the company has done in the past. That’s going to cause a massive cash drain, hence the new funding. Musk continues to execute extremely well on his long-term plans eventually, but hitting short-term targets continues to be his big weakness, and it feels like the Model 3 is either going to be the worst example of that flaw or the biggest possible exception to the pattern. I’m betting it’s the former.
For all the hyberbolic references to monopolies that sometimes afflict the tech industry, here’s a case where one company really does have what appears to be a monopoly, and on a critical component for autonomous vehicles: LIDAR. LIDAR is the same visual radar technology at the heart of the Waymo-Uber lawsuit, because they’re two of only a very small number of companies currently attempting to make their own, while everyone else buys them from Velodyne at $30-40,000 a pop. The global market for LIDAR is currently in the thousands, and the company expects to ship around ten thousand this year, but it and others would obviously have to ramp to tens of millions a year to supply the global automotive industry in the longer term. And those prices will come down massively – Waymo has supposedly reduced the cost dramatically for its own units.
via The Information
It’s striking to me that this piece never mentions Nvidia once, even though that chip company has been making much of the noise in the automotive space over the past year, especially when it comes to autonomous driving. That prominence is clearly a driver for this deal, with Intel signing some of its own deals but not getting nearly the buzz Nvidia has been. Mobileye, meanwhile, has been striking deals left and right with a variety of players (though it recently ended its relationship with Tesla). Just in the last three months, it’s announced partnerships with HERE and BMW over mapping, but it’s also in many of other car manufacturers’ existing cars and their autonomous plans. Given Intel’s ongoing struggles in the mobile space, its recent loss of the Microsoft server business to Qualcomm and the ARM architecture, and the ongoing stagnation in PCs, it needs some new drivers of growth, and in-car technology could provide that. Mobileye is also attractive as a business – it’s growing fast (almost 50% year on year in 2016) and profitable, with fairly high margins. So this isn’t an acquisition that will take years to contribute to Intel’s business, although its overall scale is still small. But it’s integration opportunity and the eventual opportunity to sell a joined up solution of chips and sensors which Intel will be focusing on here.
California DMV: Humans soon no longer required in self-driving cars – San Francisco Chronicle (Mar 10, 2017)
Michigan’s autonomous driving laws already allow testing of cars without drivers, and given that these two states are home to much of the testing going on, California clearly feels it needs to keep up. Those Michigan laws assume that carmakers are going to comply with all applicable regulations, and therefore require that any testing is done by or in partnership with those carmakers, while the proposed California law has no such restrictions (logical given the biggest local testers are tech companies and now legacy automakers). In both cases, the states are deferring somewhat to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set the overall rules and to some extent approve cars for autonomous driving without a driver. This Chronicle piece quotes a spokesperson from Consumer Watchdog, which has been particularly harsh (perhaps deservedly so) on Uber/Otto, but also seems to be one of the main organizations demanding tougher regulation of autonomous driving in general in California. What’s interesting is that there are so few voices on the other side of this rapid push towards autonomous driving.
Alphabet’s Waymo filed an injunction against Uber for allegedly stealing intellectual property – Recode (Mar 10, 2017)
The fact that Waymo is suing Uber isn’t new, but this new step of filing for an injunction is, and that’s important because it could speed things up considerably. Judging the case in full could have taken months if not years, but a request for an injunction will involve convincing a judge in a much shorter space of time that there’s enough merit to the case for him or her to intervene in the near term. So we’ll know rather sooner how solid Waymo’s case here is, and will likely also get additional details from both sides about exactly what’s been going on. Importantly, we’ll get more from Uber than its brief initial statement about the accusations being baseless, which will be intriguing because from where I sit the forensic evidence looks fairly compelling. As I’ve said before, though, the toughest aspect of this for Waymo and its lawyers is proving that Levandowski actually used the files he downloaded rather than simply his memories of work he’d previously done.