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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Apple Co-Founder Gives Up On Self Driving Cars

For those betting on 2030 being the tipping point year for autonomous, electric vehicles taking over global new vehicle sales — you might want to take a second look.

While 2030 has been named the magic year in a few market reports and conference keynote speeches, the timeline for automated EVs to become the industry norm in global vehicle manufacturing and sales likely will be taking much longer.

"The hurdles to battery electric vehicles and complete autonomous driving are still quite high," Honda CEO Takahiro Hachigo recently said in an interview at Honda Motor Co.'s global headquarters.

His company will focus on gasoline-electric hybrids, not full EVs, through 2030. As for fully autonomous vehicles, Honda will roll out incremental advances that offer real-world safety at affordable prices. It makes more sense for the cautious Japanese company that prefers long-ended timeframes over immediate results.

"I don't know whether other manufacturers are becoming too optimistic or not, but apparently the approach in going about these regulations differs from one company to another," he said.

The automaker already has a number of new technologies ready to include in its new vehicle lineup, including a hands-off autonomous system for highways. But the company will be taking a “wait-and-see” approach with autonomous and electric vehicles.

Hachigo’s perspectives are shared by other leaders in auto manufacturing, including Japanese rival Toyota’s Executive Vice President Shigeki Tomoyama. The executive last month said in a speech that even with its $10 billion R&D budget, Toyota has always seen the path to commercialization as long and challenging.

Last month, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said he’s “given up” on ever seeing Level 5 fully autonomous vehicles being allowed on public roads during his lifetime. Apple is still working on a self-driving car project, but Wozniak said it’s become much harder to achieve than had originally been thought. Related: Why One Analyst Thinks Tesla's Stock Could Soar To $400

General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra in recent years had emphasized that her company will become the global leader in advanced, autonomous, and electric vehicles as automakers shift over from vehicle manufacturers to full-service mobility service providers. Reaching that end goal will be taking much longer than expected.

Its self driving car unit, GM Cruise, said in July it was backing off plans to make available autonomous taxis (called “robotaxis”) by the end of this year. GM has a $2.75 billion stake in Cruise.

GM’s $500 million investment in ride-hailing firm Lyft in 2016 has moved far away from any type of joint project, with Lyft continuing to test its own small fleet of self-driving cars without GM’s involvement.

A new survey by J.D. Power last month supports that conclusion. The study found that consumer sentiment about self-driving vehicles and electrification has stayed flat recently, even through the technology growth has been impressive. 

J.D. Power’s 2019 Q3 Mobility Confidence Index Study found that opinions haven’t changed since the last survey three month prior. The index now stands at 36 (on a 100-point scale) for self-driving vehicles and 55 for battery-electric vehicles — identical to the previous one.

“It was a little surprising to find consumer sentiment about self-driving vehicles and electrification has stayed flat,” said Kristin Kolodge, J.D. Power’s executive director-driver interaction and human-machine interface research. “But it shows that consumers are really steadfast in their opinions about new mobility technologies right now, regardless of how close they are to being available for purchase.”

The studies polled more than 5,000 consumers and industry experts on self-driving vehicles, and another 5,000 on battery-electric vehicles.

One industry expert in the study agrees with colleagues on how tough the challenge has become. “Tech and automotive companies continue to learn how difficult the problem really is,” the expert said.

Another blow could be that the world's largest EV market, China, is considering further cuts to subsidies for EV purchases, according to people familiar with the matter. It would be another blow to a once-booming industry that’s facing an unprecedented slump. In the US, a battle between the Trump administration and California’s clean car and zero emission vehicle standards is expected to hurt EV sales in America.

In 2018, China saw about 1,256,000 units sold in its “new energy vehicle” EV segment of battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. That made up about 62 percent of global EV sales last year. Generous subsidies has been behind China’s EV sales boom since 2015.

But discussions have shifted over to a further cut in these subsidies beyond the national government’s recent initial announcement. These new vehicle purchase incentives have started being softened already this year in an attempt to let EV makers become more appealing and competitive in the overall auto market.

Chinese government officials want to see new vehicle sales come back to offset a recessionary economy in the country. Car sales slumped 5.2 percent annually in September, extending the annual sales decline for the 15th month in a row.

In the world’s second largest EV market, a battle between the Trump administration and California’s clean car and zero emission vehicle standards is expected to hurt EV sales in America. General Motors, Toyota, FCA, Hyundai, and the National Automobile Dealers Association, are backing the Trump administration’s efforts to gut fuel economy standards and California’s ability to keep the bar high.

These companies said that in recent a filing with a U.S. appeals court, arguing the administration’s rule provided “vehicle manufacturers with the certainty that states cannot interfere with federal fuel economy standards.”

In July, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen made a deal with California supporting the state’s policies. The Trump administration is preparing to soon roll back the fuel efficiency standards set by the Obama Administration and revoke California’s ability to set stricter clean-car standards. In September, the US Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published its overhauled rule, called “SAFE Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Standard,” to take effect November 26.

AVs and EVs will need to see regulatory hurdles cleared as one of the key challenges for mass adoption.

Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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  • mschribr LastName on November 16 2019 said:
    Self driving cars are happening. Waymo is taking out the backup driver. They have 80,000 cars on order. They are driving in Phoenix, San Francisco, Austin, Kirkland, Detroit and Atlanta. They have driven 10 million miles in the last 12 months without causing an accident. Better than a human driver. They have driven on Halloween where kids are crossing streets wearing weird costumes. This project started in 2009. They are ramping up.

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