Author Archives: Micheline Maynard

Carmakers: Tell Us As Much As You Can About The Future Of Transportation

Waymo is testing self-driving vehicles. Photo: Waymo

When automakers look at the future, the only thing they can say for certain is that there’s no certainty.

But if Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. is to be believed, his company isn’t even going to be that specific.

On Halloween, Ford talked to reporters after a speech to the Economic Club of Detroit. And, according to Bloomberg, here’s what he said.

“In the past, maybe we said too much,” Bill Ford said Tuesday. “This is a very competitive world we’re in. You want to give Wall Street enough information, but you also don’t want to telegraph exactly where you’re going. And I think that’s a balance that we are going to continue to work on.”

However, something else happened out west that was a little more transparent. Waymo, the self-driving car division of Alphabet (parent company of Google), invited a select group of automotive and technology journalists to Castile, a former U.S. Air Force base in California that the company has been using since 2012.

There, the journalists were allowed to ride in a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica. Verge said the event marked a shift for the previously tight-lipped company, which hasn’t given out much information about how it has been conducting its autonomous testing. As Verge reported.

Waymo is intent on showing that its test cars are able to handle the complicated, complex, and increasingly dangerous task of navigating a two-ton machine on public roads. Not only that, but they can do it more efficiently than humans. Waymo appears to be moving toward making the flesh-and-blood driver obsolete.

To be sure, both companies have good reasons for the positions they’ve taken. Ford has been punished by Wall Street and investors ever since it began talking about becoming a mobility company, rather than one that primarily sells cars and trucks.

After its new CEO Jim Hackett spoke with analysts in October, a number complained that he did not give them enough details. Two analysts cut their ratings on Ford stock. Only five analysts recommend buying the shares, while 19 tracked by Bloomberg rated them a hold and two advised selling.

That’s the kind of thing that makes corporate boards panic, unless those boards are firmly behind the direction that the company is taking. So, it’s easy to understand why Bill Ford would rather close the blinds.

But just as Bill Ford is turning that plastic rod, Waymo seems to be saying, “Okay, we’re ready for you to see it.” That’s to its advantage, because somebody, among the sea of companies developing self-driving technology, is going to hit on the formula that will make self-driving vehicles embraceable by fleets and by the public. (I’m betting the first comes, well, first.)

A great big sea change is headed for the car companies, in terms of the vehicles they produce and the people who buy them — or don’t own them, but simply drive them when they need them.

As much as the automakers might be tempted to pull their collective comforters over their heads and pretend none of this is happening, they can’t.

There’s a great example in what happened in the market for hybrid-electric vehicles. When the Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan and subsequently the United States, it was dismissed as a toy, the same way that Tesla’s vehicles initially were dismissed as playthings for the rich.

But, Prius sales grew incrementally, then gained popular acceptance, and now global sales of Toyota hybrids are closing in on 10 million vehicles worldwide. The Prius is so ubiquitous that hardly anyone gives it a second glance any more. All those fears that its batteries might die and strand motorists were essentially for naught.

By the time Detroit automakers realized that hybrids could actually appeal to customers, it was too late. To consumers, there was one hybrid, and it was the Prius.

That’s what could happen with self-driving vehicles, too. It’s still early, and all manner of regulations, local and federal, are going to be needed before they become as unremarkable as the Prius is now.

However, to be part of the conversation, about self-driving cars, electric vehicles or anything else, a car company has to actually speak up. Journalists have space in newspapers, time on broadcasts, and pages on the Web to fill.

If there’s a company talking about the future, and one that isn’t, you can guess which one will get the most prominent mention.

“The key is providing clarity when we’re ready so that investors can make an informed decision,” Bill Ford told reporters.

But, his “ready” might be much different than investors’ “ready” or consumers’ “ready.” The best strategy is to just keep talking, and keep guiding customers to the future. Otherwise, they might get there without you.

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Filed under autonomous, cars, Driving

How Tesla’s Struggles To Build The Model 3 Threaten The Future Of Electric Cars

Until this year, Tesla’s electric vehicles have largely been seen as toys for the wealthy and early adoptees. The Model 3 was supposed to change all that.

Model 3 is the first mass market Tesla, selling for about $35,000. Tesla already has about 435,000 orders, and if you raise your hand today, you can expect to wait until the middle of next year to receive it.

Or maybe longer. That’s Tesla’s big problem. It can’t get the Model 3 out the door of its factory in Fremont, Calif.  And that threatens not only Tesla’s reputation, but the future of electric vehicles in general.

Because of its unique market niche, Tesla has always gotten away with things for which other car companies would not get a pass. For one thing, Wall Street has been charmed by its eclectic founder, Elon Musk.

His company appearances and quarterly earnings cars are followed with the cult-like response that greeted Apple and Microsoft through the years. Its market capitalization swelled beyond anything that was supported by its sales performance, vaulting its value past General Motors.

To be sure, Tesla Model S, its $70,000 sedan, has received strong reviews and has a small, but rabid customer base. Model S heralded good things for Model 3.

That makes its current dilemma even more stark. Model 3. Tesla has been honest about its production problems. It told analysts to expect “production hell’ during the first six months of production.

But, Tesla is falling short of even the very modest production targets it set for the car. In August, Musk said Tesla would build 1,300 cars in September, ramping up to 20,000 a month by December. Continue reading

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Filed under cars, Technology, urban planning

Car-centric Texas And Florida Face Clean Up After Harvey And Irma

How Hurricane Irma looked on Sunday afternoon.

This will be a hurricane season that residents of Texas and Florida will long remember. Just as Houston began the long process of cleaning up from Hurricane Harvey, Miami and cities on Florida’s west coast were hit full force this weekend by Hurricane Irma.

And no one can yet relax. Hurricane Jose is still on the way.

In each case, citizens had plenty of advance notice if they wanted to leave. They were told that massive flooding was possible, and that strong winds could do serious damage.

And, in each case, the storms revealed a variety of transportation vulnerabilities, from the air to the roads to the rails (or lack of them). Authorities could tell people to go, but they couldn’t make it quick or easy for them to evacuate.

All weekend, there were complaints on social media that gas was scarce for evacuees in Florida, in part because of shortages caused by Harvey.

There have been numerous stories about the number of cars that will have to be declared totaled in Houston due to water damage, with 100,000 insurance claims already filed, and estimates of as many as 1 million lost.

In each case, the storms slammed into parts of the country where public transportation takes a back seat to freeways and cars. Continue reading

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Filed under cities, infrastructure, public transportation, Rail

The Curbing Cars Newsletter Is Taking Labor Day Off

Donate — or go eat!

We just want to remind you that the Curbing Cars Newsletter is taking Labor Day off. We’ll be back next week.

In the meantime, we have a request. Hurricane Harvey has left a mess in its wake. There are fundraisers and collections going on all over the country. This will be a problem for a long, long time.

There are estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million cars will have to be scrapped. Already, 100,000 people have filed claims with their auto insurers.

So, if you see something that appeals to you, please attend, or make a donation to help those in need in Houston.

Our friend Chef Alon Shaya is hosting a fundraiser in New Orleans on Monday. The menu includes red beans and rice, which everyone in New Orleans eats on Mondays. There will be music, and beer, and other drinks, and a lot of good cheer.

Every penny of your donation (minus the ticket fee) is going to help Harvey victims. Even if you can’t attend, think about making a donation to his foundation.

And thank you.

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Filed under Curbing Cars

Classic Cars May Be Gorgeous, But Millennials Don’t Care. Will They Become Orphans?

Mustang Row at the Woodward Dream Cruise. Photo by David Guralnick of the Detroit News, shared on Twitter.

Across the United States, it’s car show season. This past week, as many as a million spectators crowded Woodward Avenue north of Detroit, for the annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

In Pebble Beach, California, ultra-expensive collector cars were on display at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

And, there have been less-extravagant car shows of many sizes in towns around the country — if those car shows weren’t canceled due to the expense, the weather, lack of interest or someone to organize it.

As much as many people love classic cars, there’s a growing concern among the owners of this rolling architecture that nobody will want to take care of the iron that they’ve so lovingly maintained.

Scary data

Even as the elite gathered out west, Fortune Magazine reported that auction estimates at Pebble Beach fell 14 percent, to $290 million. It’s the third straight year in which Pebble Beach auction figures have dropped.

The fear about the future of classic cars also shows up in data from Hagerty, which tracks collector car values for insurance purposes. Their website is a gold mine of information about the value of and future trends in vintage cars.

Right now, there’s a definite reason to worry. Hagerty’s monthly index of collector car values stood at 64.86 in August, falling for the sixth time this year.

Says Hagerty: “The number of owners expressing the belief that the values of their vehicles are increasing continues to gradually decline, and this is true for the owners of both mainstream and high-end vehicles. The drop is particularly pronounced, however, for owners of previously hot models like the Ferrari 308 and Ford GT.” Continue reading

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Filed under cars, Driving

Readers: Tell Us How You’re Getting Around — And How You Plan To Get Around

Curbing Cars readers: we’d like your insight. We’d love to know how you’re getting around and how you plan to get around in the future.

Send us an email at curbingcars@gmail.com, and let us know:

How old is your car? What’s the approximate mileage? Is this the longest you’ve ever kept a vehicle?

Have you downsized the number of vehicles in your family fleet? Or, are you adding vehicles?

Would you consider an electric vehicle or hybrid for your next vehicle? What would convince you to buy one? How about an autonomous vehicle?

And, do you think you could get along without a vehicle all together?

We’ll publish the best responses in a future story, so please make sure we have the correct spelling of your name and your hometown.

Thanks!

 

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Filed under cars, Driving

The Curbing Cars Podcast, Episode Three: Driverless Shuttles, Bike Lane Backlash And Public Transit Chaos

Click the link above to hear Episode Three of the Curbing Cars Podcast, co-hosted by Executive Editor Micheline Maynard and our intern, Colin Beresford.

Can’t play it above? Click here to listen. And, listen to the previous episode here.

In this episode, Micki and Colin go to the Robert H. Lurie Engineering Center at the University of Michigan, which will be a stop on the new driverless shuttle that begins operating in just a few weeks.

We also talk about the growing backlash against bike lanes, despite the growing use of bikes by urban commuters.

And, we discuss the latest in the continuing chaos in public transportation.

Curbing Cars is dedicated to bringing you information about the future of transportation across many different platforms. Our podcast is a regular feature. Find it here, on SoundCloud and soon on iTunes.

CO-HOSTS: Micki Maynard and Colin Beresford

PRODUCER: Colin Beresford

MUSIC PRODUCER: Mark Remillard

Thanks to our Kickstarter backers who made this week’s episode possible. If you’re interested in underwriting future podcast episodes, get in touch with us at CurbingCars@gmail.com. We’ll mention you at the end of every show.

 

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Filed under podcast, public transportation, urban planning

Self-Driving Vehicles Are Coming Faster Than You Think

This fall, University of Michigan students can test out self-driving shuttles. Photo: University of Michigan

Self-driving car testing is now so common that people in California don’t even look up when one goes by. Tests have taken place in Arizona and Michigan, too, while New York State recently approved a year-long pilot program to test autonomous vehicles.

But thus far, members of the public have largely been unable to ride in the latest self-driving vehicles. That’s about to change.

This fall, the University of Michigan will become the first campus in the country to offer a self-driving shuttle service. There will be 15 Nayva Arma buses that will take riders between the North Campus Research Complex on the north side of Ann Arbor and the Lurie Engineering Center about a mile away. In all, the loop will be about two miles.

These students, faculty and staff members may be part of a historic shift in the way we get around. And, it could cause some societal disruption.

This past week, Robin Young, co-host of NPR’s Here & Now, talked to Huei Peng, the director of MCity, where the university is conducting its self-driving vehicle research. (I interviewed Peng at MCity for Here & Now last February.)

The self-driving shuttles grow out of the miniature town that Michigan has created so that car and technology companies can test their vehicles and autonomous vehicle features.

How they get around

In the interview with Young, Peng answered some of the questions that many people have had about self-driving vehicles. They operate in two ways. One is by fixed routes, in which the shuttles only travel from point A to point B and back. The other is by GPS, so that the shuttles can figure out alternative routes in case something gets in the way of their programmed route.

That’s vital in Ann Arbor, where construction is taking place all over town, and where accidents and other obstructions are common. To be sure, the shuttles will travel a construction-free route, but high winds and blizzards can always cause havoc.

The university is also concerned about something I’ve worried about. The shuttles just seem too tempting for student mischief. Peng talked about students wanting to cram into a shuttle and set a Guinness World Record. I’ve been concerned that some smart tech geek will figure out how to re-program a shuttle and take it to Chicago. Continue reading

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Filed under autonomous, Driving, public transportation

The Auto Industry Prepares For A Big Change In Direction

Which direction will the auto industry take?

If you follow auto sales, you know two things about how they’ve been doing recently. They boomed the past couple of years, but they’ve started to trail off this year.

That’s no surprise. The auto industry is a cyclical business. But, there’s a growing awareness that the automotive landscape is changing, and even people who produce cars for a living may not realize what is heading their way.

That’s a conclusion from a new report by AlixPartners, the strategic planning and consulting firm used by major companies worldwide. Some of AlixPartners’ experts were involved in advising the Obama Administration about the  bailout of the auto industry, back in 2009, so it’s a prestigious name.

There’s an all-new automotive ecosystem developing, and I fear that many players really aren’t prepared for it,” says John Hoffecker, global vice chairman at AlixPartners. “The changes coming are the biggest since the internal-combustion engine pushed aside horses and buggies.”

But, Hoffecker also says the changes are as unpredictable as “trying to guess which app is going to be most popular on next year’s smartphones.”

I spent some time reading the report this past week, and these things jumped out at me.

New ideas and competition

Five years ago, Tesla was a curiosity, a billionaire’s pet project promising to produce ultra-luxury electric cars. Now, Tesla is one of the most valuable brands in the automobile industry and it just built the first Model 3, the moderately priced electric car it wants to sell to the masses.

Tesla’s rise shows just how fast things are moving in the industry and the influence that an outsider can have. To give it some perspective, five years is the length of a car company’s production cycle, the number of years that a model is generally on the market before a major change.

AlixPartners says there are now 50 companies competing to produce autonomous vehicle systems. It’s a “wild west” atmosphere that the industry hasn’t seen in more than a century, when there were dozens of car companies in the U.S. and around the world. Continue reading

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Filed under car sharing, cars, cities, Driving, economy, ride sharing

My Transportation Diet: Getting Around By Bus And Bike In Des Moines

This week, Curbing Cars inaugurates a new feature called My Transportation Diet. We’re asking our audience to tell us how they get around where they live and work.

First up is Michael Leland, who is the News Director of Iowa Public Radio. He lives in Des Moines.

“My transportation habits are a little of several things.  I live about a half-mile from my office in Des Moines, so it takes me about 10 minutes to walk to work.  I’ve mostly walked to work for the last two jobs I’ve had over the last 10 years.

I drive if I need to do something after work, like grocery shop.

I live a couple of blocks from a commercial district, so a coffee shop, my bank, and several restaurants and bars are all within a 15 minute walk from my home.

I live close enough to downtown (20-25 minutes) to walk to things like the library, barber, farmer’s market, church, etc., though sometimes I take a free circulator bus into downtown from the office, and then walk home.

I mostly use my car for errands like grocery shopping and other weekend needs.  Sadly, the downtown area in Des Moines doesn’t have stores like Target, PetsMart, and other major retailers, so I need my car for those.

I do some errands by bike,  but Des Moines is sort of behind the curve in developing a good system of bike routes and lanes.  I would do more if that was the case.”

We’d love to feature you in My Transportation Diet. Send us your story at curbingcars@gmail.com. We’d welcome your photos and video, too.

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Filed under bicycling, cars, cities, Driving, My Transportation Diet, public transportation